Russian icons: a forgotten aspect of religious art history

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Icons were artworks meant to teach followers that could not read scriptures about Christianity and the rewards of faith in Jesus Christ. Icons have become a significant part of art history, and icon painters and schools of icon painters, have become recognized and held in high regards. Through various scholarly journal articles about Russian icons will be looked at closely. How Russian icons are created, painted and style will be looked at. This paper will prove the lack of information and knowledge about Russian icons within the art history world. Various articles discussing Russian art, style and genre will be used to support the claim. The connection to significant art styles and the similarities between Russian icons and other icons of the time period will be discovered.

When Russian icons are spoken of in an art history context the roots of Russian art comes into question. The most commonly stated opinion is that Russian art is in the style of the Byzantine tradition. This tradition of art did not begin until the Christianization of Russia in the end 10th century. Before this time the art of Russia was pagan and rustic in nature. The styles of art in Russia did not progress at the same pace as the rest of the art world, Europe in particular. While the rest of the European art world was progressing from Byzantine to medieval and medieval to Gothic, Russia remained in Byzantine style. Nor did Russian art experience the same transitions and periods as European art. Art in Russia never experience the Gothic movement. While most art historians agree that Russian art is a “transplanted branch of Byzantine”1 there is much debate over other possible influences and origins. Byzantine art has roots in Oriental and Hellenic art styles. Paul Muratov believes that the human figures in Russian icons are based on a Romano- Hellenic style and the architectural elements seen in paintings are that of a Greek and Roman influence and era.2 Theodor Schmit believes that the 12th and 13th centuries are of a Byzantine- Romanesque influence and the 14th and 15th centuries had a late Byzantine Palaeologian influence.3 While Avinoff agrees with the Byzantine style, he believes that it is more Byzantine- Hellenism. He also speaks of a period in Russian icons that he directly attributes to an oriental influence. These opinions are not uncommon and appear in almost every article used for this research. The roots vary little from author to author but there is very little speculation as to why this is the only influence or how it fits into the realm of Byzantine art. Many of the authors believe that Russian were an imitative people, adapting to the style of others. Schmit agrees but goes a little further, to actually discuss the history of Russia. He discusses the patterns of invasions and infiltration of other populations and cultures into Russia.4 He believes that this also has an influence on not only Russian culture, but Russian art.

Theodor Schmit’s article is probably the only article that discusses in depth Russian history, its affects on Russian art and the subtle difference in the 13th and 15th century icons. He also may be the only author to actually discuss how Russian icons are and should be compared to other art styles and periods. The history of Russia plays a pivotal role in shaping the art produced. Art from all periods of time reflect many aspects of a culture and its people. It can reflect social standing, political messages, and even religious beliefs. Most art had a purpose beyond being aesthetically pleasing or intriguing. So what does the long lasting style of Byzantine art say about Russia? How did the art reflect the social and political changes that were taking place? Even religious art, like icons can make a statement of social and political issues.

One must understand the importance of the icon. It began with Christ himself. He created the first icon, not made by man. The icon became the standard form of depiction of a religious figure. In some of these articles the standard form of creating an icon and the importance of the icons is discussed. Vera Beaver- Bricken Espinola’s article, Russian Icons: Spiritual and Material Aspects, and Margaret E. Kenna’s article Icons in Theory and Practice: An Orthodox Christian Example, give important information on the construction of icons. The type of wood and adhesive used for creating the panel, the correct type of paint used and how it is made are just a few of the important details that are included in these articles. These are key elements for any research done in icons. Any and every Christian icon for thousands of years has been created in the same manner. Yet Russian icons were unique. Nikolay Andreyev points out that in the 15th and 16th centuries Russian icons had important advancements in composition and techniques.5 There is little else mentioned about the unique advancements of Russian icons. How do these unique advancements set Russian icons apart from other icons of the period? Why haven’t these unique techniques brought Russian icons to the forefront of research? This is an area that could be useful and important in the research and advancement in knowledge of Russian icons within the context of Art History. So if there is very little mention of these advancements and only vague mentions of the connection between the history of the country and the history of its icons, what is discussed when Russian icons are examined?

The exhibition of Russian icons has over the years become more popular. Yet much knowledge about the subject is still lacking. As early as 1931 this thought was brought to light by M.S. Dimand, “the exhibition of Russian icons in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has aroused wide interest, not only among artists but also among the general public. They represent an art which has been hitherto very little or not known at all in America.”6 From an extensive collection viewed in the early 20th century, Andrey Avinoff states, “a branch of art that is so imperfectly known to historians, painters and the general public outside of Russia and so scantily and fragmentarily represented in the museums of the western world.”7 Yet another exhibit of Russian icons leads the author David Talbot Rice to discuss the “Russianism” that can be found in icons. He also mentions a unique trait, realism, one that he claims in neither, Byzantine or Greek.8 David Talbot Rice goes even further with the thought of “Russianism” and Byzantine styles. He is the only author to compare the two, to find the where they are alike and derive from one another; he is also the only author to find the subtle differences between the two. He is showing the reader that there is a difference in Russian icons. While it is true that they did derive from Byzantine style, there are factors that make Russian icons unique and important to the study of religious artworks.

A unique aspect of Russian icons is how even in present day, icons and the icon painter, Andrey Rublev has become the national symbol of the people. Andrey Rublev’s style has come out of Greek and Byzantine influence to develop into the nationalism of Russia. The people of Russia adopted the style of Andrey Rublev and have hung on to it longer than any style in Russian art. Andrey Rublev is an important factor to the development and history of Russian icons.

With all this information provided by the articles about Russian icons there is still so much missing. While it has been discovered (and mostly agreed upon) that Russian icons developed out of the Byzantine style, there are those that believe there is more influences to be examined. It is little mentioned how Russian peasant art may have influenced icons. What of the Hellenic influences that proceeded Byzantine style, yet remained after Byzantine style, or the influences of Greek and Oriental art? How did Russia’s history of invasions and various cultures intermingling play a role in the art traditions? Why have Russian icons been of so little interest or knowledge in America? There are many examples of Russian icons in the United States, The Museum of Russian Icons is a private collection of icons belonging to the museum’s owner, the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and the Flint Institute of Arts has a Russian icon from the 19th century. There are various articles and books written specifically about Russian icons, so why do we have little knowledge of this subject? Why do we not teach about this subject? There are entire classes dedicated to Byzantine art and architecture, yet there is no mention of Russian icons. If they are truly of Byzantine influence and style why they are not included in Byzantine art history classes?

Religious Mysticism and Social Realism: The Soviet Union pays homage to the Icon Painter Andrey Rublev

In this article the author proposes the question of Russian culture, what is it exactly and what is known about it. To find the answers to these questions he looks back to probably the most influential Russian icon painter, Andrey Rublev. Rublev’s influence from the Byzantine-Greek icon painter Theophanes and his knowledge learned from Theophanes is discussed. Rublev’s style develops out of Byzantine and becomes its own, it becomes the national spirit of the Russian people. With this information the author not only questions Rublev’s role in modern communist Russia but he also questions the lack of Rublev’s role in art history.

The Development of Painting in Russia

In this article the author brings forth the issue of Russian art history and how it is unfamiliar to many art historians. In fact the author states that it is never given the attention that is received by other arts. Why is this? The author discusses the fact that Russian art is often referred to as anything but Russian art. He explores the roots of art throughout Russia’s history, the different time periods and art styles. He also looks at the people of these time periods to see if there is any correlation between Russian art and Russian people. He attempts to dispute the most commonly assumed notion that Russian art is not a style of its but that it is Byzantine art.

The Traditionalism of Ancient Russian Art

The author of this article discusses the tradition of painting in Russia from as early as the third century to as late as the seventeenth century. The different influences on Russian art are discussed. The influence of Byzantine on Russian art is an occurring point throughout the article. The author claims that Russian art is a branch of Byzantine art, Hellenism. The author looks specifically at icons to illustrate influences on Russian art and to see the elements of the rustic peasant art often associated with Russian art.

Exhibitions of Russian Icons

This is a short article reviewing an exhibition of Russian icons that were shown in the United States. The author mentions like many others the Byzantine art tradition seen in the icons, but also comments on the purpose of the icons, to create a religious fervor within the viewer. Specific details of Russian icons are commented on, also the differences between the icons of different centuries and the different artists.

A Loan Exhibition of Russian Icons

This is a short article about an exhibition of Russian icons. The author indicates the selection of scenes and artists featured in this collection. The collection includes famous icon painters such as Rublev and Dionysius. The author makes a key statement within the article. It is mentioned that within this collection are artistic treasures that any art historian or human being should have and do not have knowledge of. The research that could and should be done on this topic is also an important statement made by the author.

Russian Icons: Spiritual and Material Aspect

In this article the author what an icon is, where it originates from and how it was introduced into Russian culture. She describes the uses of icons in Russian culture, i.e. religion. She also describes the proper production of icons, what wood is used, how the pattern is laid, how the paint is applied and more. She discusses various types of icons and finishes the article with the various uses and conservation of icons by the church, museum, and collector.

Icons in Theory and Practice: An Orthodox Christian Example

In this article the icon is discussed in great detail. The author goes into discusses the construction of the icon and how it relates to all elements of the earth created by the creator. The icon is discussed in regards to its Greek origins and Byzantium as the capitol of the Greek and Christian empire. The author goes further to discuss the icon in the Byzantine style. The importance of light and color in regards to the human form, how certain colors are used to depict certain saints and apostles, even how certain figures are to be positioned within an icon. The perspective of an icon is discussed also. The use of icons in churches, chapels, and homes is examined also.

Icons in Liturgy

In this article the author discusses icons in the context of the liturgy. The author looks at specific examples within churches and monasteries. These examples are discussed in the context of the liturgical ceremony. It is examined whether these icons are a part of the ceremony or pieces of art for individual worship.

Rice, David Talbot, “Russian Icons at Burlington House,”

The Burlington Magazine 101, no.671 (1959) 44-42, (accessed 13/10/09).

In this article the author discusses specific examples of Russian icons that were on display at the Burlington House. Russian icons are discussed in comparison to Byzantine and Greek icons. It is mentioned in the article how Russian icons are related to Byzantine icons yet have a style of their own. The main schools of Russian painting are discussed. The author talks of the main artists of Russian icons and their styles, the subtleties that set them apart from other icons of the time period.

Espinola, Vera Beaver-Bricken, “Russian Icons: Spiritual and Material Aspects,”

Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 31, no.1 (1992) 17-22, (accessed 10/10/09).

In this article the author discusses icons. The author goes into detail about the construction of the icon, which type of wood to use, and which type of glue to adhere the panels together. The process of creating the image on the panels and the proper colors used are discussed. Various types of icons are mentioned also. Finally the author discusses the conservation and uses of the icons by the church, collector and museums.

Andreyev, Nikolay, “Pagan and Christian Elements in Old Russia,”

Slavic Review 21, no. 1 (1962) 16-23, (accessed 28/20/09).

In the article the author discusses the history of Russia. It talks of Russia’s origins in religion. The author shows how the influence of Christianity started in Russia and the events that led it to spread throughout the country. It is discussed how the influences of Christianity were heavily founded in a community of art and religion. The author goes as far as to say that the representation of this time in history can be found in the Russian icon painter Andre Rublev.


Andreyev, Nikolay, “Pagan and Christian Elements in Old Russia,” Slavic Review March 1962

Avinoff, A., “A Loan Exhibition of Russian Icons,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin April 1944

Dimand M.S., “Exhibition of Russian Icons,” Parnassus February 1931

Espinola, Vera Beaver- Bricken, “Spiritual and Material Aspects,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 1991-1992

Kenna, Margaret E., “Icons in Theory and Practice: An Orthodox Christian Example,” History of Religions May 1985

Lasareff, Viktor, “ Studies in the Iconography of the Virgin,” The Art Bulletin March 1938

Muratov, Paul, “Traditionalism of Ancient Russian Art,” The Slavonic and East European Review December 1929

Rice, David Talbot, “Russian Icons at Burlington House,” The Burlington Magazine February 1959

Schmit, Theodor, “The Development of Painting in Russia,” Parnassus May 1929,

Sevcenko, Nancy Patterson, “Icons in Liturgy,” Dumbarton Oaks Paper 1991

Teholiz, Leo, “Religious Mysticism and Social Realism: The Soviet Union pays homage to the Icon Painter Andrey Rublev,” The Art Journal 1961-1962

1 Muratov, P. The Slavonic and East European Review 259 1929

2 Muratov, P. The Slavonic and East European Review 260 1929

3 Schmit, T. Parnassus 32 1929

4 Schmit, T. Parnassus 33 1929

5 Andreyev, N. Slavic Review 22 1962

6 Dimand, M.S. Parnassus 35 1931

7 Avinoff, A. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 227 1944

8 Rice, D.T The Burlington Magazine 44 1959

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