Get to Know the History of Russian Icons

Icon (Greek for ‘image’) are a work of art with religious influence, most commonly in the form of painting and with Orthodox Christianism influences. The most common subject for this art is the Virgin Mary, Christ, and Angels, with the painting done on various surfaces such as wood, metal, walls, stone, paper, or even glass in the form of mozaic. Traditions of creating icons among Christian cultures around the world can be traced back to the 3rd century, although the first icon painter, Luke The Evangelist, came from the 8th century.

History of Russian Icon

Icons came into the lands of Russia the moment it embraced Orthodox Christianity, and at first there were rigid rules to the colorful art. The art follows a set of limitations and rules created by the Byzantine Empire (It is said that the reason Orthodox Christianity is embraced in Russia is due to the potential alliance with Byzantine). As a result, the painting mostly depicts an elongated holy figure with odd placements of limbs.

Time passes, and the style developed into an art form not seen in other parts of the world before then. At this time, icons became a popular item, and many nobles would commission an icon for private use (writing the names of their family members around it). The icons would be filigreed or enameled with metal in a practice known as ‘riza’, then be decorated with artificial, semiprecious, or even precious gems depending on the commissioner’s wealth. Golden leaves would be used as crowns, while silver leaves and cloth became the base for the paint when a metallic/glow effect is needed. At that time, pair of icons depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus were a popular wedding present.

In spite of the variety of icons, the Virgin Mary icon was the most popular and believed to have a spiritual or even miraculous power. Not even Christ icons have this treatment. The Virgin Mary icons were often copies of other icons that are widely known such as a picture of her cradling the baby Christ such “Melter of Hard Hearts”, “The Seven Swords”, and “Vilna”. Others chose to depict Mary before the birth of Christ, and thus omitted the child. Many icon painters dedicated their work to God, and were not allowed to seek glory or recognition with their art. As a result, no one knows their names with the exception of select few local historians.

The reign of Soviet Russia destroyed, smuggled or sold many of the paintings as the reign promotes atheism, not allowing all religious artifacts to exist within the lands and, as a consequence, erasing a chunk of Russia’s history. At this time, some painters from Palekh and Mystora turned their focus to lacquerware, painting pots, vases, cups, and teapots, creating paintings based of fairy tales on the crafts and leaving all religion-related painting behind.

When the Soviet reign ended, the artifacts are once again allowed to be seen by public eyes. Museums dedicated to icons were reopened, and studios offering icon painting services are painting once again in a variety of services. The hidden and smuggled icons were brought back.

In the late 19th and 20th century, icons entered a period of decline with the increasing availability of printing machines. The machines enable people to print paper icons in large quantities, rendering all handmade paper icons obsolete. This period can also be seen as a dark period of icons, as forgeries of old icons are made most frequently by master painters looking for quick money. The paintings are still made in high quality, but the usage of dark colors and the artificial aging of the piece made it worthless as a historical and religious artifact and only worth its use as a decoration.

At present, the icons have received a lot of influence from the globalization era, and as such, the style changed to reflect a tinge of contemporary style. Some are sold as new icons painted in the old (but still with a ‘feeling’ of contemporary style), some were sold as artificially aged painting, and some are outright fakes (but beautiful nonetheless) sold to the unsuspecting old believers and collectors. Overall, there is little change of style from the past, with the exception of some influences here and there.

For more articles relating to Christianity in Russia, check out History of Christmas and Christmas Traditions in Russia. For articles related to Russian Culture, check out History of Russian Ballet, History of Russian Circus, and History of Russian Samovar

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