might seem curious to begin a discussion of ikons in the 'modern
age' by starting in Russia around 1700, but this period is extremely
interesting, as it was a time with Russian ikon painting was
colliding head on with Western Art. This was true not only in
ikon painting, but also was happening in architecture and the
decorative arts. While western styles of art were relatively
harmless when it came to palaces and portraits of living men
and women, it was quite another thing when it came to ikons
of Christ and the saints. The church was very skeptical of innovations
from western Europe. The fact that Tsar Peter the Great was
a rapid enthusiast for everything from the west meant that the
church could not avoid these influences. Production centers
of ikons were located in the Kremlin under the Tsar's patronage
and it was assured he would give direction in how he the styles
his artists used.
Western influences in Russian art were not new. There had
been a regular flow of western European popular religious
prints and engravings for a very long time. Catholic Poland
and Lithuania were very nearby, and their long established
cultural connections with Kiev and Ukraine were strong. These
influences from abroad had rather a spotty effect on Russian
ikon painting. Catholic-appearing ikons were liable to be
burnt if found by zealous churchmen.
During the 17th century Russian ikon art had reached an incredible
level of technical perfection. The famous Stroganov school
was producing jewel-like ikons in luscious colors with incredible
detail. Old ikon themes continued to be chosen as subjects,
but many Stroganov painters liked to pick new and obscure
subjects for their painting. Painters liked to show off their
bravura technique with crowed scenes, fantastic architecture
and highly decorated clothing on their figures. This style
was highly popular among the Muscovite aristocracy, but it
did not work very well in monumental church settings. Also,
the spiritual aspect of ikon painting suffered in the Stroganov
school, when artists were obviously striving for superficial
effect, rather than spirituality
This changes with the arrival of famous artists like Simon
Ushakov and Fyodor Zubov (an example of his work is at top
left), who worked in the Tsar's Armoury Workshops. The second
ikon is by a follower of Ushakov, Filateyev. The ikon is large
and was obviously intended for a church ikonstasis. The painting
is shows how far western realism was impacting Russian art.
Although it carefully follows strict Church canons regarding
the depiction of Christ, details, such as the face, show a
striving on the part of the artist to create a 'real' person.
The modeling of the figure is extremely fine and almost exceeds
the ability of egg tempera painting to reproduce soft graduations
of shadow. This is a conscious effort of the artist to imitate
the effect of oil painting in a media unfriendly to soft shadows.
The clothes of Christ, following the Stroganov style, are
highlighted in fine lines of gold, which give lend figure
a burnished, almost metallic effect.
The second ikon at left, Christ - King of Kings, is very
large, about six feet tall. It is a few years earlier than
the ikon just discussed and has a number of features that
show it comes from the previous decade. Here Christ is shown
in regal garb, like a Muscovite Tsar. His clothes are fashioned
on the ancient robes of Byzantine Emperors, made of thick
orange brocade woven with gold and silver, set with gemstones.
In His left hand He carries a wand of authority, while his
right gives a traditional Orthodox blessing. Christ's head
is adorned with a highly ornate, scaley diadem of superimposed
crowns, topped with a cross. The face and hands are delicately
Next, at left is an unusual ikon of the Theotokos from the
1700's. Here decorative elements completely overwhelm the
traditional depiction of the Mother of God with Christ. Behind
the figures baroque architecture and unusual motifs compete
in a busy background. The Virgin stands behind a table covered
with rich brocade and carries a regal scepter which has exploded
in bloom. She wears a western-style crown and is dressed in
stiff orange-colored gold brocade robes. Two gold vases flank
the Virgin and Christ, loaded with tulips and other flowers
- perhaps showing the influence of Dutch floral painting.
Christ is dressed like a tiny Russian Tsar, crowned and carrying
a big orb and is own scepter. In such an ikon all spiritual
power inherent in the subject matter seems completely drained.
Such an ikon is a more an caprice, rather than an ikon. Its
an ornamental painting designed to decorate a fashionable
chamber or charm guests.
This type of degenerate ikon art, which attempted to blend
western European styles with ikonographical subject matter,
while pretty, was a spiritual dead end. However, elite patrons
wanted to show-off their increasing sophistication and westernization
with ikons that they imagined 'fit in' with artistic currents
in the rest of Europe. From 1700 onward the educated and intellectual
elites became increasing estranged from Orthodoxy, all the
while observing superficial aspects of religious practice.
For example, life's milestones, like weddings and births continued
to be observed by the gift of ikons. No Russian Orthodox home
in St. Petersburg or Moscow would be without its wall or corner
of family ikons, rather like long ago, forgotten members of
the family, regardless of the convictions of the occupants.
The fourth ikon at left shows the type of ikon that a prosperous
family in Russia would have chosen to decorate a dining room
or bedroom. It dates from 1908-17, but it could have been
produced fifty years earlier. The painting is done in oils
and the noteworthy feature isn't Christ, it's the splendid
silver-gilt covering which would have dazzled in the special
ikon corner of a middle-class home. Such ikons were often
mass-produced in factory assembly line settings. Sometimes
the figure of the saint underneath was not completed, only
the parts that would be exposed were painted.
At the end of the 19th Century Russians were learning to
take particular pride in their own culture and heritage. They
began to reject aspects of Western culture which seemed overtly
foreign. This was particularly true in the decorative and
church arts, but the move to old national forms was widespread
in all artistic areas, including architecture. From 1860 to
the late 1880's this affection for Russian motifs was somewhat
hesitant. The old styles still had the aura of the village
about them for some sophisticates, and Western forms held
on for awhile.
During the reign of the last Tsar there was an explosion
of culture in Russia, which has been called the Silver Age.
During this time scholars began to study ancient Russian and
Byzantine art. Political uncertainties and a general dissatisfaction
with the benefits of a western secularized society lead people
to look for meaningful spiritual experiences which were rooted
in Russia. Ikon painting had always survived in the villages,
towns like Palekh and Mistera were traditional centers of
ikon art, where generations of families practiced the craft.
The last ikon at left shows St. Gennady of Kostroma. It was
painted in Moscow in 1900 and shows a curious, yet successful
fusion of a fine linear drawing with an extremely delicate
and careful technique. The ikon has a flat, almost brittle
feel. The ikon is signed by the artist, which became common
after 1700. Celebrated artists of the time, like Vasnetsov
and Nesterov tried to integrate traditional ikonography with
artistic currents of the time. The results can be seen in
the paintings of St. Vladimir's Cathedral in Kiev and in the
Art Nouveau influenced religious art of Nesterov at the Martha
and Mary Convent in Moscow.