Mezen Painting on Wood

Today there is a high interest in arts and crafts in general, but in particular — to folk paintings. In Russia, different types of folf painting exist: on wood, lacquer, metal, enamel, glass and ceramics, and there is a variety of traditional and modern techniques.

Painting on wood is considered as the most national and original form of Russian folk art. Russia is rich in forests, so wood was used in many ways: from the manufacture of household products and artistic processing to the construction of houses. This is especially true of the Russian North, the Upper and Middle Volga, the Urals and Siberia.

The Russian North is considered to be a real treasure trove of Russian folk culture, and some researchers even consider it a single cultural monument. One of the easily recognizable paintings of the Russian North — Mezen painting.

Композиция в полосе // Composition in the band


As in the case of most traditional Russian paintings, it is unknown how the Mezen painting appeared. Most of the researchers consider the subject compositions to ancient pagan beliefs. S. Zhegalova, a specialist in the field of Russian folk art, compares the painting with the rock paintings of Zaonezhye, discovered in the middle of the XX century. There is a similarity of fine art with the paintings of the peoples of the North, Indochina and Central Asia.

This ornament has preserved in its elements the deepest remnants of the archaic ancient Greek styles, thick lace covers the surface of wooden objects

— V. Voronov, the researcher of Mezen painting

The appearance of the painting is usually attributed to the middle of the XIX century — the oldest spinning wheel with Mezen painting dates back to 1815.

At the end of the XIX century the village Palashele becomes the center of the painting, that was first mentioned in written sources of 1904/1906. So the painting can be called in two ways: as “Mezen” due to the name of the nearby river and “Palashelsky” due to its center.

The area of Mezen painting is very extensive. In addition to the Mezen basin with Vashka, it includes the West areas of Pinega and the lower reaches of the Northern Dvina river to the Onega Peninsula, and in the East — the pools of Izhma and Pechora.

Surprisingly, in the 1920s artists left signatures on the spinning wheels, allowing us to allocate family artists of the period of the extinction of the painting: Aksenovs, Novikovs, Fedotovs, Kuzmins, Sichovs. However, in the mid-1960s, painting has been renewed by the master F. Fedotov in the village Palashele, S. Fatyanov and I. Fatyanov in the village Selishte.

Only a man could become a master of Mezen painting — all knowledge was passed from father to son.

Boxes, tues, tools and huts themselves were decorated with Mezen painting, but the main object was spinning wheels.

Элементы росписи прялки, выполненной Г. Ф. Федотовым, 1926 г. //
Elements of painting on the spinning wheel by G. Fedotov, 1926


Mezen painting is considered the most archaic of all in the Russian folk art — according to a large connoisseur of peasant art A. Bakushinsky, spinning wheels in Mezen painting reflect the range of very early agricultural ideas (Finno-Ugric tribes).

One of the characteristic features of the Mezen painting is the presence of stripes or tiers. Usually there are three: in the lower dominate horses or deer, on average can be depicted and horses or deer, and birds, and in the upper — only birds. Such a division can correspond to the underground, terrestrial and celestial worlds. In each tier, the master placed three or four animal figures.

Painting on spinning wheels is unique: on the front side artists painted tiers, and on the reverse, artists, strictly maintaining the tiers, could make the inscription, for example: “I I give to whom I love.” Spinning wheel with such a message given by the husband to the wife for a wedding or the birth of a child.

Russian perception of the world naturally see the divine in earth, and earth to elevate to divine

The subjects of the Mezen painting are treated as religious or pagan in their basis rather than domestic. As subjects used the common options are: hunting scenes, check out the sled or cart drawn by one or by two horses, a rider on a black horse etc.

In addition to the meaning of the stories themselves, each element contains a lot of symbolism.

Композиция в круге // Composition in a circle

Solar signs are circular, cross-shaped images, symbols of the sun. In Mezen painting are often expressed by swastikas.

The tree of life is one of the favorite objects, because the tree was the first to enter into  life of our ancestors. For our ancestor, the tree was not only a deity governing the sun and rain, responsible for fertility, marriage and childbirth, as well as renewal, rejuvenation and immortality, but also an image of the universe. In the Mezen painting it was symbolized by “Krin” — the curdled grain.

Композиция в квадрате // Composition in a square

Squares, triangles and rhombus carry many meanings depending on the location and combination with other symbols. For example, they can symbolize plowed and sown fields, meadows, sky or land.

Point in the square symbolizes grain.

Wavy lines, zigzag is cosmetic water. Water, like the Sun – the source of life, it connects the sky with the earth, gives life to the earth.

Варианты птиц, уточек, лебедей мезенской росписи //
Variants of birds, ducks, swans in Mezen painting

Bird is a mediator between the earth and the sky, a symbol of life.

Duck is a sign of the setting sun. It is drawn together with a horse: in the morning the fiery horse erected the sun on a firmament, and the duck hid it for the night in water. This sign can serve as a simple feather of a bird.

Варианты фигур коней и оленей мезенской росписи // Variants of figures of horses and deer in Mezen painting

Horse, deer are the “secondary” faces of God, his companions and servants. In Slavic mythology, the horse was a symbol of the sun. Running horses transmit probably the solar path or the movement of time. A. Afanasiev identifies day and night with a white and black horse.

Spirals are the primary elements of nature. Academician B. Rybakov says that the motif of the spiral appeared in mythology as a symbolic movement of the sun on the vault of heaven. In the Mezen painting the spirals are enclosed in the frames of numerous ornaments and abound around celestial horses and deer. A compressed coil spring is a symbol of hidden power. The spiral, which combines the shape of a circle and the momentum of movement, is a symbol of time, the cyclic rhythms of the seasons. Double spirals symbolize the balance of opposites, as a Taoist sign “Yin-Yang”. The upward spiral is a male sign, the downward spiral is a female, so the double spiral can be considered a symbol of fertility and childbearing.

Матрёшка с современной мезенской росписью // Matryoshka with modern Mezen painting


Unlike other Northern paintings, there are no elements of colorful, elegant floral and floral ornament. Instead, horses and poultry if to draw a clumsy child’s hand. All images are very static and only due to multiple repetition there is a sense of dynamics. Despite the primitive techniques of drawing can be traced amazing integrity and sophistication with extreme simplicity means perfectly transmitted the characteristic features of the animals.

Traditionally, this painting uses only two colors — carmine red and black. Received paint for painting from natural materials — red-brown clay and soot, rubbed on the resin of larch. The finished product was painted on a clean primed wood first with ocher (or minium) with the help of a wooden stick (vise), then with a bird’s pen made a black stroke and applied a pattern. The hand-painted object was covered with drying oil, which protected the paint from abrasion and gave the product a Golden color.

The wood had its clear proportions. The width had to be stacked three times in its length. The wood was impregnated with linseed oil. From this its structure became clearer and brighter. The nature of the pattern of fibers is largely determined by the ornament itself, which consists of symbols, like words from letters.

Тарелка с современной мезенской росписью // Plate with modern Mezen painting

mezen painting today

Now Mezen painting engaged in almost the whole of Russia, and in some schools it is included in the program of fine arts. Of course, it is widely used in Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk. Now among the artists women prevail, and due to the sketchy and simplistic patterns painting is well accepted and is easily repeated by children.

The technology of painting is preserved, but today the painting is more often applied with a brush, which is why its character is somewhat different, goes less graphic. So strict before, now it becomes softened features. More and more artists use just red paint, moving away from tradition and forgetting that the original natural origin of the dye was clay, which turns reddish-purple hue.

In the era of globalization, many styles and crafts are “mixed”: red and black Mezen horses lie on a Golden Khokhloma background, blue birds on a white background hint at Gzhel. Sometimes from such a mixing is born let unusual, but well worthy the.

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