The word icon derives from a Greek word meaning image. An icon is a religious picture of Mary, Christ, or a saint, usually painted in tempera on wood. The idea of painting icons came to Russia from Byzantium, along with the Orthodox Christian religion.
When Russia became Christian in 988, the Orthodox Church had emerged only a century and a half earlier from a long struggle between the iconoclasts, who wanted to destroy as idolatrous any religious art that represented human or divine figures, and the ultimately victorious iconodules, who thought that the icons could be venerated in the same way as other Christian symbols like the cross. Icon-making took root in Russia, and icons became one of the most familiar features of Russian life.
It is not easy to make an icon in the traditional fashion. Sometimes an icon artist refers to a manual on how to paint an icon for guidance. First, the artist must fast and pray to enter the right spiritual state to create an icon. Only when the artist has achieved the proper frame of mind does the actual work begin. The icon may be painted on a single piece of wood, or on a panel made by joining several pieces together with wooden pins. The wood is cut and smoothed with an ax or sometimes with a plane. Slats behind may prevent warping. A depression may be hollowed out leaving a shallow border.
Perhaps canvas is set in the hollow. A mixture of chalk or alabaster with natural animal glue is applied and dried and smoothed. Then the general design is made and the painting begins. The tempera paint is made primarily of egg yolk and colors derived from natural plant or mineral sources. The icon may also be embellished with gold leaf or paint. After the paint dries, the icon is varnished and polished.
The artist must be careful in choosing the subject matter and style for the icon. Traditional subjects and styles are best. Innovation is not prized because the artist is not showing off his talent but creating an avenue to reveal God and the spirit of the church to the faithful and to carry on tradition from one generation to the next. The figure in the icon does not look like a photograph because the artist is not trying to do a portrait that is true to the physical, earthly appearance but instead is expressing the transfigured perfected image of the subject. The picture looks flat, because there should be no hint that this might be a statue, a graven image. The lips and nose tend to be thin, while the eyes, the windows into the soul, are quite large.
The icon may show a close-up, the head and shoulders of a single figure, or a full-length picture. There may be more than one figure or even an entire scene with several figures and trees and smaller plants and buildings or animals. Sometimes several scenes appear on the same icon, perhaps events from the life of a saint, either arranged around the central figure on the icon or arranged in some other design. Sometimes words are written on the icon, often in standard abbreviations, similar to the way people write Xmas for Christmas. Abbreviations are indicated by little wavy marks over the words. It is traditional to write in Old Church Slavonic, a language similar to Russian used in the church. Compared with icons from other areas, Russian icons are distinctive in their large size, their use of brilliant color, their incorporation of elements from the natural world, and their tendency to tell a connected narrative. Different areas of Russia, such as Novgorod, developed distinctive styles.
Icons sometimes had special ornate covers made for them out of precious metals and encrusted with pearls and precious jewels. Sometimes the cover would be enameled. The cover would leave only bits of the icon, such as the hands and face, uncovered.
Icons were everywhere. As might be expected, many belonged to churches. A special screen called the iconostasis divided the public area from the sanctuary in the church. The iconostasis was covered with icons, and icons also appeared elsewhere in the church. Upon entering the church, people would buy a candle, then approach an icon, cross themselves, kiss the icon, and light the candle. People also had icons at home, which were passed down
through families but could also be easily acquired at markets. Entering a room, one would see an icon in the “beautiful corner” opposite the door. The icon might stand on a little shelf, illuminated by a small oil lamp. Icons could be placed in barns or stables as well. Icons were even placed at crossroads. People prayed before icons at home and took oaths before them. They brought icons to visit the sick. Icons were carried in all kinds of professions, such as funerals or preparations for battle. Icons could perform miracles and known to have saved Russia from the enemy on numerous occasions when carried with the army.
Before the 1917 revolution, icons were much more in evidence than they were during the communist era when officially they were admired as art from a past epoch rather than as personally meaningful religious symbols. As communism began to decline in the 1980s, icons began to reappear, in homes and elsewhere. A bus driver might display an icon over the front window of his bus, along with other items that were significant to him, such as pictures of a beautiful model in American jeans and a sleek Italian sports car.
The most venerated of all icons is the Virgin of Vladimir. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary herself posed for the icon, which Luke is said to have painted. The icon actually dates from the twelfth century and was probably brought from Byzantium. It is a picture of Mary with the Christ child and stresses Mary’s sad, tender, motherly aspect, which is more important to Russians than her aspect as a virgin. The icon has resided in Kiev, then Vladimir, then Moscow, both in a Kremlin church and in the twentieth century in a museum. The icon has saved Russia on more than one occasion and is the most beloved of all icons.
Four icon painters deserve special mention. Feofan Grek (Theophanes the Greek), Andrey Rublev, Dionysius, and Simon Ushakov all painted between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Feofan Grek’s work is found in Novgorod and Moscow, where he influenced Andrey Rublev. Dionysius is known for his delicate, mystical icons. Ushakov was the last of the great icon painters. The greatest of the four was undoubtedly Andrey Rublev, who worked in Moscow and Vladimir around 1400 and created the most artistically perfect icon, the Trinity, for Sergey of Radonezh at the monastery at Sergiev Posad. The icon, painted in the colors of the open fields and sky, gold and brown and blue, shows three angels who appeared to Abraham as harbingers of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This icon and the Virgin of Vladimir served as models and inspiration for many later icons.
Numerous icons show the Virgin and Child or scenes from the life of Christ. Some of the other saints depicted in icons are quite familiar to Westerners, but not all. Attributes of the old thunder god were transferred to Elijah, who brings rain to the good and fire or hail to the bad. He is often pictured being carried to heaven in a chariot. St. George, protector of cattle, peasants, prisoners, and warriors, is shown on a white horse against a red background, slaying a dragon. St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia, protects sailors and fishermen, children and travelers. St. Paraskeva or Pyatnitsa (Friday) wears the red of a martyr and is the patron of women’s domestic work. She might prick the finger of someone who sews on her day, Friday. The martyrs Boris and Gleb, the first Russian saints, are pictured together. St. Nicetas is pictured beating the devil.
Under communism, some icons were transferred to museums, while many others were destroyed. Icon painters found other work, some of them turning to folk crafts.
Today in Russia icon painters are once again creating their beautiful images of Christ, Mary, and the Saints. Some icons have been moved from museums back to churches. Although icons do not occupy the place in Russian life that they once did, they are still an important part of the Russian cultural landscape.