January 15, 2001

Russian Icons

Russian Icons

In the first centuries of the Church, the painting and veneration of icons was met with controversy known as the Iconoclasm. An icon is a painting or mosaic depicting sacred person and/or events. Sacred persons includes individuals from the Bible and Saints of the Church. Icons are generally associated with the Eastern or Orthodox Churches. Despite opposition, the popularity of icons, among the faithful, grew. This growth was primarily in the eastern reaches of the Roman Empire. By the 7th century, the veneration of icons had turned into a cultic style of worship.

The Byzantine emperor officially banned icons in 730. Icon worshippers were brutally persecuted during the reigns of Leo III and his successor, Constantine V {741-775}. This period is known as the Iconoclasm and those who opposed icons were called Iconoclasts. In 787, Byzantine empress, Irene, covened the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church at Nicaea. One of the products of this Council was the reinstatement, of icons, with strict guidelines as to their use. However, the Iconoclasts gained prominence, again, in 814. This second Iconoclasm ended in 843 when icon veneration was, once and for all, returned to the Church.

The SaintsIcons serve as inspiration and a method by which to teach Biblical truths and Church doctrine to the faithful. They are representations of sacred people and events. To say one worships the icon, itself, is not entirely accurate. The icon is holy because of what it portrays. The worship is of that sacred person; such as Christ, the Mother of God, etc. The Eastern Church believes that, since God came among humanity in human, material form, the creating of sacred images is quite appropriate. While icons are works of art, they are not intended to be mere decoration as other paintings would be.

We have already learned that Christianity was introduced to Russia, at Kiev Rus, in 988. The tradition brought to the region, by Vladimir I, was Byzantine. The Rus were very enthusiastic about their new found faith. Their rulers imported everything they could from Constantinople. They seems particularly interested in the Holy Icons of the Church and began creating their own as early as the 11th century.

Novgorod is of particular interest in regards to the creation of icons. The city is one of the oldest in Russia and was once the center of power. Novgorod has been bitterly fought over and defended for centuries. In the 11-1200's, it struggled against constant sieges from the princes of Suzdal. Later, Novgorod fought against Moscow with help from Lithuania. Eventually, the city was forced to bow to the supremacy of Moscow in 1478. Ivan IV, the Terrible, slaughtered and deported those Novgorodians who resisted Moscow {1570}.

In the midst of all this turmoil, a thriving school of icon and mural painting sprang up in Novgorod. The Novgorod School flourished from the 12th to 16th centuries. It taught Byzantine icon style and gradually developed its own, unique form of expression. The Novgorodian style formed the basis for future Russian art in Moscow.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Byzantine style of iconography was prevalent in Novgorod. Frescos were the primary medium during this period. Soon, the artists of Novgorod adopted a method that combined the Byzantine's characteristic severity with a less formal approach of gentleness and familiarity in the faces and postures of the images. Byzantine faces are known for their deep, soul Dormition of the Theotokos; 13th c.searching gaze which provokes to view to gaze right back. The Novgorodian style softened this feature to create a face that was contemplative.

The Mongols threatened Novgorod in the 13th century. As a result, the production of icons came to a virtual standstill. By the 14th century, the threat has subsided. This brought with it a new form of iconographic expression; the Iconostasis. The Iconostasis is a screen or partition which separates the sanctuary from the nave in the Eastern Church. It is, literally, an icon stand or panel. The typical iconostasis is four tiers or levels high and supports icons of Christ, the Mother of God, a variety of Saints, the Apostles and the Twelve Feasts of the Church with the Lord's Supper in the center. The bottom tier contains three doors; the Royal Doors in the center are used by the priest, the Deacon's Door to the right leads to the sacristy and the Server's Door to the left is used by the altar servers.

Center view of the Iconostasis at the Iconostasis; Church on the Blood, St. Petersburg, RussiaThe Iconostasis was an iconographers dream. While each icon contained its own special spiritual importance, the entire group had to have continuity of line and color. Like the Bible; which is a book of many books; the Iconostasis was and is a painting of many paintings.

Iconography at Novgorod continued to flourish throughout the 15th and into the early 16th centuries. This was possibly the most joyful period at the Novgorod School. Christianity and religious freedom was widely supported in Russia. Many more monasteries and some of the greatest examples of Russian architecture, in the form of great cathedrals, appeared during this time. The icons of Novgorod reflect his joy.

A number of Greek iconographers traveled to Novgorod towards the end of the 14th century. Theophanes the Greek, a Byzantine immigrant, had the greatest influence on Novgorodian iconography and, as a result, Russian art. He had a great talent for portraying the human form and introduced a softer, more subtle use of colors. Sadly, the Novgorod School came to an end in 1547. A fire forced the artists to move to Moscow, something they had resisted for several decades.


Icons courtesy of Novgorod Icon Gallery

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