Kholui, known throughout the world as a
centre of papier-mache lacquer miniatures and famous in Russia
in the past for its skillful icon painters, is thought to be
one of the oldest settlements in the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality.
It is situated on the banks of the small but deep and fancifully
meandering Tesa River, to which it owes its name. "Kholui"
or "kholuiniki," the vernacular for wattle fences,
according to Vladimir Dahl's Dictionary of the Russian Language,
were used there for fishing.
has it that the settlement appeared in the 13th century, when
the Russian land was invaded by the Tartar-Mongol nomads.
When they seized and devasted Vladimir and the nearby villages,
people sought refuge deep inside the woods and on the swamps.
They settled along the banks of the Klyazma River and its
numerous tributaries - the Nerl, the Uvod, the Shizhigda,
the Tesa and the Lukh, felling wood, rendering habitable those
remote parts, ploughing land, breeding cattle, hunting and
fishing. Mundane cares, far from abating the Orthodox spirit
among the indigenes, on the contrary, enhanced it. That religious
spirit has always been rather strong in Russia. The local
people built churches, cast bells and painted icons. In toil
and prayer our distant ancestors thus gradually developed
those parts, which looked attractive at any time of the year.
The beautiful meandering Tesa River continues
to enchant with its full water in the spring, leafy groves,
pine-tree forests and water-meadows covered with flower carpets
in the summer, the falling golden leaves in the autumn and
snow-laden boundless expanses in the winter. The special charm
of those parts did not go unnoticed and became a source of
inspiration for local craftsmen.
The earliest documented mention of Kholui dates
back to the 16th century. According to an order sent by the
Grand Prince Ivan Vasilievich of Moscow to the Trinity-Sergius
Monastery, "On Exempting the Starodubsky Salt Mines from
Taxes" (1546), Kholui belonged at that time to the monastery,
to which Kholui's inhabitants supplied locally mined salt,
a valuable product in those days.
In documents dated 1613 Kholui was already
mentioned as an icon painters' settlement, granted to Prince
Dmitry Pozharsky for helping to free Moscow from the Polish
invaders. Art critics often cite Kholui icon painting, very
much like that of Palekh and Mstyora, as old Russian painting.
According to them, the first icon painters of Kholui were
monks from the Trinity Monastery, a part of the Trinity-Sergius
Monastery, who taught local craftsmen the art of icon painting.
The Monastery's archimandrate Afanasy was, for example, known
to have given an order to choose in Kholui ten children from
12 to 15 "...keen both of mind and of icon painting prowess,
literate, and, giving them abode, food and clothes at the
monastery, have monk Pavel teach them painting." Disciples
from Shuya and Mstyora were sent to Kholui to be trained in
icon painting. Kholui thus emerged in the late 17th century
as the centre of the icon painting tradition of the Trinity-Sergius
Monastery. Icon painting developed fairly quickly in Kholui
in the early 18th century: demand grew with every passing
year. Kholui icons were highly appreciated in northern Russia,
especially in the Vologda, Arkhangelsk and Olonets gubernias
and St. Petersburg itself. Trainloads of icons were sent to
Siberia. Kholui also received commissions for icons from Bulgaria,
Macedonia and Serbia. Great demand naturally promoted the
development of the craft.
Exceptional gift and profound knowledge of
the possibilities and methods of tempera enabled artists to
produce wonderful works of art. They also did fresco painting,
decorating the walls and vaults of local churches and cathedrals.
Icon painting workshops gradually became specialised: some
produced miniatures, others big icons for cathedrals and still
others frescoes. There appeared shrouds painted in oil on
canvas rather than on board. Kholui emerged as a major trade
and crafts centre, annually producing from 1.5 to 2 million
icons. Its favourable geographical location at the cros-sing
of many waterways and ground trade routes facilitated lively
trade in icons, shrouds, gonfalons, embroideries and other
Fairs held regularly in Kholui-the Troitskaya
in spring and the Tikhvinskaya in autumn-were well-known in
Russia. By the mid-19th century, five fairs were annually
held there, attended mostly by tradesmen from cities and towns
along the Volga. Up to 300 stalls and over a hundred booths
were opened during the fairs. Goods galore were brought in-timber
and icon boards from Makariev and Kostroma, grain from Saratov
and fish from Astrakhan. Merchants from Persia and Turkey
came to those fairs. Trade was extensive and lively, with
turnover running into tens of thousands of silver rubles.
For Kholui residents icon painting and trade were the only
source of income, enabling them to build houses and churches.Thus,
on the right bank of the Tesa in 1737 the Tikhvin Church was
built. Some years later, in 1745-1753 on the left bank of
the Tesa the Troitskaya (Trinity) summer and Vvedenskaya (Presentation)
winter Churches appeared. A verst (3,500 English feet) outside
Kholui, next to a pine-tree forest, an architectural ensemble
of a men's monastery - the Borkovsko-Nikolayevskaya Pustyn
- took shape with a summer cathedral, a church, monastic cells,
a refectory and numerous outbuildings. They also built chapels,
a pier, a tavern, shops, a school, a hospital, inns, brick
houses for the wealthy and a lot of other facilities, including
nine icon painting workshops.
Kholui became a volost centre of the Viazniki
uyezd of the Vladimir gubernia and an original centre of traditional
icon production to meet the demand constantly prompted the
owners of icon painting workshops to employ more painters,
as manual labour was not productive enough. They also introduced
the division of labour. Icon painters who devoted much time
and effort to every icon they painted from beginning to end,
striving after expressive images, no longer satisfied entrepreneurs.
There appeared hack icon painters called dolichniki (pre-face),
who could deftly execute certain parts of icons, such as clothes,
landscape and ornaments. More qualified painters called lichniki
(face painters), as a rule, did the faces, the hands and the
bodies. That type of specialisation boosted productivity,
but art was gradually relegated to the background. Shrouds
began to be made of print fabrics, and icons printed on paper
or stamped on tin-plate appeared on sale. The process of "industrialising"
the sacred art of icon painting and its negative consequences
worried the clergy, the enlightened Russians and professional
painters. In public opinion, the situation could only be remedied
by founding icon painting schools. The first step towards
local education was the opening in 1861 of a two-class vocational
school, the first in the Vladimir gubernia, which gave classes
in the Scrip-tures, the Russian language, national history,
geography, arithmetics and psalms. In 1882, the Alexander
Nevsky brotherhood founded in Vladimir opened, in Kholui,
six-year drawing classes, which were later transformed into
an icon painting school. Icon painting, drawing and painting
within the framework of the Academy of Arts curriculum were
N. N. Kharlamov, a graduate of the St. Petersburg
Academy of Arts was sent in 1892 to Kholui to act as the school's
headmaster and teacher. In addition, the Academy's Vice-President
Count I. I. Tolstoy gave material support to the school by
sending visual aids, plaster sculptures, samples of graphic
works and paintings and syllabi. Subsequently the school was
unofficially referred to as the Kharlamov school.
The school also offered classes in stamping,
gilding, plastic anatomy and special subjects, such as composition
and tempera techniques.
The activity of the icon painting and drawing
school (1882-1920) was quite fruitful. Its first graduates
formed an association and engaged in icon and wall painting
under the supervision of their teacher, N. N. Kharlamov. They
did the famous frescoes and iconstand for the Russian embassy
church in Vienna, as well as for the Orthodox cathedrals of
Cracow and Kishinev, and other churches in many Russian towns.
In 1902, another graduate of the St. Petersburg
Academy of Arts, E. A. Zarin, came to head the school and
to teach in it. The Academy exercised stronger influence on
the activity of the Kholui icon painting and drawing school,
which expanded its curriculum to give broader knowledge of
world art and icon painting traditions and paid more attention
to drawing as a basis of pictorial arts. About three years
later the school was popularly called the Zarin school.