Russian Icons - A Short History
Ever since Russia's conversion to Christianity in 988, icons [from the Greek
"eikon"= image or representation] have been an important part of the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church and increasingly were an important part of the domestic life of ordinary Russians in Imperial times. With the expansion of the Russian Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries and the creation of a Russian diaspora through emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries their presence extended into the Baltic countries, Western Europe and the New World.
An embedded part of the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, they were used as a means of teaching Christianity to a largely illiterate population. They were also seen as being attributed with miraculous events through Divine intervention and as a manifestation of God's continued love, mercy and power. They were frequently displayed before battles to re-assure soldiers of God's protection and the righteousness of their cause.
Nor was their presence restricted to Churches, Monasteries and Great Houses. Even the most modest of homes had its Holy Corner to display at least one icon and as early as the 16th century rules appeared as to how to clean and treat icons within the home.
To meet the needs of the great cathedrals and the humblest of homes icons came in all sizes and a large number were portable to provide spiritual comfort and re-assurance whilst travelling.
Metal was used particularly for Travelling Icons but the principal medium was wood, usually pine or linden. The outer parts of the tree were often used for icons between 30- 35cms width and gives them a distinctive curved appearance. The larger icons usually intended for places of worship were made from boards nailed together. The wood was often hollowed out in the centre to provide a raised border or ' kovcheg' [Russian ="ark "]. The wood strengthened with battens to restrict warping was then covered with washed-out linen ["pavoloka"] and primed with chalk or plaster though the priming and the appearance of kovchegs was less common in the production of the less expensive icons. Egg tempura paint was used to decorate the icon which was finished with a final layer of varnish made from vegetable oils. Unfortunately this traditional finish itself darkened after fifty to eighty years which led to the constant demand to clean or re-paint the original work.
In the Churches and great houses the icons were often further adorned with covers that were exposed only to show the face and hands of the subject and leaving the remainder of the icon un-revealed. These covers known as 'oklads' or 'rizas' could be sumptuous creations of gold or silver or, more
mundanely, copper, brass or base metal. There could also be a fabric covering enriched with pearls. In the most important icons precious stones were in-set into the oklad or the painting itself.
The designs are traditional and follow strict guidelines laid down by Canon Law. However, this did not prevent the great centres of icon creation Novgorod [12-17 cent.],Pskov [13-16th cent.], Tver [13-17th cent.] and Moscow [14-17th cent.]from introducing their own subtleties of style. By the 19th century the major centres of icon painting had moved to Palek, Mstera and Kholui with the latter especially concentrating on folk art within the context of iconography.
Until the 15th century icon painters were largely anonymous with Theophanes and Andrew Rublev being exceptions. The latter's "Trinity" being heralded by the Church as the blueprint for all further icons depicting this subject. Subsequently other painters emerged from anonymity with Simon Ushakov in the 17th, Leonev in the 18th and Balyakin and Butorin the 19th. The Bogatyryov family were important miniature icon painters at this time
Icons representing Christ either as an"Image Not-Made-by-Hands" [The Mandylion] or as The Saviour [The Pantocrator] were most popular. Veneration of Mary was widespread. Legend has it her representation was based on two portraits made by St Luke. These are the "Hodegetria" [The Presentation] and the "Oumileinye" [Tenderness] which shows a loving and more inter-active relationship between Mother and Son. From these two originals as many as 300 variations of Mother and The Christ child have evolved.
As teaching aids and representations of venerated Saints, icons reflect the breadth of subjects of early Christian life. St Nicholas is especially attributed with special powers of protection amongst the Russian faithful. John the Baptist, St George, SS Boris and Gleb, and Bishop Sergius are important figures in Russian iconography. Icons were also used to mark particular events throughout the Church year and in the lives of the Saints.
Throughout centuries of repression in Russia icons have offered comfort and support in difficult times. They embedded themselves so deeply in the Russsian psyche that they continued to provide spiritual strength throughout Russia's turbulent 20th century.
To-day they remain very much central to the Russian Orthodox Church but have also acquired an additional role as works of art... fine and folk... to be admired for their intrinsic value.