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Perm Animal Style
June 23, 2006 13:45

Perm animal style is one of the pearls of ancient ethnic culture; its artifacts featuring mythology of the bygone pagan times surprise with their complicated and fanciful harmony. These stylish metal castings found in the Ural inspire scientists and artists to try to fathom the mysteries they harbour.

Ural is a huge territory situated in the geographical centre of Russia and linking Europe and Asia. The word Ural is translated as a Stone belt. This land of original ancient culture is the native place of Finno-Ugric tribes. In olden times Kama River served as a trading way connecting the ancient civilizations of the East and the local Ural tribes.

Those tribes left unique specimen of ancient art of metal castings representing animal images that obviously served as sacred totems. The roots of the animal art style that developed in the 7th 5th cc B.C. go back to the cave and rock paintings and carvings of the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages.

The Perm animal style is represented by hundreds of findings of tracery bronze and brass plates, figurines, pendants with relief pictures of animals, birds, fish, fabulous creatures, and people. The most widespread are images of elks, bears, horses, swans and ducks. The duck was especially honoured by the local tribes: a legend says that soil appeared on the Earth thanks to this bird. A right-angled plate with the image of a bear has become symbolical of the Perm animal style. One of the major peculiarities of this style is the intricacy of images.

Researchers resort to myths and rites of Komi, Udmurt, and Lapp tribes to explain the meaning and the purpose of the artifacts of Perm animal style. All the findings can be relatively divided into two big groups.

One part of them is represented with figurines of beasts and birds that are found in all types of archeological monuments, such as burial grounds, sites of ancient settlements, and places for worshipping. The analysis of their location in the burials shows that alongside with beads and various pendants these articles served as decorations and after the death of their owner were buried with him/her as accompanying implements. No doubt the decorations fulfilled not only the aesthetic function but also implemented sacral meaning.

The decorations in animal style are made of various copper alloys and are quite diverse. Many of them after the moulding were polished, blanched, and chiseled. Most frequent are decorations with images of birds, swimming (swan and duck), forest (heath-cock and wood-grouse), and raptorial birds pecking their prey. Numerous and diverse are horse pendants. Some decorations are based on the images of bears and fur-bearing animals, such as sables and martens. The decorations are characterized with realistic images. Only the image of the yelling bird has no prototype in nature. The figurines were probably used as tools for common magic and zoomorphic images played the role of protecting amulets.

The other part of animal style artifacts are various sacral plates with zoo- and anthrop-amorphous images and complicated compositions of them. The zoomorphic images include figures if flying birds, bears heads, pangolins and blends of various animals. The anthrop-amorphous images are humaniform idols, faces and plates featuring men-elks. They were all made by means of plain and semi-relief casting followed by engraving, embossing, and soldering of details. Lots of them have holes and claspers for hanging or stands.

The researchers unanimously agree that these plates reflect the ancient peoples perception of the universe and mans place in it. That is why they were in collective property and played an important role in ancient rites. This can account for the fact why all the plates, unlike the decorations, were found in the settlements only, and mainly at monuments of cult, altars and sacred places.

The exception is figurines of flying birds which are also found in burial grounds. Those figurines obviously played a special role in the rite of burial, which reflected the ancient conceptions of death, soul, and afterlife. The Perm animal style is a bright example of the art epoch of the so-called World Tree, a universal concept that for a long time defined the model of the world. The art of this epoch tends to oppose the lower, negative and the higher, heavenly realms. In Permian compositions the underground is symbolized by a fantastic creature of pangolin wearing a horn. The creature above the pangolin is called Sulde, a combination of features of a human being, an animal (elk is most common) and a bird, which represents the higher realm.

Certain repeated motives of the Perm animal style cannot but make you wonder, such as, for instance, elk-headed men, three-eyed goddesses, and birds of prey with a human face on the chest.

In the 10th century A.C. the Perm animal style degraded but left impact on the development of art of the Ural peoples: its traits were inherited and preserved in embroidering, weaving, fur mosaics, and wooden sculpture. Some modern artists resort to this style in search of interesting artistic solutions and some of them attempt to recreate and imitate the found ancient artifacts.

It might be interesting to compare the Perm animal style with other modifications of animal style connected by common roots, namely the ornaments of Roman cathedrals and the white-brick carving of the churches of Vladimir and Suzdal. Large-scale collections of Perm animal style can be seen in the State Hermitage, Perm Museum of Local Lore, the State Historic Museum, and Cherdyn Regional Museum.

Vera Ivanova



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