What’s a riza?

By Elise Breton*

McGill Rare Books and Special Collections has long held a collection of about 50 framed religious pictures, of which there has been no complete record. This situation is now being improved with the creation of a detailed descriptive list of the collection contents, still in process. The majority of the images are chromolithographs, which means that they were made using a technique of color printing from a stone. This technique is rarer today but was very widely used 150 years ago.

Some of the pictures are classic representations of Christian imagery (the Virgin Mary, Christ, scenes from the Bible) and were probably hung in Quebec kitchens or living rooms at the beginning of the twentieth century. The image of the baby Jesus, shown here, is an example.

The collection also holds more singular items, and the RBSC staff was particularly intrigued by two remarkable and outstandingly shiny pictures.

Two St Nicholas

After some research, we discovered that these gilded and silvered covers are called “rizas” or “oklads”, Russian terms respectively meaning “robe” or “casing”. A riza or oklad is a shaped gilt or silver metal cover over the surface of an icon, which usually leaves spaces for the hands and face of the subject to show through. Its purpose is both to protect the icon by covering it, and to embellish it, sometimes by the addition of precious stones to the metal cover.

The two shown here represent Saint Nicholas, as attested by the Greek inscription shaped in the metal: “ΑΓΙΟΣ ΝΙΚΟΛΑΟΣ” (Agios Nikolaos). Relief ornaments are made using metalworking techniques in which the designs are sculpted by pushing the metal up from the back side (“repoussé”) or down from the front side (chasing).

The list of this fascinating and varied collection will soon be available for researchers to consult.

* Elise Breton is an intern in Rare Books and Special Collections from École nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques

Celestial event

In anticipation of tonight’s total lunar eclipse, we went to the stacks and found these beautifully illustrated 17th, 18th, and 19th century astronomy texts.

Blossom (signs of spring)


Eizan, ‘Blossom’ (Colour woodcut) [1810] 375 x 250 mm

‘Blossom’, which depicts a woman seated under a blossoming cherry tree, is one in a series of three prints, Furyu meisho setsu-gekka (Snow, Moon and Blossoms in Celebrated Places). This woodblock print by artist Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867) is part of the RBSC Japanese Print Collection, available for on-site consultation during opening hours.

Curiosa raccolta di varie e diversi ucelli

FLAMEN, Alberto
Curiosa raccolta di varie e diversi ucelli
[1650] 12mo. n.p. 100 pl.

plate 37

From An introduction to the literature of vertebrate zoology*: “Not only ‘curious tales about birds’ but altogether a curious and interesting little album of 100 copper-plates, with no text except the legends in Italian furnishing the vulgar names of the subjects. A very rare ornithologic item, not listed in the [British Museum Catalogue (Natural History)].”

This rare item is available to explore online or in person in the reading room.


* An introduction to the literature of vertebrate zoology : based chiefly on the titles in the Blacker Library of Zoology, the Emma Shearer Wood Library of Ornithology, the Bibliotheca Osleriana and other libraries of McGill University, Montreal / Compiled and edited by Casey A. Wood. London : Oxford University Press, 1931.


The Canadian Graphic Art Yearbook 1931

The Canadian Graphic Art Yearbook (Ryerson Press: 1931) highlights the work of thirty-five artists, members of the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, in the early years of that artists’ organization. Included among the thirty-seven black and white reproductions and one colour print, are works by Bertram Brooker, Edwin Holgate, and Walter J. Philips. This item is available for on-site consultation during our opening hours.


Cathedral Mountain, T.W. McLean


Dominion Square, Montreal, W.F.G. Godfrey

Dominion Square, Montreal, W.F.G. Godfrey

Of this edition of Canadian Graphic Yearbook, edited by the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, and published by the Ryerson Press, Toronto, five hundred copies only have been printed, of which two hundred and twenty-five are for sale.”CDN GRAPHIC ART

Lincoln North

Lincoln in chairLincoln North is the virtual home to one of the most unusual research collections housed in Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University. In 1986, Dr. Joseph N. Nathanson (1895-1989) donated to his alma mater the contents of his Abraham Lincoln collection. The collection is comprised of approximately four thousand items including books, pamphlets, prints, manuscripts, ephemera and realia. The website was launched on this day in 2002 to coincide with Lincoln’s birthday (February 12, 1809).

Digitization projects


Page 16 from ‘A collection of magical formulae with some Christian prayers’

Did you know that some of our rare books have been digitized and can be downloaded from the library catalogue? The McGill Library digitization team maintains a blog, “The Dark Room” that highlights recent digitization projects.

One recent example is A collection of magical formulae with some Christian prayers, a manuscript that dates from the late 16th century. Read all about its digitization on the Dark Room blog or download a copy of the manuscript here.

If you’d like to see the original, visit us in Rare Books and Special Collections during our opening hours, Monday-Friday 10am-6pm.




McGill Remembers: War records and related archives

McGill contingent of the Canadian Officers' Training Corps (MUA 0000-0481.04.1)

McGill contingent of the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps (MUA 0000-0481.04.1)

The McGill Remembers Project commemorates members of the McGill University community who served during the Second World War. The website brings together thousands of digitized archival records, including photographs, war records, and personal accounts  from the McGill University Archives.