Brief Icon History

Ikona, or Russian icon, derives its name from the Greek eikon, meaning “image.” After the mixture of Greco-Roman and Syrian art that gave birth to icons was modified in Byzantium, that tradition was passed on to Russia when it was converted to Christianity in 988 A.D. The Russians modified it in ways that reflected their own skills and character. The traditional Russian icon is a religious image painted on a prepared, wooden panel. First a cloth is affixed to the face of the panel, then many layers of a primer made of glue and powdered chalk or alabaster are applied over it. When thoroughly dry, a design is incised into the surface. Then painting is begun, using the incised outline as a guide. Tempera paints, powdered colors mixed with egg yolk and a small amount of rye beer, are applied in gradations of shade, with dark colors added first and lighter colors applied over them resulting in a slightly three-dimensional effect.

The finished icon is varnished with a boiled linseed oil mixture that brightens and protects the colors. Over time, however, it darkens and obscures the painting. Some icons have gold leaf added to the background, garments and haloes. Others have silvery metal leaf tinted to appear gold. Some use paint in place of gold leaf. Icons painted in the traditional or “old” style are executed in a nonrealistic, stylized manner intended to reveal the “spiritual” nature of the figures depicted rather than accurate anatomical detail. Background hills and buildings are stylized as well. Everything is abstracted from reality to depict a transfigured, timeless world in which material laws of form and substance are transcended.

There is, however, a second stream of icon painting utilizing elements borrowed from the art of Western Europe. Prior to the 17th century virtually all icons were painted in the old, stylized manner, but in that century great changes took place. Some icons began to depict the influence of Bible engravings and other art imported from the West. In the middle of the century there was a great schism in the Orthodox Church, which split into two major divisions – the conservative Old Believers, who kept the traditional forms and rituals, and the State Church, more open to change and Westernization. As the years passed, State Church icons exhibited increasing realism, and tempera was frequently abandoned in favor of oil paints.

The two streams of Russian iconography, traditional “old style” and Westernized, continued simultaneously into the 20th century. They are not always entirely distinct, and cannot strictly be divided between the State Church and Old Believers. Some icons are a mixture of traditional and Western elements, and some even mix oils and tempera.

The period from the 18th to the early 20th century is very rich in iconographic types and variations. There were sophisticated, finely painted icons for those who could afford them. The poor made do with naïve images that are essentially folk paintings. In both cases, the images were not regarded simply as religious paintings, but as sacred

objects mysteriously linked to the holy figures they depict. Veneration offered to a painted saint on an icon was believed to pass directly to the saint in Heaven. Because of this mysterious link between saint and image, icons were seen as comforters, powerful guardians and helpers that could bring rain, cure disease in cattle, ward off fires from homes and heal all ailments to which humans are subject.

Until recently there has been a prejudice, promoted by the works of earlier scholars, against icons of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. It was felt that they had somehow lost the “purity” of earlier years. Now, however, that period is being reevaluated, and icons produced during it are being seen in their proper historical and iconographic perspective. As a result they are now eagerly sought by collectors.

The period from about 1700 to 1920 is fascinating for many reasons. At the beginning of the 18th century, Peter the Great built St. Petersburg, his “window to the West,” in the delta of the Neva River. Western influence poured into Russia through that and other entry points, and icons, while generally retaining the overall patterns of earlier examples, more and more began exhibiting realistic or Westernized images. At the same time traditional stylistic forms were preserved by the Old Believers and more conservative State Church painters.

The 19th century was a time of great spiritual renewal, exemplified by the Elders of the Optina monastery and by the best known of all Russian spiritual classics, the book known in English as “The Way of a Pilgrim.” Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the most noted of the 19th century saints, prayed before a “realistic” icon of Mary that he titled his Joy of Joys. It was not the form, but rather the content of icons that was emphasized by such spiritual teachers. But in spite of spiritual renewals the world was changing. St. Seraphim is said to have foreseen the tumult that was to sweep over Russia in the early 20th century. Ironically he was officially recognized as a saint in 1903 under the patronage of Tsar Nicholas II, the last reigning Tsar of the Romanov Dynasty, who abdicated and was later killed with members of his family. These transitions are reflected in the rapidly changing mannerisms of icons that appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was as though the natural evolution of artistic styles was sped up as Russia hurled toward revolution and the abyss of Communism. But again, it was the form that changed more than the content.

Communism never succeeded in abolishing Orthodoxy. Though countless icons were destroyed, many others survived, carefully protected by believers all over Russia. Many were taken out of Russia over the years, and went into homes in the West, where they are protected and cherished.

There is now a strong interest in old Russian icons, which are appreciated for their spiritual and historical significance and for their unique beauty and charm. The icon saints of old Russia, long hidden in the candle-lit shadows of Russian churches and icon corners of private homes, are now found silently preaching in many new venues. As a consequence, the art and religion of old Russia are now better known and recognized throughout the world than ever before in history.

One final note: Icon painting, though severely wounded under communism, never died. It is at present being revived and practiced not only all over Russia, but in the West as well. And in this revival, many modern painters look for inspiration to old icons “in the Russian manner,” which are coming to be recognized as one of Russia’s great contributions to world culture.

David Coomler, Author
The Icon Handbook