Russian icons

Russian icons

Overview

The use and making of icon
Icon
An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from Eastern Christianity and in certain Eastern Catholic churches...

s entered Kievan Rus'
Kievan Rus'
Kievan Rus was a medieval polity in Eastern Europe, from the late 9th to the mid 13th century, when it disintegrated under the pressure of the Mongol invasion of 1237–1240....

 following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity
Eastern Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church and commonly referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, is the second largest Christian denomination in the world, with an estimated 300 million adherents mainly in the countries of Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece,...

 in 988 AD. As a general rule, these icons strictly followed models and formulas hallowed by Byzantine art
Byzantine art
Byzantine art is the term commonly used to describe the artistic products of the Byzantine Empire from about the 5th century until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453....

, led from the capital in Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

. As time passed, the Russians widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere in the Orthodox world.

The personal, innovative and creative traditions of Western European religious art were largely lacking in Russia before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting became strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe.
Discussion
Ask a question about 'Russian icons'
Start a new discussion about 'Russian icons'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Unanswered Questions
Encyclopedia

The use and making of icon
Icon
An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from Eastern Christianity and in certain Eastern Catholic churches...

s entered Kievan Rus'
Kievan Rus'
Kievan Rus was a medieval polity in Eastern Europe, from the late 9th to the mid 13th century, when it disintegrated under the pressure of the Mongol invasion of 1237–1240....

 following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity
Eastern Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church and commonly referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, is the second largest Christian denomination in the world, with an estimated 300 million adherents mainly in the countries of Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece,...

 in 988 AD. As a general rule, these icons strictly followed models and formulas hallowed by Byzantine art
Byzantine art
Byzantine art is the term commonly used to describe the artistic products of the Byzantine Empire from about the 5th century until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453....

, led from the capital in Constantinople
Constantinople
Constantinople was the capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe's largest and wealthiest city.-Names:...

. As time passed, the Russians widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere in the Orthodox world.

The personal, innovative and creative traditions of Western European religious art were largely lacking in Russia before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting became strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. In the mid-17th century changes in liturgy and practice instituted by Patriarch Nikon
Patriarch Nikon
Nikon , born Nikita Minin , was the seventh patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church...

 resulted in a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. The traditionalists, the persecuted "Old Ritualists" or "Old Believers
Old Believers
In the context of Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers separated after 1666 from the official Russian Orthodox Church as a protest against church reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon between 1652–66...

", continued the traditional stylization of icons, while the State Church modified its practice. From that time icons began to be painted not only in the traditional stylized and non-realistic mode, but also in a mixture of Russian stylization and Western European realism, and in a Western European manner very much like that of Catholic religious art of the time. These types of icons, while found the Russian Orthodox churches, are also sometimes found in various sui juris rites of the Catholic Church.

Russian icons are typically paintings on wood
Panel painting
A panel painting is a painting made on a flat panel made of wood, either a single piece, or a number of pieces joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, it was the normal form of support for a painting not on a wall or vellum, which was used for...

, often small, though some in churches and monasteries may be much larger. Some Russian icons were made of copper. Many religious homes in Russia have icons hanging on the wall in the krasny ugol, the "red" or "beautiful" corner.

There is a rich history and elaborate religious symbolism associated with icons. In Russian churches, the nave
Nave
In Romanesque and Gothic Christian abbey, cathedral basilica and church architecture, the nave is the central approach to the high altar, the main body of the church. "Nave" was probably suggested by the keel shape of its vaulting...

 is typically separated from the sanctuary
Sanctuary
A sanctuary is any place of safety. They may be categorized into human and non-human .- Religious sanctuary :A religious sanctuary can be a sacred place , or a consecrated area of a church or temple around its tabernacle or altar.- Sanctuary as a sacred place :#Sanctuary as a sacred place:#:In...

 by an iconostasis
Iconostasis
In Eastern Christianity an iconostasis is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church...

 (Russian ikonostas, иконостас), or icon-screen, a wall of icons with double doors in the centre.

Russians sometimes speak of an icon as having been "written", because in the Russian language (like Greek, but unlike English) the same word (pisat, писать in Russian) means both to paint and to write. Icons are considered to be the Gospel in paint, and therefore careful attention is paid to ensure that the Gospel is faithfully and accurately conveyed.

Icons considered miraculous were said to "appear."
Acheiropoieta
Acheiropoieta — also called Icons Made Without Hands — are a particular kind of icon which are alleged to have come into existence miraculously, not created by a human painter. Invariably these are images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary...

 The "appearance" (Russian: yavlenie, явление) of an icon is its supposedly miraculous discovery. "A true icon is one that has 'appeared', a gift from above, one opening the way to the Prototype and able to perform miracles".

History



Some of the most venerated but whole icons considered to be products of miraculous thaumaturge are those known by the name of the town associated with them, such as the Vladimir, the Smolensk, the Kazan
Our Lady of Kazan
Our Lady of Kazan, also called Theotokos of Kazan , was a holy icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan. Copies of the image are also venerated in the Catholic Church...

 and the Częstochowa
Black Madonna of Czestochowa
The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is a revered icon of the Virgin Mary housed at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland.-The icon:The origins of the icon and the date of its composition are still hotly contested among scholars...

 images, all of Mary.

The preeminent Russian iconographer was Andrei Rublev
Andrei Rublev
Andrei Rublev is considered to be the greatest medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons and frescoes.-Biography:...

 (1360-early 15th century), who was "glorified" (officially recognized as a saint) by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1988. His most famous work is The Old Testament Trinity.

Russians often commissioned icons for private use, adding figures of specific saints for whom they or members of their family were named gathered around the icon's central figure. Icons were frequently clad in metal covers (the oklad оклад, or more traditionally, riza
Riza
A riza or oklad , sometimes called a "revetment" in English, is a metal cover protecting an icon. It is usually made of gilt or silvered metal with repoussé work and is pierced to expose elements of the underlying painting. It is sometimes enameled, filigreed, or set with artificial,...

 риза, meaning "robe") of gilt or silvered metal of ornate workmanship, which were sometimes enameled, filigreed, or set with artificial, semiprecious or even precious stones and pearls. Pairs of icons of Jesus and Mary were given as wedding presents to newly married couples.

There are far more varieties of icons of Mary
Theotokos
Theotokos is the Greek title of Mary, the mother of Jesus used especially in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Churches. Its literal English translations include God-bearer and the one who gives birth to God. Less literal translations include Mother of God...

 in Russian iconography and religious use than of any other figure; Marian icons are commonly copies of images considered to be miraculous, of which there are hundreds: "The icons of Mary were always deemed miraculous, those of her son rarely so". Icons of Mary most often depict her with the child Jesus in her arms; some, such as the "Kaluga", "Fiery-Faced" "Gerondissa", "Bogoliubovo
Theotokos of Bogolyubovo
The Bogolubskaya Icon of the Theotokos is a Wonderworking Icon of the Theotokos which is venerated in the Russian Orthodox Church...

", "Vilna", "Melter of Hard Hearts", "Seven Swords", etc., along with icons that depict events in Mary's life before she gave birth to Jesus such as the Annunciation
Annunciation
The Annunciation, also referred to as the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary or Annunciation of the Lord, is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Virgin Mary, that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus the Son of God. Gabriel told Mary to name her...

 or Mary's own birth, omit the child.
Because icons in Orthodoxy must follow traditional standards and are essentially copies, Orthodoxy never developed the reputation of the individual artist as Western Christianity did, and the names of even the finest icon painters are seldom recognized except by some Eastern Orthodox or art historians. Icon painting was and is a conservative art, in many cases considered a craft, in which the painter is essentially merely a tool for replication. That is why in the 19th and early 20th century, icon painting in Russia went into a great decline with the arrival of machine lithography on paper and tin, which could produce icons in great quantity and much more cheaply than the workshops of painters. Even today large numbers of paper icons are purchased by Orthodox rather than more expensive painted panels. Historical accounts tell us that some icon painters were depressed and frustrated by the endless repetitive work, but nonetheless others managed enough freedom within the limits of tradition to elevate their paintings to what would be considered, outside Orthodoxy, genuine art.

Because the painter was only the means of copying an image, it was not deemed necessary to sign an icon. Later icons were often the work of many hands, not of a single artisan. Nonetheless some later icons are signed with name of the painter, as well as the date and place. A peculiarity of dates written on icons is that many are dated from the "Creation of the World", which in Eastern Orthodoxy was believed to have taken place on September 1 in the year 5,509 before the birth of Jesus.

During the Soviet era in Russia, former village icon painters in Palekh
Palekh
Palekh is an urban locality and the administrative center of Palekhsky District of Ivanovo Oblast, Russia. Its urban status is due to its economy not depending upon agriculture. Population:...

, Mstera, and Kholui transferred their techniques to laquerware, which they decorated with ornate depictions of Russian fairy tales and other non-religious scenes. This transition from religious to secular subjects gave rise, in the mid-1920, to Russian lacquer art
Russian lacquer art
Russian lacquer art developed from the art of icon painting which came to an end with the collapse of Imperial Russia. The icon painters, who previously had been employed by supplying not only churches but people's homes, needed a way to make a living...

 on papier-mâché
Papier-mâché
Papier-mâché , alternatively, paper-mache, is a composite material consisting of paper pieces or pulp, sometimes reinforced with textiles, bound with an adhesive, such as glue, starch, or wallpaper paste....

. Most distinguished within this relatively new art form are the intricate Palekh miniature
Palekh miniature
Palekh miniature is a Russian folk handicraft of miniature painting, which is done with tempera paints on varnished articles made of papier-mâché ....

 paintings on a black lacquer
Lacquer
In a general sense, lacquer is a somewhat imprecise term for a clear or coloured varnish that dries by solvent evaporation and often a curing process as well that produces a hard, durable finish, in any sheen level from ultra matte to high gloss and that can be further polished as required...

 background.

Many Russian icons were destroyed, or sold abroad, by agents of the Soviet government; some were hidden to avoid destruction, or were smuggled out of the country. Since the fall of communism, numbers of icon painting studios have again opened and are painting in a variety of styles for the local and international market. Many older, hidden icons have also been retrieved from hiding, or brought back from overseas.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the market for icons expanded beyond Orthodox believers to include those collecting them as examples of Russian traditional art and culture. The same period witnessed much forgery of icons painted in the Pre-Nikonian manner. Such fakes, often beautifully done, were artificially aged through skillful techniques and sold as authentic to Old Believers and collectors. Some still turn up on the market today, along with numbers of newly-painted intentional forgeries, as well as icons sold legitimately as new but painted in earlier styles. Many icons sold today retain some characteristics of earlier painting but are nonetheless obviously contemporary.

Iconography techniques and collecting


Most Russian icons are painted using egg tempera on specially prepared wooden panels, or on cloth glued onto wooden panels. Gold leaf
Gold leaf
right|thumb|250px|[[Burnishing]] gold leaf with an [[agate]] stone tool, during the water gilding processGold leaf is gold that has been hammered into extremely thin sheets and is often used for gilding. Gold leaf is available in a wide variety of karats and shades...

 is frequently used for halos
Halo (religious iconography)
A halo is a ring of light that surrounds a person in art. They have been used in the iconography of many religions to indicate holy or sacred figures, and have at various periods also been used in images of rulers or heroes...

 and background areas; however, in some icons, silver leaf, sometimes tinted with shellac
Shellac
Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes , which are dissolved in ethyl alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant, food glaze and wood finish...

 to look like gold, is used instead, and some icons have no gilding
Gilding
The term gilding covers a number of decorative techniques for applying fine gold leaf or powder to solid surfaces such as wood, stone, or metal to give a thin coating of gold. A gilded object is described as "gilt"...

 at all. Russian icons may also incorporate elaborate tin
Tin
Tin is a chemical element with the symbol Sn and atomic number 50. It is a main group metal in group 14 of the periodic table. Tin shows chemical similarity to both neighboring group 14 elements, germanium and lead and has two possible oxidation states, +2 and the slightly more stable +4...

, bronze
Bronze
Bronze is a metal alloy consisting primarily of copper, usually with tin as the main additive. It is hard and brittle, and it was particularly significant in antiquity, so much so that the Bronze Age was named after the metal...

 or silver
Silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

 exterior facades that are usually highly embellished and often multi-dimensional. These facades are called riza
Riza
A riza or oklad , sometimes called a "revetment" in English, is a metal cover protecting an icon. It is usually made of gilt or silvered metal with repoussé work and is pierced to expose elements of the underlying painting. It is sometimes enameled, filigreed, or set with artificial,...

s or oklads
Riza
A riza or oklad , sometimes called a "revetment" in English, is a metal cover protecting an icon. It is usually made of gilt or silvered metal with repoussé work and is pierced to expose elements of the underlying painting. It is sometimes enameled, filigreed, or set with artificial,...

.

A regular aspect of icon painting is to varnish over the image with drying oil
Drying oil
A drying oil is an oil that hardens to a tough, solid film after a period of exposure to air. The oil hardens through a chemical reaction in which the components crosslink by the action of oxygen . Drying oils are a key component of oil paint and some varnishes...

, either immediately after the paint is dry, or later on. The majority of hand-painted Russian icons exhibit some degree of surface varnish, although many do not.

Panels that utilize what are known as "back slats" — cross members that are dovetailed into the back of the boards that make up the panel to prevent warping during the drying process and to ensure structural integrity over time — are usually older than 1880/1890. Subsequent to 1880/1890, advances in materials negated the need for these cross members, thus, are seen either on icons painted after this time period when the intent of the artist was to deceive by creating an "older looking" icon, or on icons which are rendered according to traditional means as a way of honoring the old processes. Back slats are sometimes necessary on newer icons of large size for the same reasons (warping and stability) as existed pre-1900.

Age, authenticity, and forgeries


Since the 1990s, numerous late 19th and early 20th century icons have been artificially aged, then purported to unwitting buyers and collectors as being older than they really are. Often these "semi-forgeries" are perpetrated by master-level Russian iconographers, highly skilled in their ability to not only paint extraordinary works of art, but to "create age" on the finished icon. While the resulting icon may very well be a fine work of art that many would be glad to own, it is still considered to be a work of deception, thus lacking value as an icon beyond its decorative qualities.

Another problem area in the field of icon collecting is the "recomposing" of legitimately old icons with newly painted then falsely aged images that exhibit a higher degree of artistry. For example, a primitive or "folk art" icon from the 17th or 18th century might be repainted by a modern master iconographer, then the image falsely aged to match the panel in order to create an icon that could pass as a 17th or 18th century masterwork. In reality, it is nothing more than a 20th/21st century masterwork on a 17th/18th century panel. With the rise in the values and prices of authentic icons in recent decades, this is now also done with lower quality 19th century folk icons that are repainted by contemporary masters and then artificially aged to appear to match the age of the panel.

Legalities


Pursuant to Russian law, it is presently illegal to export any Russian icon that is over one hundred years in age. Any and all icons being exported from Russia must be accompanied by a certificate from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, attesting to the age of the icon. While Russian law regarding the exportation of icons is quite clear, examples of Russian icons over 100 years of age are regularly introduced into the open market by way of smuggling
Smuggling
Smuggling is the clandestine transportation of goods or persons, such as out of a building, into a prison, or across an international border, in violation of applicable laws or other regulations.There are various motivations to smuggle...

 into the neighboring Baltic
Baltic states
The term Baltic states refers to the Baltic territories which gained independence from the Russian Empire in the wake of World War I: primarily the contiguous trio of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania ; Finland also fell within the scope of the term after initially gaining independence in the 1920s.The...

 countries, or as a result of corrupt Ministry of Culture officials who are willing to certify an otherwise unexportable icon as being "100 years old" in order to facilitate its transfer.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian icons have been repatriated via direct purchase by Russian museums, private Russian collectors, or as was the case of Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Blessed Pope John Paul II , born Karol Józef Wojtyła , reigned as Pope of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of Vatican City from 16 October 1978 until his death on 2 April 2005, at of age. His was the second-longest documented pontificate, which lasted ; only Pope Pius IX ...

 giving an 18th century copy of the famous Our Lady of Kazan
Our Lady of Kazan
Our Lady of Kazan, also called Theotokos of Kazan , was a holy icon of the highest stature within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector and patroness of the city of Kazan. Copies of the image are also venerated in the Catholic Church...

 icon to the Russian Orthodox Church, returned to Russia in good faith.

Books

  • Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri J. M. Nouwen
    Henri Nouwen
    Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen , was a Dutch-born Catholic priest and writer who authored 40 books about spirituality.- Writing :...

    , from Ave Maria Press
    Ave Maria Press
    Ave Maria Press is a Roman Catholic publishing company which was founded in 1865 by Father Edward Sorin, a Holy Cross priest who had founded the University of Notre Dame....

  • Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, by Irina Yazykova, Paraclete Press, 2010.

External links