INCREDIBLE PEOPLE: Famous Artist Had No Hands, Painted Masterpieces for Russian Emperors

"Your Imperial Highness, humbly and zealously ... I want to give you this icon of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, which I painted with my mouth and not with my hands, since from birth I have not had the strength of movement in my hands or feet. I painted this icon by the grace of Almighty God, who has shined His light on me, and has given me this gift. God enabled my mouth to move with skill, guided by His command."

In 1916, just before the Revolution ravaged the nation, Gregory Zhuravlev — also known as "Grisha" — laid on his death bed. His face was calm, and like a willing soldier he faced death straight on. At the bottom of his bed his sister wept tears of grief when he took his last breath. He was an armless and legless artist from a village in the Samara region, and on his chest was his final icon which at that time was yet unfinished. His sister’s tears were joined by those of not only of their village, but also villages nearby, and as far away as the city of Samara.

A few years earlier, Grisha — who loved to fish — had been on the banks of a nearby river when he fell asleep and had a vision. He had already been battling sickness off and on, and in the vision he saw hard times coming, a time when his work and his icons would no longer be needed. This experience was quite unusual for him, because he was almost always cheerful, witty, and full of life. His icons were being sent far and wide to the distant parts of Russia, and even across it’s borders to other countries, to any place where the Orthodox Christian religion was being practiced.

His name became widely known in 1963, when an art historian made an astounding discovery in Yugoslavia. During the process of documenting Serbian Orthodox Church monuments, he discovered an icon in the village of Purakin, on which the following note was written in Russian:

"This icon was painted in the Samara Province . . . with the teeth of Gregory Zhuravlev, an armless and legless peasant, on July 2, 1885."

And Gregory's legacy remains even today. Schools in the Samara region offer classes on the Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture, and as a part of this class, the children learn about this peasant iconographer. A popular Russian folk singer has even written and performed a beautiful song about this incredible painter.

Svetlana Kopylova sings
about Gregory Zhuravlev

Who was this man? What is the story of his life?

Gregory Zhuravlev was born in 1858, severely disabled. He had neither hands nor feet. According to memoirs, Gregory's mother bitterly cried, and she wanted to kill both herself and the baby. But this was prevented by Peter Vasilievich Traikin — the child’s grandfather. He said that he would raise Grisha himself.

Many people were surprised by the child. He would crawl around the yard and put a stick in his mouth for long periods of time, drawing people, houses, and animals in the sand. When Grisha got older, his grandfather started taking him to school. In winter, he pulled him to school on a skid, and in summer, on a cart. After the death of Peter Vasilievich, Gregory was not able to continue attending the school building, but the teacher remained fully engaged, working with this intelligent child at home.

One summer, some village boys went with Grisha to the river. The other boys went swimming, and Grisha was left on a hill. Then an unusual two-headed eagle dived on him. In front of the bewildered children, the bird lifted Gregory’s little body into the sky. A piercing childish scream, apparently, is what frightened the eagle — it released the boy unharmed. The villagers reasoned that angels must have been involved.

In 1885, the Samara Provincial Gazette wrote:

"Zhuravlev wanted to learn how to paint realistic images with oil paints. At the age of 15, he — who had never left his native village before — arrived in the provincial city and asked the painter Travkin, who lives here, to show him how such images are painted. He gently accepted the unusual student, and spent a few days in his apartment, introducing him to the first techniques of painting. This was enough for Zhuravlev. Having bought paints, brushes and other things in Samara, he returned to his native town of Utevka, and having ordered a table with special adaptations, began to study painting. "

Five years later, the young icon painter decided to donate a few icons to some high-ranking people in Samara. His icons gained attention, and he began to receive orders. Soon the regional government took notice of the plight of the Zhuravlev family, and they appointed him an annual pension of 60 rubles.

Saints Cyril & Methodius
— icon by Gregory Zhuravlev

By his work, Gregory helped his whole family. His brother Athanasius made wooden preparations for the icons and prepared the colors, his grandmother selected the brushes, and his father delivered icons to Samara. Later, Zhuravlev had students: Mikhail Khmelev and Vasily Popov.

Gregory loved to learn, so he read a lot. One of the best things in his house was the large library. He and his brother Afanasy graduated with honors from the local school. In 1884, Zhuravlev turned to the Samara governor, requesting that his painted icon of St. Nicholas be presented to Tsarevich Nicholas, the future Emperor. This letter from Gregory has been preserved:

"Your Imperial Highness, humbly and zealously ... I want to give you this icon of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, which I painted with my mouth and not with my hands, since from birth I have not had the strength of movement in my hands or feet. I painted this icon by the grace of Almighty God, who has shined His light on me, and has given me this gift. God enabled my mouth to move with skill, guided by His command."

The Tsarevich graciously accepted the icon. Soon, Zhuravlev was invited to the royal palace, by Emperor Alexander III himself. Here, this artistic peasant painted a portrait of the Romanov family. 

The Virgin Mary with Jesus
— icon by Gregory Zhuravlev

There is a legend that on the way back, Gregory was captured against his will, and forced to participate in a traveling circus. For six months he was driven around Russia, as they showed him to audiences as a curiosity. With great difficulty, he finally managed to escape and return home.

The Emperor appointed him a life-long monthly pension of 25 gold rubles, and he instructed the Samara governor to "give Zhuravlev a pace horse, for summer and winter trips."

According to the surviving memories of the inhabitants of Utevka (Duck Village), Gregory was of a cheerful disposition, and he liked to joke. To amuse the children, he would take a shepherd's whip in his teeth, waving and clapping with a deafening whistle.

In Utevka, a stone church was built in honor of the Holy Trinity, under the direct supervision of Gregory Zhuravlev. All frescoes were painted according to his sketches.

For the church, Zhuravlev painted not only icons, but also huge frescoes, says Fr. Anatoly Kopach. "When he painted the church — especially the dome — leather belts bored into his body, his teeth were chipped, and his lips swelled. It was a great feat!"

The Holy Trinity and seven Archangels are depicted on the dome. The frescoes are of St. John the Theologian, St. Andrew the First-Called, and two metropolitans of Moscow. The face of St. Simeon of Verkhoturye can also be seen. The church was consecrated in 1892, and it included a school and a small library.

Church of the Holy Trinity
in Utyovka village

In 1934 the Soviet authorities started destroying the bell tower, lighting bonfires under the wooden supports. Icons were torn off the walls. The most valuable were sent to Samara. The rest were brought under cover of night to a collective farm apiary, for making bee hives. But the beekeeper — Dmitry Lobachev — secretly distributed icons to the inhabitants of the village. In return, they gave him the necessary number of boards for his hives.

More than once, the Soviet authorities started to destroy the entire church. But in their fight against God, these men continually had their plans delayed, due to various unexpected circumstances. Thus, by God's Providence, the church has been preserved to this day.

Gregory with his brother

In 1989, the Soviet authorities returned the church building to the faithful believers. Two years later it was ready for services, and was consecrated for use. The administration of the local government district allocated 100 thousand rubles for the reconstruction of the destroyed bell tower. Eight bells were brought from Voronezh. In honor of their local artist, the inscription "Gregory" was made on the largest bell.

Today, in this Church of the Holy Trinity, there are many sacred objects: a piece of stone from Christ's tomb, relics from the infant martyrs of Bethlehem, and relics from the Optina elders and St. Seraphim of Sarov. In 2006, a new carved iconostasis was put in the church.

Wonderful images — painted by Zhuravlev — have been found in almost every hut and hamlet in neighboring villages. Some of these had been made for the poor — inexpensive icons which he had painted on wood, without adding any gilding. But after his trip to St. Petersburg, when his family had started to enjoy prosperity, he increasingly began painting images with gold leaf, and signing the backs of the icons with messages like this:

"This has been painted with the teeth of Gregory Zhuravlev, from the village Utevka in the Samara province, a peasant without arms or legs."

To commemorate the Imperial family's miraculous rescue from the train derailment catastrophe in October, 1888, the noblemen of Samara commissioned Gregory Zhuravlev to paint an icon for presentation to the Emperor Alexander III. Also, the governor of Samara commissioned Zhuravlev to paint an icon of St. Alexei, Metropolitan of Moscow.

In recent years, local residents have returned many of Zhuravlev's icons to the church. His icons have also been brought from faraway places, such as Kazakhstan and the Urals.

The Samara Diocese, together with the provincial authorities, continue working to revive the memory of this amazing artist. And Archbishop Sergius (of Samara and Syzran) offers his gratitude as well:

Christ the Savior
— icon by Gregory Zhuravlev

"Thank God that historical justice is restored in our time, and that tributes are paid to such talents as the painter Gregory Zhuravlev. Born with disabilities, but having a deep faith and strength of spirit, he painted for the glory of God and for the benefit of men. His icons bear the Divine light, and they are an aid to God's people."

Gregory Zhuravlev died in 1916. With the blessing of the ruling bishop, he was buried on the grounds of the village church, not far from the altar. As the coffin was being lowered into the ground, the people sang “Memory Eternal” and “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal”. The monks read the Psalms and shared remembrances of the deceased. Many passed by to pay their last respects, while carrying yellow candles and venerating the holy icons. A simple Orthodox Cross was setup at the grave site, and on the cross these words were written: “Behold the Man“


Enjoy Svetlana's touching song about this incredible artist:

Article adapted from: hague6185 and

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