A distinctive and emblematic part of Russian culture, icons trace their roots back to the year 988 when the pagan Rus’ were converted to Christianity. For over 1,000 years, Orthodox Christianity, the Greek branch of the Christian faith, informed and shaped the spiritual and cultural foundation of Russian society and directed the creative energies of craftsman and artists. Icon painting and the veneration of icons also originated in the Greek Orthodox tradition and were imported into Russia.
Orthodox religions claimed that icons were directly inspired by God, and in some cases, they were said to be actually painted or delivered by saints themselves. For example, the famous icon Tenderness and Hodigitria Mother of God was said to have been painted by Saint Luke in biblical times. The Not by Hands image of Jesus was said to have been directly given to King Akbar’s servant by Jesus.
Over time, as the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches separated to become different and distinct entities, so too did their styles in depicting important spiritual events. Over time, the Russians formed their own systems, liturgies, rituals, customs, and styles. They also developed their own distinctive modes of expression in icon painting.
A turning point in this evolution toward a uniquely Russian style of icon painting came with the work of Andrei Rublev, who painted his famous Trinity icon in 1411. This icon is generally considered to be the first example of true Russian iconographical style. Rublev is also the first Russian icon painter we know by name. Not many icon artists are known this way; instead, references are to regions where the icon was made and type of icon. This is a major difference between the icon tradition and the art tradition in Western Europe.
Prior to the 15th century, icon styles were primarily derived from Orthodox Christian icon painting from the Byzantine Empire. This vast empire, which lasted from 324 to 1453, stretched from Greece to Turkey and extended beyond to lands around the Mediterranean.
The Byzantine Empire had its roots in Ancient Rome. When Rome declined in the period from 200 to 300 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine—in 312 AD—converted to Christianity and established the “second Rome” in Constantinople and Christianity as the official religion in his new kingdom. With that, millions of Roman citizens and people throughout his new empire were rapidly converted to Christianity.
When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul, the center of Orthodox Christian religion moved to Moscow, which became known as the “third Rome.” This began an extraordinary period of vitality in Russian culture. Over the next several centuries, Russia and its empire would become a major social, cultural, and political force in the world.
Source: The Museum of Russian Icons.