Russian Icons

This pathfinder has been created to help those who are interested in the history of the art of icon painting in Russia to find printed and Internet resources on the subject. For the convenience of the reader, we elected to start with an introduction to the history of Russian icons, then listed online collections of publications and images and added a selective bibliography on the subject.

Brief history of Russian icons

The term “icon” is derived from the Greek word “eikon” meaning “likeness” or image. In the Eastern European Christian tradition, the subjects of icons can be portraits of Christ, his Mother, or saints, but they may also be narratives about sacred events, or even depictions of liturgical hymns.

After the dispute on the religious meaning and functions of the icons within the Christian church that occurred during the 8-th – 9th century between the followers of iconoclasm and their opponents, the Eastern Orthodox Church formulated its theological position on the use of images as spiritual tools allowing the faithful to commune directly with God. Strict rules according to which icons should be painted were established.

In 988 Prince Vladimir I of Kiev converted to the Orthodox Christian faith and introduced Christian faith as the official religion of Rus. Church services in Kiev closely followed the Byzantine norms and many icons and liturgical furnishings where brought back for Kiev’s growing number of sanctuaries from Byzantium .

One of these icons, Our Lady of Vladimir , became widely known and highly revered in Russia.

Byzantine artists were invited to Kiev to work and teach their art. With their help, the first school of icon painting in Russia was established in the famous Kiev-Pechersk Lavra (Monastery of the Caves).

The Kiev School produced many exquisite works of art some of which are represented at these pages:

In 1240, Kiev was destroyed by the Mongols. The center of icon painting moved to the northern cities of Novgorod and Pskov, where a new school was gradually formed. You can see some of the icons painted by the masters of the Novgorod school here:

The Moscow school of icon painting started to develop somewhat later than the Novgorod one and was overshadowed by it until mid-1400s. By this time the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery (Lavra) became one of the main spiritual centers of the country and attracted such talented artists as Andrei Rublev, Dionisii and Daniil Chornyi. The sites listed below describe some of the icons painted by the artists of the Moscow school.

In the late 16th and the early 17th century the boyar family Stroganov founded and maintained a new icon painting school. The distinctive style of this school started to replace the emphasis on spiritual depth of icons with more worldly concerns about technical perfection. Though the most outstanding artists of the time such as Simon Ushakov and Fyodor Zubov made valiant attempts to reconcile the old traditions of Russian icon painting with the new secular influences, the results were closer to an ornamental painting rather than an icon. Some examples of the works of this period can be seen here:

In the latter part of the 17th century two events further interfered with the traditions of icon painting: the raskol (schism) in the Russian Orthodox Church and the penetration of Western European influences into Russia. The part of the population that adhered to old church traditions – the Old Believers – retained their love for old icons. During the reign of Peter the Great the Old Believers were persecuted and driven to the remote parts of Russia, carrying with them their old icons. In the meantime, in all of the central cities, including St.Petersburg, Moscow, Novgorod and Pskov old icons were destroyed or repainted in contemporary European style. The art of creating icons was rapidly declining and turning into craft, though attempts to preserve it continued for a while in towns like Palekh and Mstiora.

The manifesto of 1905 allowed the Old Believers to worship openly and build churches. This prompted wealthy members of Old Faith to support collection of old icons and their restoration for the benefit of new churches. These icons attracted the attention of the founders and trustees of The Tretyakov Gallery , which soon acquired one of the best collections of old Russian icons.

The efforts in collection, restoration and research of old icons in Russia were soon hindered by the World War I, the subsequent Revolution and Civil War in Russia. During that period, some of the old icons were taken abroad by the Russian emigrants and found their way into museums and private collections of Europe and US, though the wide appreciation of icons as a form of art, efforts at their collection, preservation and research began there only in the 1945-50 period.

Internet resources about Russian icons

There is a variety of Internet resources that can provide further information about Russian icons. One of the best starting points for exploring this topic can be found at the About.com collection in the categories

Society/Culture > Russian Culture >Holy Icons

Some other useful online publications and collections:

  • Icon Painting : images of icons can be viewed by school, period and individual master. This site also provides a selected bibliography on Russian paintings, including icons. (http://www.rollins.edu/Foreign_Lang/Russian/frame1.html)
  • Ikons: windows into heaven provides information on history &meaning of orthodox Christian Icons (http://www.pallasweb.com/ikons/history.html)
  • Russian Icons: Index This collection of images from Auburn University includes icons representative of several schools and historical periods. (http://www.auburn.edu/~mitrege/russian/icons/index.html)

  • The Temple Gallery acts as a centre for the study, restoration and exhibition of ancient icons. (http://www.templegallery.com/pages/home.htm)

Printed resources about Russian icons

There are many excellent books written about Russian icons. Below are some selected titles and suggestions on how to find more.

  • Russian Icon: From Its Origins to the Sixteenth Century (Lazarev, V. N., Liturgical Press, 1997)
  • Gates of Mystery the art of Holy Russia (Ed. by Grierson, R., InterCultura, 1992)
  • Russian icons (Ivanov, V.N., Rizzoli, 1988)
  • The Icon: The Byzantine Tradition in Europe, Russia, and the Near East through Seven Major Epochs (Weitzmann, K., Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)
  • Thirty Five Russian Primitives: Jacques Zolotnizky’s collection (Muratoff, P., Paris, 1931)

Your local Public library may own some of the books about Russian icons. The following Library of Congress subject headings and Dewey Decimal Classification numbers may be helpful in locating books on this topic:

  • LCSH: Icons, Russian.
  • LCSH: Icon painting—Russia.
  • DDC: 704.948.2 – Icons
  • DDC: 291.37 – Icons, religious significance

This pathfinder was created by Helen V. Koustova