Back to the craft page

Mstera lacquer miniature

The settlement of Mstera, one of the largest centers of traditional art crafts in Russia, is known, first of all, for the art of the Mstera lacquer miniature, which was formed on the basis of icon painting. Iconography originated here at the end of the 17th century. The Bogoyavlensky Monastery, the spiritual life center of Bogoyavlensky Soboda settlement (the future Mstera), contributed to the creation of the Mstera school of icon painting.

The Mstera masters were distinguished by their industriousness and virtuosity of painting. The documents of the late 17th – early 18th centuries have been preserved –  the so-called "exeats" which were given to the local artists, serfs of the Romodanov princes, to allow them producing icon-painting works in different cities of Russia and, above all, in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Thus, a new icon-painting center in Russia was gradually formed. The collections of icons of the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, and the Tretyakov Gallery give evidence of the Mstera masters’ wide popularity.

The Mstera icon painters formed their own specialization. There were virtuoso masters who were engaged in imitation of old icons, as well as the restoration of ancient images. The work of such artists was very expensive. By the middle of the 18th century icons with miniature scenes and many details appeared, which were difficult to execute. Most of the masters performed the "common" icons with standard faces and cheap foil vestments. Despite the low quality, these icons were distributed all over Russia in huge numbers and sold well. 

The development of factory production of icon-settings and foil in the late 19th -early 20th centuries made the products more popular and cheaper, but undermined the creative principles of icon painting. A dramatic decline in the craft development was observed.

After 1917, when habitual ideas of religion were collapsing, icon painters began to look for other ways to apply their skills. In 1923, nine icon painters (N.P. Klykov, A.I. Bryagin, A.F. Kotyagin, and others) formed the artel of "Old Russian Folk Painting" which received an order for the production of painted large pitchers, ladles, matryoshkas for All-Russian Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow. A large role in the organization of the artel and its further development was played by F.A. Modorov, a native of Mstera, People's Artist of the RSFSR.

By 1930, thanks to the comradely help of the Fedoskino artel masters (Moscow Region), using the experience of Palekh artists, the former Mstera icon painters had developed their own masterly technique of miniature painting. They began to make caskets of various sizes and shapes from papier-mâché, to color them with tempera paints, prepared on egg emulsion according to old recipes, as in icon painting, and to varnish them in compliance with special technologies. In 1931, a new artel, "Proletarian Art", appeared, which was transformed into a factory in 1960. By the 1950s, the main features of the Mstera lacquer miniature style had been formed. 

The Mstera miniature took on the artistic traditions of ancient Russian painting and folk art. This is manifested, in particular, in the conventions of the compositions – the tiered construction, the equal scale of the figures, and the combination of events of different times. The works are characterized by bright decorative color with the unity of the general tone of the composition. This distinguishes the Mstera miniature from the Palekh one, performed on athe black background field. Another feature is a strip of thin gold ornament framing the image. The themes of the miniature are diverse: historical, fairy-tale, epic, song plots, architectural monuments and even scenes from everyday life.  

Since 1998 the Production cooperative "Center for Traditional Mstera Miniature" has been operating in Mstera, which was formed on the basis of the "Proletarian Art" factory. It produces a wide range of lacquer miniature articles that are traditionally labeled: year of manufacture, surname of the author or artist and location – Mstera.  

For the production of lacquer miniatures in Mstera professional training of artists of traditional folk art is carried out. Back in 1932, the Mstera Art College was organized on the basis of icon-painting workshops. At present, it is the Mstera Institute of Lacquer Miniature Painting named after F.A. Modorov, a branch of the Moscow Higher School of Folk Arts.

The Mstera lacquer miniature is distinctive in the writing technique, the method of creating artistic images and is attributed to the products of folk art crafts. The unique collections of the Mstera lacquer miniature – the works of its founders and of contemporary miniature painters – are presented in the expositions of the Mstera Museum of Art, in the "Crystal. Lacquer miniature. Embroidery" Museum in Vladimir, etc.

Author: V. Korolkova