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Enameled Brass Orthodox Cross.From icons and onion domes to suprematism and the Stalin baroque, Russian art and architecture seems to many visitors to Russia to be a rather baffling array of exotic forms and alien sensibilities. In fact, Russian art and architecture are not nearly so difficult to understand as many people think, and knowing even a little bit about why they look the way they do and what they mean brings to life the culture and personality of the entire country.

In old Russia nearly every phase of life was colored by religion. Every day in the calendar was dedicated to the observation of some saint. Every individual and every trade had their patron saints. A distinctly Russian form of representing saints and religious themes is the icon.

Russian Icon.

A bit of a History

ussia's unique and vibrant culture developed, as did the country itself, from a complicated interplay of native Slavic cultural material and borrowings from a wide variety of foreign cultures. In the Kievan period (c. 10th–13th centuries) the borrowings were primarily from Eastern Orthodox Byzantine culture. During the Muscovite period (c. 14th–17th centuries) the Slavic and Byzantine cultural substrates were enriched and modified by Asiatic influences carried by the Mongol hordes. Finally, in the modern period (since the 18th century) the cultural heritage of western Europe was added to the Russian melting pot.

Although many traces of the Slavic culture that existed in the territories of Kievan Rus survived beyond its Christianization (which occurred, according to The Russian Primary Chronicle, in AD 988), the cultural system that organized the lives of the early Slavs is far from being understood. From the 10th century on, however, enough material has survived to give a reasonable portrait of Old Russian cultural life. High culture in Kievan Rus was primarily ecclesiastical. The level of literacy was low, and artistic composition was undertaken almost exclusively by monks. The earliest literary works to have circulated were translations from Greek into Old Church Slavonic.

Unlike the pictorial tradition that westerners have become accustomed to, the Russian icon tradition is not about the representation of physical space or appearance.

Icon of The Virgin "Tenderness". Celebration days 28.VII - 10.VIII .Icons are images intended to aid contemplative prayer, and in that sense they're more concerned with conveying meditative harmony than with laying out a realistic scene.

Rather than sizing up the figure in an icon by judging its distortion level, take a look at the way the lines that compose the figure are arranged and balanced, the way they move your eye around. If you get the sense that the figures are a little haunting, that's good.

They weren't painted to be charming but to inspire reflection and self-examination. If you feel as if you have to stand and appreciate every icon you see, you aren't going to enjoy any of them. Try instead to take a little more time with just one or two, not examining their every detail but simply enjoying a few moments of thought as your eye takes its own course.

Silver-mounted triptych icon A silver-mounted triptych icon painted with the Virgin Mary within a seed pearl border flanked by St. Sophia (left) and St. Mathew (right).

Andrey Rublyov Museum

Movie poster During the 14th century in particular, icon painting in Russia took on a much greater degree of subjectivity and personal expression. The most notable figure in this change was Andrey Rublyov, whose works can be viewed in both the Andret Rublyouv Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, as well as the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

Named after the 14th century Russian monk and legendary icon painter, the Andrey Rublyov Museum boasts the best collection of works by the artist and houses permanent exhibitions of icons of the Moscow School from the 15th and 16th centuries, sculptures from the 12th to the 17th centuries and various religious frescoes.

Andrey Rublyov Museum in Moscow. Little is known of Rublyov's life but it is thought that he was born about 1360 and worked as an assistant to another great icon painter, Theophanes the Greek, who came to Russia from Constantinople. Fairly late in life, Rublyov became a monk, first at the Trinity St. Sergius Monastery in Sergiyev Posad and then at the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow.

Andrey Rublyov. The Old Testament Trinity (three Angels Visiting Abraham), icon. 1410-20. Tempera on panel (Detail).Russian painters did not sign their works until the 17th century, so paintings can only be assigned to Rublyov on the basis of written evidence or of style. Extensive written evidence has linked the medieval painter with wall paintings in Vladimir as well as those at the Andronikov and other monasteries in Moscow.

Russian Icon "Mary in Red".A large number of icons have also been attributed to him, many of which are housed in the museum or on display at the Tretyakov Gallery. Rublyov was trained wholly in the Byzantine tradition, in which the spiritual essence of art was regarded as more important than naturalistic representation.

Travel Icon.

y the 14th century, this style had given way to a more intimate, humanistic approach, and to this Rublyov was able to add an element that was truly Russian, a complete unworldliness, and it is this that distinguishes his work from that of his Byzantine predecessors.

The Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation , 1750 AD to 1900 AD .The museum holds regular temporary exhibitions of icons and religious works and is housed in the former Andronikov Monastery, which was originally founded in 1360 by the then Metropolitan of Moscow, Alexei. Excursions round the museum include a look inside the monastery's working Spassky Cathedral, thought to be the oldest building in Moscow and still bearing traces of murals believed to have been painted by Rublyov himself.

Click here to see more of Rublyov's icons.

Resurrection of Christ,  Circa 1891.


The best collections of icons are to be found in the Tretyakov Gallery (official website, russian only) and the Russian Museum (official website), though of course many Russian churches have preserved or restored their traditional works.

Article about "Religion in the Former Soviet Republics".

If you wish to purchaise Russian Icons or some other quality Russian gifts and collectibles please visit the Russian Store website.

Russian Orthodox Icon Painted on wood, icons are known to the Russians as "obraz", but we know them better by the term icon, which comes from the Greek word for picture or likeness, "eikonoi". The painting of icons is the most distinctive art form of old Russia, and Russian icons are the most varied and beautiful of all.

Until recently, there was not much interest in icons. Even in Russia, where they were common, icons were taken for granted. But today old Russian icons are recognized as works of art by art historians and collectors alike.

Russian Icon. "The Story of Peotr and Fevronia "

Collectors of icons should remember that the best and most valuable icons are to be found in Soviet and European museums. A great many, of course, have found their way to America and private collectors. From time to time, early and rare icons are offered for sale by prestigious auction galleries and normally bring very high prices. Also, icons a century or two old are still found occasionally in some better known antique shops. Russian Icon.But the majority of icons offered today are often of inferior quality. The collector must be careful because a number of known fakes turn up in the market now and then. When purchasing an icon it is best to enlist help from a reputable expert.

Icon painting in Russia, as elsewhere, has followed traditional canons. As a consequence, icons can be so like one another that at times it is scarcely possible to distinguish between them. This is why icons representing the same subject, although they were painted centuries apart, can be so similar.

Icon of the Virgin Mary.One must keep in mind that the forms of the Russian icon remain unchanged through the centuries.

cons are naturally divided according to subject into two main groups; painted icons which simply depict holy personages and icons which depict scenes from the Scriptures or events from the lives of the saints. Icons from the latter category serve a didactic purpose. They have served, so to say, as an attractive and effective teaching tool. On the other hand, icons which represent individual saints have been the object of veneration.

The Birth of Christ, 18 th Century icon, Orthodox Style.
The Birth of Christ, 18 th Century icon, Orthodox Style.

In Russian iconography, literally hundreds of themes have been represented.
Images of Christ are numerous, with the type known as 'The Saviour Not Made by Hands' being perhaps the most popular of the Christ representations in old Russia. There are also other representations of Christ including depictions of the events of his life.

The enormous and varied iconography of the Virgin is even more impressive. There are no less than three hundred types, all different. In the Milwaukee Public Museum collection, some better known icons of the Virgin are: 'The Virgin of Vladimir', sometimes referred to as 'the most ancient hymn to motherhood', 'The Virgin of Tykvin', 'The Virgin of Kazan' and 'The Virgin of Shuja'. This profusion of types if also evident in the depiction of the most popular saint of old Russia, St. Nicholas of Myra.

Icon Our Lady of Kazan, late 19th century. The Festivals of the Church was another theme popular with icon painters. Icons of this type were used in sets consisting of twelve or sixteen scenes from the Scriptures. Furthermore, old native Russian saints and numerous icons have preserved their images, including events from their lives.

The old Russian icons are not uniform in quality, all the more so because they were created at various times and in different icon painting centers.

The Virgin of Shuja is an excellent example of a tempera on wood. This icon was painted on a wood panel. In order to prevent warping, diagonal strips of wood were applied on the back. The edges of the panel rise above the picture space from the frame. The colors were mixed with egg yolk and diluted with kvas, a popular Russian drink made from sour bread. The completed painting was given a coat of a special varnish. This varnish at first enhanced the colors, but turned dark and opaque later, producing the contrary effect. The metal frame and halo, in the form of a crown, were added much later.

The Old Testament Trinity. 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD,
The Old Testament Trinity. 19 th Century AD to 20 th Century AD,
Tempera on Wood, Russian Orthodox Style.

In addition to icons painted on wood, there are a number of icons and religious objects made of metal. Most of these icons date from the 19th century. The design is engraved on the metal or the background cut away to leave the figures in relief and then perhaps filled in with white or blue enamel. There is a great variety of these icons including typical Russian crosses made in the same manner.

Emperor Theodosius I, 19 th Century AD , Tempera on panel.A 17th century metal icon mold might continue to be used well into the 20th century. A very attractive brass quaditych, for example, was cast from an old mold in Belgium in the 1950's. This is not unusual. Many modern copies have been made in the old style and sold to unsuspecting people in Russia and Europe. These small brass icons sometimes consist of a single panel, of two or three panels hinged in the form of triptych or occasionally even a larger number of panels. They were carried by individuals for private worship.

In a further departure from classic icons, the 19th century brought many changes. It was a period of decline, commercialism and mechanical reproduction. A number of icon handcraft shops were established in which cheap metal icons were produced. Icons were printed in color on time and became very popular.

The Royal Martyrs, Royal Family of Nicholas II.In another development, enterprising craftsmen took advantage of technical innovations and made metal coverings in factories. These metal coverings, or "riza", were originally applied to icons toward the end of the 17th century. Intended only as a partial covering of silver, gold, or cheaper metal, the riza covers the entire painting except faces, hands and feet. Later craftsmen, however, no longer bother to paint the entire panel of the icon but only those parts of the figures which were to remain visible.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that icons of great charm and value were not produced in the recent past. A number of craftsmen still continued to produce more expensive icons and preserved the integrity of icon painting.

For 70 years, during Soviet era, when religion was forbidden in Russia, icons lost its popularity.

Then came Gorbachev's more general tolerance towards religion and the election of Patriarch Alexy and the Metropolitan Cyril of Smolensk. The revival of religion in Russia and the former Soviet republics brought icons back to the Russian home. Many Russians lately have become avid collectors of old icons. As a matter of fact, icons are in great demand the world over, not necessarily as religious objects but for their intrinsic artistic and historical value.

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