The story of Fedor Iok
How artisan painter broke with the tradition much to the appreciation from descendants
It happened a few years ago. On Christmas eve, Kenozero National Park employee Marina Guseva went to the Chapel of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in the village of Ust'-Pocha to clean up. Once inside, she raised her head to look at the "skies" – the painted part of the ceiling – and spotted an inscription on one of the facets she was sure no one saw before her. Lit by the ray of sun that fell right on it, the inscription read: "Painted in 1881 by 17 y.o. Fedor Zakharov Iok, native of Bolshoye Konevo, Olonets County, Kargopol District, Mishkovsky Parish.

Marina called her colleagues.

"I've got sensational news to tell you. It's a Christmas miracle!"

In Northern Russia, the tradition of painting biblical scenes on ceilings in chapels and churches, appeared four centuries ago, inspired by the monumental painting of stone temples. As to the starry ornaments on the church "skies", these were adopted from... ancient Egypt. The two traditions came together in the northern church to shape celestial vault and Kingdom of Heaven the way artisans saw them. Like icon-paining, the "sky"-painting had developed its canon, thematic rules and structural pattern. And like icon painters, "sky" painters didn't sign their works.
... And suddenly, from the darkness of the ages, there appeared an artisan who broke away from the tradition. Who was that daring Fedor Iok?
Experts were eager to find our more. While some started digging up the archives, others went to Kenozero to explore its other churches and chapels, hoping to find icons and "skies" that could give them a clue. Iok turned out a prolific icon painter, having painted also the "skies" in the chapels in Karpova, Vershka, Minina, and Berezhnaya Dubrova. His second message was found on an icon: together with his signature Iok indicated the amount of money he received for his work.

Those who worked in the archives found out that Fedor Iok lived in the second half of the 19th century in the village of Konevo. As a teenager, he studied art in St. Petersburg. His name appears among the select group of icon-painters employed by the craft guild. So, what Fedor Iok wrote on his "sky" in Ust'-Pocha was true: he painted it at the age of 17!

Iok's style was naïve, but he had the talent. He continued to be asked by villagers to paint for them. One thing remained unclear: all of Iok "skies" and icons were painted in his younger years.

One archived document – Iok's personal file in the rural post office – helped to shed more light. The records read Iok applied for the job of a postman because he was broke and had seven children to support. He passed away in 1922. Why he signed his "skies" is a mystery he had taken with him.

Iok had a distinctive personality and artistic vision of his own. His "sky"

in the chapel in Ust'-Pocha depicts Saint Nicholas instead of crucified Christ, surrounded by 17 border scenes, which is another break with the tradition, art historians believe.
"His saints have local faces. The lantern in the hand of Archangel Gabriel is an ordinary rustic lamp," note art historians. In the "Deliverance of youth Demetrius from the flood" the wooden boat looks like an ancient rowboat. Archangel Raphael is depicted with a clay pot that could be found in every hut in Kenozero, while the taurus and the lion lying at the feet of Luke and Mark look more like cow and cat, the two the main animals in the Russian countryside.

There is a third opinion. It underlines the singularity of church "skies". If ceiling stands for heaven and the floor for earth, then man is the center of the celestial cosmos. Therefore, Fedor Iok can't be said to have broken with the canon. Who hasn't tried to make their presence known at the age of 17?

Come visit Kenozero National Park to see the unique northern "skies" first-hand. Each of them has its own story, own mystery. Each of them is beautiful and unique in its own way.