Specialist in Old Eastern Orthodox Icons from 15th until 19th century.
The use and making of icons entered Kievan Rus’ following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988 A.D. As a general rule, these icons strictly followed models and formulas hallowed by Byzantine art, led from the capital in Constantinople. As time passed, the Russians widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere in the Orthodox world. The personal, innovative and creative traditions of Western European religious art were 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-1600s 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. 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 holes icons considered to be products of miraculous thaumaturge are those known by the name of the town associated with them, such as the Vladimir, the Smolensk, the Kazan and the Częstochowa images, all of Mary. The preeminent Russian iconographer was Andrei Rublev (1360-early 15th century), 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 Mary in Russian iconography and religious use than of any other figure; Marian 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”, “Bogoliubov”, “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. 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. Historical accounts tell us that some icon painters were depressed and frustrated by the endless repetitive work, but nonetheless others managed enough freedom within the limits of tradition to elevate their paintings to what would be considered, outside Orthodoxy, genuine art.
Because the painter was only the means of copying an image, 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 5,508 before the birth of Jesus. During the Soviet era in Russia, former village icon painters in Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui transferred their techniques to laquerware, which they decorated with ornate depictions of Russian fairy tales and other non-religious scenes. This transition from religious to secular subjects gave rise, in the mid-1920, to Russian lacquer art on papier-mâché. Most distinguished within this relatively new art form are the intricate Palekh miniature paintings on a black lacquer background. (source : Wikipedia)