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Russian Icon Painting

Russian Icon Painting

In the world of art Russian icons represent a unique and extremely valuable phenomenon. Any icon is far more than a mere visual image, though. Icons are objects of veneration, treated with profound respect. In Greek, “icon” means “image” or “likeness.” The principle underlying the icon is the doctrine that God became visible in Christ and was thus for the first time able to be depicted. According to legend, the first icon painter was the apostle Luke. For the believer, the icon provides a means of seeing and, in a sense, communicating with the holy figure it portrays. However, while an icon is venerated, it is not itself the object of worship. Legends of the miraculous appearance of icons take their place in mediaeval chronicles alongside accounts of the most important events.

Icons were not only a part of decoration of a church but a vital element of everyday life. Contemporary sources tell us that mediaeval icons, and also the frescoes painted directly onto the walls and ceilings of churches, served the common people as a " book for the illiterate".
The saints were always recognizable in icons, their face at times so dissimilar that they might be taken to be portraits with startling power, even now to convey individuality.

A knowledge of iconography, the source of the subject-matter of those works, is one of the most important ways to an appreciation of icons. It helps us to understand the complex world of ideas which lies behind the icon, the profound spirituality of those depicted, and the historical links between mediaeval Russia and other countries.

Russia inherited the tradition of icon painting from Byzantium when Vladimir adopted Christianity in the late tenth century. But it is possible to trace the roots of the icon all the way back to tomb portraits of ancient Egypt.

Icon painting flourished in Russia, where several types of icons gained precedence, including one called the Umilenie or “Tenderness” icon depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child. Icon painting continued to develop in Russia throughout the medieval period and until the reforms of Peter the Great. At this time, painting was greatly secularized.

Interest in icons renewed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Icons were collected and restored, which led to newfound knowledge about the art of icon painting.

Icons were originally used only in religious processions and in churches. However, beginning in the fifteenth century, growing prosperity allowed for the personal ownership of icons. People placed them in their homes, either in a corner of the room or over the head of the bed.

In churches, you will see icons on a special wall or screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave. This wall is called the iconostasis, a Byzantine form of church decoration which became highly developed in Russia. The iconostasis is made up of a number of tiers of icons, which depict the biblical history of the church. The order of the icons on the iconostasis does not change, but the number of tiers can vary. In the lower center of the iconostasis are the Royal Doors which lead into the altar area, reserved only for male celebrants. The icon to the left of the doors is that of the Virgin, and the icon on the right of the doors is that of the Savior.

Icons are made by icon painters, who consider themselves to be believers first and foremost and artists second. The icon painter never considers his work to be his personal, individual artistic achievement, and thus he does not sign his work. The only name that appears on the icon is the name of the saint or holy figure depicted.

During the Soviet era in Russia, former village icon painters in Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui transferred their techniques to lacquer painting, which they decorated with ornate depictions of Russian fairy tales and other non-religious scenes. Many Russian icons were destroyed 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.

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