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

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Steppe / Степь

Steppe / Степь

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
Russia Rules

Russia Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955