About Russian Orthodox Icons

The tradition of using icons (frescoes, mosaics and paintiings on wood) in liturgical life came to Russia from Byzantium after its conversion to Christianity. Among the extant Byzantine works is the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God(1100-1130), one of the most venerated icons in Russia.

It was brought to the country from Constantinople in the reign of Prince Yuri Dolgoruky and kept in a convent of Vyshgorod near Kiev. There are only few works that survive from the pre Mongolian, or Kievan period. These include fragments of mosaics, one of which portrays St. Demetrius of Thessalonica, and frescoes that once decorated the Church of the Archangel Michael in the monastery of the same name.

The second biggest cultural centre of old Russia was Novgorod which evolved a distinctive local style. Many Novgorodian icons which survived Mongolian period (many were destroyed) combine elements of the Byzantine and local styles (St. Nicholas with Selected Saints, late 12th-early 13th centuries). St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, who lived in the 4th century, is one of the most revered saints in Russia. He is believed to protect in danger and help in business and is reputed as a "miracle worker" and "protector of Christians". His name is frequently associated in the West with Russian Santa Claus.

 However not all Russians do share this point of view.

In the 13th century when the ties between Russia and Byzantium were loosened, local styles of painting assumed a new importance. In Novgorodian icons the composition was simplified, the silhouette became bold and the palette was enriched by bright colors, wtih characteristic cinnabar in the background.

The local school of painting took shape in the Russian city of Pskov in the 13th-14th centuries when the city developed into an important political and cultural centre. Soon their style of painting became independent. Pskov icons are distinguished by their intense emotionalism and unique colour scheme dominated by fiery orange-red, deep olive green, dark blue and various shades of brown. Many artists from that and other schools remained anonymous, only few names have come down to the present. One of them is Andrei Rublyov (1370-1430).

Frescoes of the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin (1405) were painted by Theophanes with the assistance of Andrei Rublyov. The Trinity (1420), Rublyov's most famous icon and greatest masterpiece of Russian art, was done for the Trinity-St. Serguis Monastery, (later surronded by a town of Sergiyev Posad). Rublyov produced the icon in memory of St. Sergius of Radonesh, the founder of the monastery and one of Russia's most respected spiritual leaders. St. Sergius called for the country's religious renewal and took tremendous efforts to unite the scattered Russian prinipalities.

The biblical subject of the appearance of three angels to the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah (known in Russia art as the Old Testament Trinity) is regarded by theologians as a symbol of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: that God is of one nature, yet three persons. There exist different interpretations of the icon. According to one of them, the angel in the middle represents Christ (he wears Jesus' traditional clothes), the left one God the Father and the right one the Holy Spirit. The artist's contemporaries might see in this work the embodiment of their ideal of the "perfect world", the harmonious world of Christian love and unanimity preached by St. Sergius Radoneshsky.

In the reign of Ivan III the principalities of Yaroslavl (1463), Rostov (1474) and Tver (1485) and the Republic of Novgorod (1477) were annexed to Moscow which became the capital of the new centralized state. in 1453 the Byzantine empire collapsed and in 1480 Russia was liberated from Mongol yoke which had lasted fro two hundred and fifty years. The young Moscovite state acquired the consciousness of being the last bulwark of Eastern Orthodoxy. It was then that claims were put that Moscow would become the "Third Rome" (in succession of Constantinople and Rome itself). The rise of Moscow was accompanied by a flourishing of its art and culture.

 The personal, innovative and creative traditions of Western European religious artware 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 resulted in a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. The traditionalists, the persecuted "Old Ritualists" or "Old Believers", 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, 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 is typically separated from the sanctuary by an iconostasis (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".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".


Some of the most venerated but whole icons are those known by the name of the town associated with them, such as the Vladimir,, the Smolensk, the Kazan images,

all of the Virgin Mary, usually referred to by Orthodox Christians as 'the Theotokos' - the Birth-Giver of God. Most Russian icons are based on a religious event or happening.

The preeminent Russian iconographer was Andrey Rublyov (1360-1430), 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 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 the Virgin  Mary in Russian iconography and religious use than of any other figure; Mary's 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", "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 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. The painter did not seek individual glory but considered himself a humble servant of God. 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.

As the painter did not intend to glorify himself, 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.

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.



Example of panel cross members or "back slats" used in pre-1890 Russian icons

Most Russian icons are painted using egg tempera on specially prepared wooden panels, or on cloth glued onto wooden panels. Gold leaf is frequently used for halosand background areas; however, in some icons, silver leaf, sometimes tinted with shellacto look like gold,is used instead, and some icons have no gilding at all. Russian icons may also incorporate elaborate tin, bronze or silver exterior facades that are usually highly embellished and often multi-dimensional. These facades are called rizas or oklads.

A regular aspect of icon painting is to varnish over the image with drying oil, 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.