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Russia's Miraculous Icons
by Bob Brooke

 

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” As Our Lady of Vladimir raises up her hands with a powerful gesture in a prayer of intercession, the Russian people receive the blessing of God's eternal Word through an icon bearing her image. And so it has been for 10 centuries.

Like all other peoples that embraced Byzantine Christianity in the Middle Ages, the Russians realized that an icon was essentially both a devotional image and a work of art.

Icon comes from the Greek word iekon, meaning “image.” The Russian Orthodox Church regards icons as the images of the personages and scenes of god’s heavenly kingdom on Earth. Icons, which depict in graphic form the people, events, and moral truths of the Bible, were essential to the early Church as a teaching tool for the illiterate population much as religious paintings were to Western art. More importantly, portrayal of the sacred images of Christ, Mary, and the saints were a means of leading the population to worship.

Believers regard the image represented in an icon as a true likeness. Naturally, this view came to influence the structure of the composition. Though in later times iconographers painted them on metal, they painted the majority of icons on wood. The form originated from the tomb portraits of ancient Egypt. The Byzantines perfected the technique, transforming the old medium into something wholly Christian.

Early Icons

Russian iconographers created the earliest icons during the 10th century, following examples imported from Constantinople a century earlier by Vladimir, Great Prince of Kiev Rus, who adopted the Greek Orthodox form of Christianity as the official religion of his country. These Byzantine faces revealed deeply soulful gazes which riveted the gaze of viewers. But later portraiture drew from a more Western style which gave a contemplative and more gentle appearance. By the 17th century, the Russians had made significant changes to the style and intent of the art form.

During the 13th century, Kievan Rus had collapsed under the invasion of the Mongols. Because of the constant threat of raids by the Tartars, the merchant city of Novgorod, far to the north of Kiev, became Russia’s cultural center for the next three centuries. The icons produced there—using long-established iconographic schemes, transparent, brilliant colors, a striving for naturalism and an avoidance of exaggerated formality—pictured the patron saints of fields, forests, herds and commerce.

By the second half of the 15th century, Czar Ivan III ruled and Moscow once again became the center of the Russian empire causing the Moscow School of painting to become as important as the capital.

Devotional icons commissioned by an individual or household tended to be more elaborately decorated than church icons. Often these works featured a saint that held particular relevance to the family.

In Moscow, wealthy Moscovites demanded smaller icons to use in their small private chapels. They could afford to own personal icons, so it became popular for them to place an icon in the far right-hand corner of each bed in their homes. Icons came to be regarded as intimate friends of the family, and this change resulted in a simpler designs.

The Novgorod and Moscow Schools

At first the main difference between the Novgorod and Moscow Schools was one of mood. But Moscow’s icon painters, who had been previously concerned with the emotional and spiritual content of their paintings, began to strive for specific pictorial quality. Thus, Moscow icons tend to be more pleasing and decorative, if less intense and spiritual, than those of the Novgorod School.

For instance, the arrangement of subjects within an icon could take the form of a view from above, which eliminates overlapping and so enables viewers to recognize all persons and objects depicted. Thus, the faithful are somehow drawn into the icon and enter a kind of dialogue with it.

Another compositional scheme made use of what’s called relative or “ranking” perspective, in which the most important figures appeared larger in the foreground and the least important ones smaller in the background. Iconographers not only worked out the proportions of a figure’s head and face but also its body.

Originally, iconographers produced icons for use in churches and for carrying in processions, the latter type generally painted on both sides of the board. These early icons were large, but with the introduction of the iconostasis or icon stand by the Russians in the 14th century, they became smaller.

The iconostasis served both as a screen separating the body of the church from the apses in which the altar stood. From its inception, tradition defined the place of an icon on an iconostasis–the icons in the main or first row always being larger than the others.

Collecting Russian Icons

By the 1830s, interest in both Byzantine and Russian icons had become common. Wealthy merchants began to collect icons for their artistic merit, forming collecting societies and causing the prices of old icons to rise substantially.

Of course, interest in collecting any art object brings out the enterprising spirit. In the 1880s, a photographer persuaded the religious authorities of the Caucasus, where many ancient monasteries survived, to allow him to replace the worn and dirty icons preserved in their churches with shiny, new ones. In doing so, he acquired some early works which he then sold for high prices. The authorities in St. Petersburg promptly stopped him, but his dealings had a stimulating effect on the religious art market, so icon collecting began in earnest.

Creating an Religious Icon
Unlike the medieval painters in the West, icon painters very rarely used contemporary models for sacred personages. Each of their saints had distinct, individual features, which had become standardized through the centuries. In the 17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church extended this concept to the icon portraits of persons who hadn’t been canonized.

Preparing a board for the painting of an icon was complicated. To begin with, the surface of the panel had to be smoothed and its back had to be strengthened by the insertion of wedges into specially cut slats. Then the front of the board had to be covered with a layer of gesso, which to some extent corresponded to the plaster surface of a wall. Some iconographers covered this with a layer of canvas, which they rubbed into the gesso and then overlaid it with another thin layer of gesso. When the gesso had hardened, it had to be polished to form a smooth, shiny surface onto which the icon painters sketched in the outline of the picture in red paint. These outlines kept very close to tradition as laid down in a body of tracings called Podliniki or “Authorised Versions,” assembled into manuals for the use by the painters.

Next painters applied the background, usually choosing golf leaf, though the Moscow painters often preferred silver or red, while the Novgorod painters favored a white ground. Only when the background had dried could the painter execute the actual scene, doing so with colors which he diluted with egg yolk to give them brilliance and opacity.

Red was a favorite color of the icon painters of Novgorod and Northern Russia. The painters of the Novgorod School favored bright, direct light rather than the subdued, indirect light of the Byzantine painters. Today, this marks the distinct difference between icons of the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches.

Colors of Icons
Traditionally, Russian iconographers painted their icons in layers. They first applied a dark brown background color as the first layer, upon which they painted the saint’s features in a reddish ochre and light brown with light areas and highlights completed in an ochre mixed with white lead. Highlights on an icon weren’t depictions of gleams of light, invoked to create the illusion of rounded form, but a strict system that invoked the symbolic incarnation of the emanation of divine energy, which poured into the world, giving it life and meaning.

They also emphasized the saint’s eyes with a deep shaded orbit and a shining point in the center and thick eyebrows, lashes, and eyelids. They didn’t use an shades of gray as they fell between black and white, or good and evil. Russian iconographers considered gray a color of uncertainty and emptiness.

The Lack of Depth in Icon Painting
Characteristically, icons depicted only the bust of the saint facing the worshiper. This convention is identical to Ancient Egyptian funerary portraiture. Any clothing on display would suggest the saint’s calling in life, especially if they had been a member of clergy.

Russian iconography was also subject to “The Canon,” which ensured consistency among iconographic images. Often, painters would use a tracing tool and guidebooks with detailed descriptions of each saint. As such, even small details like the shape of their beard or clothing color helped viewers to interpret the image. Hands raised in blessing or in prayer were often popular poses and imbued the paintings with further religious undertones.

Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other Heavenly figures would often be depicted with a circular halo, which was considered the most divine form.

The Use of Revêtements
Influenced by Greek art, Russian iconographers began to cover their figures with plates of silver and gold to create the relief of fabrics as early as the 14th century. This technique, known as Revêtement, featured areas of uncovered skin and hair left to show through holes in the metal, which would often be worked with a technique called repoussé niello, or inlaid designs filled with a black mixture usually made from copper or sulfur.

Icon Motifs
Also, the faces painted by the Russians have a somewhat more natural oval and a less stern expression than the Greek ones. The skin tones are usually ochre-colored, while the modeling was produced by using paler tones of the same shade to pick out the highlights, which often took the form of two tiny, white, parallel strokes. The bodies are stockier and less elegant, with a flatter look about them, due to the absence of the modeling which is characteristic of Byzantine art. On the other hand, Byzantine outlines are more definite, more linear and more succinct, and the impact they make is sharper because of the elimination of unessential details. Generally, the subjects of Russian icons fit into their frame and have a well-proportioned background.

Novgorodian icon painters interpreted other themes and motifs, including the motif of the wide-open eyes and treating the face, the hair and the beard, as well as the highlights, distinctly in the manner of a draftsman. Another motif is the peculiar pointed beard, often called a “moist” beard because it looks as if the Christ just stepped out of the bath. Also, Novgorod icons had one special feature in common with Western religious art: the painters often depicted scenes from the history of their city and from contemporary life.

Simon Ushakov, a contemporary of Rembrandt, was the last great master of Russian icon painting. Traditionalists favored icons with their two-dimensional style. Ushakov, on the other hand, sought to produce the illusion of real space and of fully rounded figures. He achieved ultimate perfection in suggesting plastic form by means of light and shade in the field of tempera painting.

Another feature of the icons painted by followers of Ushakov is the introduction of landscape into their images. In Western art, landscapes first appeared about 1400 as a motif derived from the Song of Solomon. This motif soon became popular, and the painters of the Czar’s workshop adopted it. An icon by Nikita Pavlovets shows the Virgin arrayed in gorgeous robes, holding the crowned Child, while Angels are placing a crown on her own head–yet another motif adopted from Western Madonna paintings. Though she’s painted in flat areas, the ground behind her is shown in central perspective, like a view of a contemporary garden.

The icons produced by painters attached to the Czar’s Armory inspired many other workshops, both elsewhere in Moscow and particularly in the so-called painters' villages of Khalui and Palekh. Multi-figured compositions, which had been introduced as early as the 16th century, now served to expand the artist's imagination.

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