Russian Icon Marketing in Transylvania as a Means of Political and Social Destabilization

15 December 2021

Author Ana Dumitran, National Museum of Union, Alba Iulia
Author Veronka Dane, Archive of the Reformed Diocese of Tiszántúl, Debrecen
Author Vasile Rus, Babeș-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca
Author Volker Wollmann, Independent researcher

The sale of mass production Russian icons in Transylvania is known only through the events at the time and after Horea’s Uprising of 1784-1785. Quite at the beginning of the uprising, a group of three Russian icon merchants is caught in the plaza of Aiud, being suspected of having spread among the Orthodox Romanians in the Principality the news that an imminent attack of the Russian army will happen. A large-scale investigation was ordered by the Aulic Chancellery on March 31, 1785, to determine whether the rumor of the imminence of this attack was true. The documents issued by this investigation allow for the reconstruction of the route taken by Russian pedlars in 1784, offer minimal information on the selling strategy, which only partially confirms the fear of the authorities, as well as on the appearance of the pedlars and the icons they sold. Finally, the Aulic Chancellery recommended a ban on trade with Russian icons, and on July 28, 1785, the imperial decree banning Russian pedlars from entering the Habsburg Empire in the future was issued. Traces of their passage through the Principality have been found in insignificant numbers, whereas the ban helps to date to the last decades of the 18th century the few Russian mass production icons identified in museum collections and as a result of field research.

Russian merchants, Franz Neuhauser the Younger, Remondini, Governor Brukenthal, Aulic Chancellery

[1] Brukenthal National Museum, Secvențe din Transilvania secolului al XVIII-lea. Exhibition organised at Brukenthal National Museum, 22 March - 11 June 2017 / Siebenbürgen im 18. Jahrhundert Ausschnitte. Ausstellung im Nationalen Brukenthalmuseum von 22. März bis 11. Juni 2017 (Sibiu / Hermannstadt: Honterus Verlag, 2017), 9-11.

[2] For the copy in the possession of the Romanian Academy Library in Bucharest, see jpg (accessed 18 June 2021).

[3] For other identifications, especially those of Saxon and Gypsy backgrounds, see Gizella Cenner-Wilhelmb, “Künstlerische Vorbilder und Vorstudien zu den siebenbürgischen Markszenen von Franz Neuhauser dem Jüngeren,” AHA 24 (1978): 365-371.

[4] Simona Teodora Roşca, Icoana pe sticlă din Transilvania (sec. XVIII-XX) [Glass Icon in Transylvania (18th -20th Centuries)], (Cluj-Napoca: Tradiţii clujene, 2010), 13-17.

[5] Marius Porumb, Dicționar de pictură veche românească din Transilvania. Sec. XIII-XVIII [Dictionary of Old Romanian Painting from Transylvania. 13th-18th Centuries] (Bucharest: Editura Academiei Române, 1998), 143.

[6] Marika Kiss-Grigorescu, Xilogravura populară din Transilvania în sec. XVIII-XIX [Popular Woodcut from Transylvania in the 18th-19th Centuries] (Bucharest, 1970), passim.

[7] “[N]othing is more ordinary and indecent than these figures engraved on wood, blemished with large areas of colour and impressed on so-called rough paper. With these goods, they travel to Hungary, and they sell them there at a high price.” (Francesco Rota, Estensione e reddito censuario nel Dipartimento di Passariano (Udine: Fratelli Pecile, 1807), apud Alba Zanini, “For Germany and Hungary. Seasonal Emigration from Venetian Schiavonia,” in Guziranje: From Venetian Schiavonia to Hungary with the Remondini Prints (Comune di Stregna, 2009), 85-105, here 88-89).

[8] Peter Fuhring, “The Remondini Family,” Print Quaterly, vol. 11, no. 4 (December 1994): 441-446; Alberto Milano, “Selling Prints for the Remondini: Italian Pedlars Travelling through Europe During the Eighteenth Century,” in Roeland Harms, Joad Raymond, and Jeroen Salman, eds., Not Dead Things. The Dissemination of Popular Print in England and Wales, Italy, and the Low Countries, 1500-1820 (Brill, 2013), 75-96.

[9] Certificate issued on 21 December 1790 by the Rector of the Piarist Gymnasium in Carei, referring to the death on 5 January 1790 and the inhumation in the Catholic rite of Matthaeus Scrinar, italus ex Villa de Asida (Azzida, a settlement in the locality of San Pietro al Natisone, Friuli-Venezia Giulia region), which read “cum sociis, imagines circumferentem ac vendentem Magno-Karolini” (Alba Zanini, “Documents,” in Guziranje, 253-357, 322, no. 903, with the integral transcript of the text at p. 345).

[10] Recording of August 15, 1816 on the death of Blasutig Giovanni di Stefano of Rodda “in Banato, nellʼOspitale dei Padri dellʼOrdine dei Minori Conventuali (...) del Vecchio Arradino” (ibid., 322, no. 920); excerpt from January 19, 1843 referring to the death in Sânmartin, Catholic Diocese of Cenade, of Valerio Tomasetig (ibid., 327, no. 1021).

[11] Record of death, on 16 February 1836, of Caucig Antonio fu Stefano of Clastra (Friuli-Venezia Giulia region) (ibid., 326, no. 999).

[12] Certificate issued on 14 May 1839 referring to the wedding on 6 February 1837 between Simone Zuanella of Rodda (Friuli-Venezia Giulia region), imaginum quaestor, and Elisabeth Muhlbacher of Sighet (ibid., 326, no. 1003). A death certificate was issued on the same day for Michele Zuanella of Rodda, also quaestor imaginum, who died in Sighet on 8 February 1837 (ibid., 326, no. 1004). The expression quaestor imaginum refers to the gain (quaestum) obtained from selling images.

[13] Gheorghe Gorun, ed., Răscoala lui Horea în Comitatul Bihor. Izvoare narative [Horeaʼs Uprising in Bihor County. Narrative Sources], vol. I (Cluj-Napoca: Presa Universitară Clujeană, 2000), 275, no. 186.

[14] Ibid., 269, no. 182.

[15] Known in the bibliography as “folk old believers’ icons”, they were made in truly impressive quantities. According to the statistics studied by Oleg Tarasov, in the mid-nineteenth century, the workshops in Kholui alone were producing between 1.5 and 2 million icons annually, with 720 men hired just for the painting; see Oleg Yu. Tarasov, “On the 18th - 19th Century Old-Belief Icons in the Danube Principalities,” RRHA-BA, XXVII (1990): 70 (the study is a partial translation into English of material published in the same year in the journal Советское Славяноведение, no. 3 (1990), 49-70, with title “Русские иконы XVIII – начала XX в. на Балканах”). The author believed that the need for bulk production appeared by late sixteenth/ early seventeenth century, in order to support the Christianisation of the vast territories in the Urals and Siberia which had belonged to the Kazan and Astrakhan Khaganates, conquered by Moscow in 1552 and 1556 respectively (Tarasov, “On the 18th - 19th-Century Old-Belief Icons,” 72).

[16] The earliest attestation dates from 1705, when ten peasants from Palekh requested permission to travel to the Romanian and Serbian territories to sell “some thousands of icons” (Tarasov, “On the 18th - 19th Century Old-Belief Icons,” 71).

[17] For instance, see Icoane din patrimoniul Muzeului Etnografic al Transilvaniei. Catalogul colecției / Icons from the Patromony of the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania. The Collection Catalogue (Cluj-Napoca, 2011), no. 594 (acquisition from Plenița, Dolj County), 596 (acquisition from Balș, Olt County), 597 (acquisition from Berești, Galați County), 598 (acquisition from Boteni, Argeș County), 599 (acquisition from Pâncești, Bacău County), 600, 602 (unknown origin), 601 (acquisition from Poenari, Gorj County), 603 (acquisition from Valea Seacă, Bacău County), 604 (acquisition from Voiteni, Buzău County), 606 (acquisition from Boteni, Argeș County), 607 (acquisition from Ciurești, Galați County). The only Russian icon with Transylvanian origins in the collection, no. 605, acquired from an individual in Cluj-Napoca, belongs stylistically to the group of artefacts we are trying to outline within this research associated with the “Muscovite” pedlars attested in documents from 1784-1785.

[18] As for external references, for the eighteenth century, the only one known is a note from the diary of the Archpriest of Suzdal Cathedral, who noted in 1754 that “many inhabitants of Kholui and Palekh travel with sacred icons to faraway lands, id est, Poland, the Austrian Empire (my italics – A. D.), Slavonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and others.” The ulterior references no longer include the Habsburg Lands (Tarasov, “On the 18th - 19th Century Old-Belief Icons,” 71).

[19] For a perspective on these uprisings, see Gheorghe Gorun, Reformismul austriac și violențele sociale din Europa centrală. 1750-1800 [Austrian Reformism and Social Violence in Central Europe. 1750-1800] (Oradea: Editura Muzeului Țării Crișurilor, 1998).

[20] For the development of the events, see David Prodan, Răscoala lui Horea [Horeaʼs Uprising], vol. I-II (Bucharest: Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică, 1979, reprint 1984). In 1982, not long before the anniversary of the bicentenary of this peasant uprising, a substantial scientific endeavour was initiated to exhaustively publish documents referring to its causes, development and aftermath, in a series sponsored by the Romanian Academy, titled Fontes Seditionis Horianae / Izvoarele Răscoalei lui Horea. The project published 11 volumes, without reaching the proposed target. The documents referring to the icon pedlars were among those that remained unpublished, except for the two letters describing the apprehension of the Italian-Slovenian pedlars in Bihor County, which at that time was part of Hungary.

[21] Order to track down, apprehend and execute Count Salis and his emissaries, under the charge of incitement to emigration – in Fontes Seditionis Horianae / Izvoarele Răscoalei lui Horea, series A. Diplomataria, vol. I (Bucharest: Editura Academiei Republicii Socialiste România, 1982), 515-516, no. 329; the same in ibid., vol. V (Bucharest, 1990), 73-74, no. 75-76; note referring to the execution of 44 rebels, arrested under the decree referring to Salis – ibid., vol. V, 357, no. 146; report on clashes between rebels and nobles in Deva and on the alleged appearance of Salis in the peasant encampment – ibid., vol. VI (Bucharest, 1993), 174, no. 65. For his real role, presented in the wider context of the Russian-Austrian relations, see Carol Göllner, “Participarea emisarilor Mihail Popescu și Salis la revoluția lui Horea” [The Participation of Emissaries Mihail Popescu and Salis in Horea’s Revolution], AIIN VI (1931-1935): 503-514, and, more recently, Gorun, Reformismul austriac, 271-274.

[22] Order to apprehend the Russian officer Michael Poperski / Mihail Popescu, charged with attracting people to military service outside the country – in Fontes Seditionis Horianae / Izvoarele Răscoalei lui Horea, series A. Diplomataria, vol. V, 332-333, no. 123; the same in ibid., vol. VII (Bucharest, 2001), 317, no. 163.

[23] Report of 1 December 1784 from Commissary Michael Brukenthal to Count Simon Kemény, warning the latter that among those apprehended recently is one of small stature who has spread news of the coming of the Russian army (de adventu Moscovitorum Militum) (Prodan, Răscoala, 1984 edition, vol. II, 220); letter sent from Sibiu on 4 December 1784, recounting the rumour that Horea was counting on the “help of the Muscovite” (ibid., 64); Dumitru Belligrad of Brașov is also found on a list of captives from the prisons of Târnava County, caught at Nadășul Săsesc on 13 January 1785 – he had been arrested earlier in Bukovina, suspected of bearing Russian letters (ibid., 259-260); on 15 August 1785 it was reported that Popa Matei of Sântandrei, on his return from prison, was telling the populace on the streets that “Horea was not killed, he is with the Muscovite and he will soon come with such a Muscovite strength in Transylvania that no Hungarian will be left” (ibid., vol. II, 567).

[24] Radu Săgeată, “Structuri administrativ-teritoriale în Transilvania” [Administrative-Territorial Structures in Transylvania], accessed 29 November 2021, Structuri_administrativ_teritoriale_in_Transilvania.

[25] See annex V, text at page [8].

[26] Cf. Veniamin Ciobanu, La granița a trei imperii [At the Border of Three Empires] (Iași: Editura Junimea, 1985), passim.

[27] A picture of the explosion of apostasy among the Protestants from Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox from Greek Catholicism in the first decade after the promulgation of the Edict of Tolerance is offered in the volume of documents published by Daniel Dumitran, Sub semnul toleranței. Bisericile din Transilvania în documente inedite: 1781-1790) [Under the Sign of Tolerance. The Churches from Transylvania in Unpublished Documents: 1781-1790] (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Mega, 2012).

[28] Cf. Silviu Dragomir, Istoria Desrobirei Religioase a Românilor din Ardeal în secolul XVIII [The History of the Religious Emancipation of the Romanians from Transylvania in the Eighteenth Century], vol. I (Sibiu: Editura și tiparul Tipografiei Arhidiecezane, 1920), 124 sqq. (1743 journey of Protopope Eustatie Grid to the court of Tsarina Elisabeta Petrovna, to challenge the Heterodox attacks against the church in Brașov), 198 sqq. (1749 journey of Protopope Nicolae Pop of Balomir, former Vicar of Greek Catholic Bishop Inochentie Micu); vol. II (Sibiu: Editura și tiparul Tipografiei Arhidiecezane, 1930), 107 sqq. (1757 travel of monk Nicodim), 110 sqq. (1758 journey of priest Ioan of Aciliu), 299 sqq. (The involvement of the Court of St Petersburg in the religious conflicts from the Habsburg Empire).

[29] Dumitran, Sub semnul toleranței, doc. no. 22-24.

[30] The date of the last document in which we find him mentioned (Dumitran, Sub semnul toleranței, doc. no. 179).

[31] The date of the report sent by officials of the city of Alba Iulia regarding the Russian icon pedlars.

[32] Tarasov, “Русские иконы,” 54. See map 2.

[33] See above, note 18.

[34] Thanks to Ilya Borovikov from the Gallery “Се Вера”. Иконы Русского Севера, Moscow (, for his support in dating the icons referred to below.

[35] The name comes from the orange-reddish colour of the frame belt that surrounds the scenes, which is a strong individualising element and specific to icons bulk manufactured in the nineteenth century.

[36] Icon kept in the Museikon collection, Alba Iulia.

[37] Three icons kept in the collection of the Cluj Archdiocese.

[38] Icon kept in the Museikon collection, Alba Iulia.

[39] Icon kept in the Museikon collection, Alba Iulia.

[40] Icon kept in the collection of the Cluj Archdiocese.

[41] Icon kept in the collection of the Cluj Metropolitan, the only one in the group that does not have a double-profiled frame. However, we have included it in the discussion due to the chromatic particularities which bring it closer to the rest of the group than to the krasnushka-type icons.

[42] Icon kept in the collection of the Cluj Archdiocese.

[43] Icon kept in the collection of the Cluj Archdiocese.

[44] Doina Duciu, “Dobrogea și transhumanța transilvană” [Dobrogea and Transylvanian Transhumance], BCȘS 1 (1995): 151-155.

List of illustrations

Fig. 1. Franz Neuhauser the Younger, Fair in Transylvania. © Brukenthal National Museum.

Figs. 2-3. Russian icons given to the church in Mogoș-Miclești (Alba County).

Figs. 4-5. Russian icons given to the churches in Geaca (Cluj County) and Valea Drăganului (Bihor County).

Figs. 6-7. Russian icons from the collection of Sibiu Archdiocese. Photo Ioan-Ovidiu Abrudan.

Figs. 8-9. Russian icons from the collection of Sâmbăta Monastery. Photo Pr. Daniel Breabăn.

Fig. 10. Franz Neuhauser the Younger, Fair in Transylvania, detail. © Brukenthal National Museum.

Map 1. Localities in Transylvania where Russian icon pedlars were attested in 1784.

Map 2. Routes of Russian icon pedlars in the eighteenth–twentieth centuries (according to Tarasov, “Русские иконы,” 54).

Map 3. The distance covered by Russian icon pedlars in order to reach Transylvania.