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
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.