Russian Ikons

By William Clague

In the unlikely event that you are ever called upon at some point in your artistic career to paint something in the style of a Russian icon, here is some information to get you started. It all began about the year 988, when Vladimir, Great Prince of Kiev, decided that his country needed a new religion. After entertaining the thoughts of adopting each of the major religions, Vladimir decided upon the Greek Orthodox form of Christianity. Therefore the art associated with that religion came to the Kievian Rus fully developed. Pagan idols were discarded and craftsmen were imported to get the new correct art painted and installed. Most of the new art and artists came from Byzantium, and Russians were trained in the proper procedures in short order.

The icons of the Russian Orthodox Church have changed little in the millennium since their introduction. Podliniki, authorized versions of the depiction of each saint or event were contained in manuals. There is no room for creativity in painting an icon. Figures are elongated and gaunt and the flesh areas are done in a tone that seems to be only umber and white. Lest the faithful be unduly aroused, truly human tones are avoided. There are no sultry saints with full rosy lips and no handsome martyrs. The biblical prohibition against graven images is adhered to at least to the point where no figures in the round are used, and everything has a flat two-dimensional quality. The people do not look human and are not supposed to. The icon painters are not unable to paint a good portrait, they are just bound by very restrictive rules.

One striking feature of icons, including others as well as the Russian, is the strange appearances of the infants. They look like miniature adults with mature countenances and even receding hairlines. In a Madonna and child in the collection of the Hillwood Museum on Linean Avenue in Washington, the hands of the virgin are posed gracefully before her, and a third hand comes around through an extra sleeve to support the very adolescent looking infant. Garment folds are indicated by straight lines. Perspectives of buildings are wildly askew. Rocks are rendered like cubes. Icons depict a strange unworldly world.

Most icons are painted on wooden panels. Carefully selected boards are fitted with sliding dovetails to prevent warping. Layers of gesso are applied, then in some cases a canvas and more layers of gesso are applied. Backgrounds of gold leaf, silver, red or white were used. Colors are diluted with egg yolk to provide brilliance and opacity. All this careful preparation has resulted in works that have survived the centuries, but which are frequently well concealed beneath a thick coating of candle grease. The brilliant colors of ikons are sometimes also concealed by oklad, metal coverings, set with jewels. Since ikons are believed to have a mystical relation to the depicted saint, they are themselves objects of devotion. Devout believers make donations or bequests to an ikon, as distinguished from the owning church or monastery. There is little that can be done with such a benefit except to give the ikon ever more elaborate precious metal and jewel decoration. Usually there is little visible but the face and hands. All the other colors or covered with precious metals and jewels.

The devotion to an ikon can be observed at any of the now re-opened Russian Orthodox churches. At the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in St. Petersburg, the faithful, workmen, police officers, soldiers, old people, glamorous young women, all line up to kiss an ikon. As each worshiper moves on the next vigorously polishes the kissing spot with a hankie or tissue, thus tending to defeat this efficient method of spreading viruses. The paint is rubbed down to wood at the kissing point.

Homes of Russian believers usually have a small ikon in each room, traditionally in the far right corner from the entrance to the room. Candles burn before it, and flowers or other offerings attend the figure. In churches, large ikons form a screen across the church at about the point where the altar rail would be in a Roman Catholic church. This screen, the iconostasis, effectively blocks the view of the congregation of the ceremony being performed by the clergy behind it. There is something especially Russian about that. On the iconostasis ikons are arranged according set rules as rigid as the rules for their creation. Other than icons, Russian Orthodox churches have no statues, stained glass or similar representations and decorations. Windows are either plain glass or, in some places mere holes in the wall. There are no organs or musical instruments, music is provided only by the human voice, and bells.

Ikons are carried in religious processions, and were in czarist times were taken to the battlefront to weigh in against the enemy. Many vanished under the Soviet regime, and those that are left are highly treasured as a national heritage.

Washington's Hillwood Museum's collection is small, but well worth a visit. Call 202 686 5807 to make reservations, since walk-in visitors are not allowed. Montgomery County Libraries have a book Russian Art at Hillwood under shelf number 709.47TAY. Other books for further study include Land of the Firebird, by Suzanne Massey, number 709.47M; Daily Life in Russia by Henri Troyat at 914.7T864D; and Icons, Art and Devotion, by T. Talbot Rice, published by Bracken Books, London, 1993, ISBN 1 85891 107 9. which is not in the County Library.


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