Cross-making tradition flourishes on Solovki Islands

Their skills are renowned throughout the country. A group of craftsmen on the Solovetsky Islands – near the Arctic Circle in Russia's northern region of Arkhangelsk – make wooden crosses for the Orthodox church using unique methods,

Georgy Kojakar and his team are rarely outside the building, working from sunrise to sunset, carving elaborate crosses and altar pieces.They are based on traditional lines, but the highly skilled workers spend months designing each piece before the pencil in their hands is replaced with a chisel.

“The cross itself is an instrument of passion. This is a crown of thorns depicted on Christ's head. This is a sea creature filled with vinegar and bile. On the one hand, it is used for a holy ritual, on the other it symbolises the 'gratitude' of mankind,” he explains, while pointing out details on his design.   

Georgy Kojakar
Georgy Kojakar

Once the design is agreed on, work can be fairly swift, taking the team of five around two months for a large cross and up to six months for a frieze.   

They'll grace holy sites and churches across Russia and beyond.  

One of their most recent designs was a cross dedicated to the victims of Stalin's purges, in which hundreds of thousands died. Weighing a tonne, and taking months to create – it took 20 men to manoeuvre it out of the workshop and onto a boat destined for the Russian capital and the special memorial ground.

Although crosses have always been made here, this particular group formed a dedicated cross-making business just 15 years ago, carrying on a tradition that was in danger of dying out.  

“I started researching the Solovki crosses because people didn’t understand the texts on them. Museum employees wrote that: the crosses had liturgy texts on them, but that wasn’t right. The crosses had names of saints and dedications mentioning those who had built them, as well as when and where,” says Georgy Kojakar.

The atmosphere is calm and quiet in their studio as they carry out their work. The carpenters know their work will be seen and adored by thousands or even millions of people the world over.  That is why when everyone else may have gone to bed, the lights in the cross-makers' house still burn bright.  It's their craft not time that matters to them.