Dear Friends of Art,
In 988, Kievan Rus officially adopted Christianity from Byzantium, though of course it came to Rus much earlier and small communities of Christians existed before the date of 980. Through Christianity Rus took on many cultural traditions of Byzantium, and one of them is icons and the art of icon painting. Today's letter is devoted to the icon painting in old Russia.
Icon painting is so unlike the painting to which modern man is accustomed that some explanations and commentaries are really needed. First of all an icon does not represent what a painter sees around him, but a certain prototype, which the painter has to follow. Icons are representations of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints and worship of an icon stems from reverence for its prototypes. Icons play a part in Church ritual, they are kissed, they are expected to heal and work miracles. Icon painting is to a certain degree a ritual art.
The creation of icons was put on a strictly regulated basis by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 787. The decisions of the Nicaea Council were confirmed as the stable foundation for icon painting almost one thousand years later, at the Council of the Hundred Chapters held in Russia.
Thus icon painting has its traditional canons, which must be implicitly obeyed, and in consequence icons are so like one another that at times it is scarcely possible to distinguish between them. Nor is it always easy to determine their date just by looking at them. Some icons were considered not to have been created by human agency but to be of supernatural origin. Legends about their miraculous appearance on earth were recorded in chronicles side by side with information about the most important events in the life of the people.
The artist was considered to have a duty to follow the examples gathered
in the so-called podlinniki (manuals) and only the choice of colors was
at his discretion. In everything else he was supposed to be governed by
the traditional canons.
But even within the context of traditional biblical subjects, and with all due respect for tradition, painters were always able to add something of their own, to enrich and give a fresh interpretation to the ancient canons and to create something new.
Some features of early Russian painting can be explained by its Byzantine origin. The first icons were brought to Rus from Constantinople, while the first masters of icon painting who worked in the country were Greek. Byzantine icon painting is distinguished by the finesse of its technique. In some respects it bears the imprint of royal splendor, in others of monastic austerity. It was through the Byzantines that Russian icon painters came to know the great, early Greek tradition, and to follow it.
The holiest treasure to Russians is the icon of The Vladimir Virgin. It came to Rus from Byzantium in early 12th century and is believed to be one of three images of the Virgin painted by St. Luke himself. This type of icon – Mother and Child embracing and kissing each other – appealed most of all to the Russians and is one of the most popular types of icons there, the composition being repeated thousands times through the ages. e.g. The Don Virgin by Theophanes the Greek. You can find other examples in the section of Russian Icons.
But however strong and fruitful the influence of Byzantine icon painting might be on the icon painting of Medieval Rus it did not rule out certain differences between them. These distinctions can be traced even in the earliest period. Archangel Gabriel, icon from Cyprus, is in fact, despite the spirituality of the Archangel's face, a flesh-and-blood portrait, similar to those of late antiquity. The Archangel in the Russian icon Archangel Michael from Novgorod presents a more traditionally icon-like countenance devoid of any earthliness, more elevated and idealized. On the Byzantine icon the face is sterner, while the Novgorodian one has a gentler expression. On the Novgorodian icon conventions of icon painting are clearly expressed in the angular folds of the cloths.
The two icons of St. John the Baptist offer still stronger grounds for speaking of the differences between the two schools. In both cases St. John the Baptist is an austere ascetic, a hermit represented with bowed head and sorrowful gaze. Nevertheless, the Russian painter managed to soften the severity of the countenance, giving it an expression of kindness; the features of the face and the outlines of the figure are rounded and flowing, the hair is smoothed down, and the face has some features typical of Rublev's angels.
It's also worthwhile mentioning that the Russian conception of the Last
Judgment differs from that of the Western tradition, which threatens everyone
with all kinds of horrors and all kinds of tortures to sinners. The
Russian tradition states that everyone has hope of transition from earth
life to eternal life in the next world, because of the unlimited mercy
of compassionate Jesus Christ. (That might be, among others, one of the
reasons, that Russians are less disciplined than the Western nations. It's
the strictly personal view of the author).
In the 11th and 12th centuries it was icon painting of a Byzantine character that predominated in Rus; and in the main large icons resembled frescoes. The majestically calm figures were depicted in frontal poses gazing at the viewer. Epic calm reigns in early icons, and towards the end of the 12th century images become more dramatic.
In the 13th and 14th centuries the pre-Mongol traditions were preserved and developed in some works. A new manifestation of this period was the appearance of Russian primitive art. The works of these painters are naïve and even crude, but their spontaneity of expression, bright colors and childlike simplicity, especially in border scenes, are captivating. The enforced break with the pre-Mongol tradition helped the emergence of a national Russian school.
At the end of the 14th century a new wave of Byzantine influences, this time of the epoch of the Paleologues, spread throughout Russia. Its most prominent representative was the great master Theophanes the Greek. His art – passionate, dramatic, wise, austere, at times tragically intense and frequently lofty and splendid – left a deep impression on the Russian public. But the Russian icon proceeded along its own course.
The icon painting of Andrei Rublev and his contemporaries is a phenomenon of the tremendous upsurge of the Moscow school early in the 15th century. Rublev broke away from Theophanes’ dramatic and severe images, in facial expressions and in form and color. Rublev's art is one of the highest peaks in Russian icon painting.
Towards the end of the 15th century a new star, Dionysius, appeared in the Moscow firmament. He was much indebted to his great predecessor, Andrei Rublev, but did not resemble him; this however, does not mean that he was the lesser artist. The art of Dionysius is a mature art, restrained in the expression of feeling, a lofty, contemplative, refined, noble and profoundly human art. Dionysius was a colorist of great delicacy, his colors are gentle, transparent, forming harmonious chords, especially in solemn, stately scenes involving great numbers of characters.
Dionysius exerted perhaps even greater influence on his contemporaries than did Rublev in his time. The poetry of his colors is reflected in the entire art of the first half of the 16th century. The icons of this time acquired a narrative character, but the literary, didactic side did not obscure the visual attractiveness of the images. Some of the sixteenth century icons are a vast abundance of themes, like an entire fresco cycle.
The mid-16th century brought a sharp change. The dogmatic debates over new icons and the affirmation by the Council of the Hundred Chapters of Church control over icon painters put an end to the pious fervor of the painters and at the same time to the heyday of icon painting. The Council upheld Andrei Rublev as an example to be followed but in fact severed the precious thread, which had extended through Russian art since his time.
In the 18th century, under Peter the Great, western art supplanted icon painting in Russia. Although the practice of venerating icons stayed unbroken, icon painting itself declined to a folk art. In the 19th century, the Russian masters, who decorated new churches and cathedrals, used modern painting techniques. The oral tradition that had been passed on by the icon painters, had been all but lost. The second half of the 20th century saw a revival of interest to icons and icon painting. There are many painters at present, not only in Eastern Europe but also in the West, who follow the tradition of old icon masters.
Early Russian Icon Painting. By M.V. Alpatov. Moscow. 1984.
History of Art. By H.W. Janson. Fifth Edition. Harry N. Abrams Inc., NY. 1995.
A History of Byzantine Empire. By F. Uspensky. Moscow. 1996.
A Short History of Byzantium. By John Julius Norwich. NY. 1997.
Bible Illustrated by Icons, Frescos and Paintings by Russian Artists. Belfax. Moscow. 1997.
The Power of Icons: Russian And Greek Icons 15th-19th Century by S. G. Morsink, Phaidra Kalafatis, Eva Haustein-Bartsch. Snoeck Publishers, 2006.
Icon and Devotion : Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia by Oleg Tarasov. Reaktion Books, 2004.
Sacred Doorways: A Beginner's Guide to Icons by Linette Martin. Paraclete Press, 2002.
The Promise of the Kingdom: Russian Icons of the Sixteenth Century by Levon Nersessjan, Paolo Diesis, Paschal Ryan. Pauline Books & Media, 2002.
.The Russian Icon: From Its Origin to the Sixteenth Century by Viktor Nikitich Lazarev, Gerold Ivanovich Vzdornov, Nancy McDarby, Colette Joly Dees. Liturgical Press, 1997.
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