The Intercession of the Theotokos

Characteristic Features of Russian Icon Paintings

Nowadays, Russian icons are an integral part of Russian culture, but this wasn’t always the way. The fact is that for a number of reasons, religious icon art in Russia skipped the Renaissance and almost everything that came after it. You can certainly find today modern religious icons with some traces of Art Nouveau, Classicism, Rococo, or Baroque art, but most Russian icons have always been painted in the same way they were painted centuries ago. Most likely, it is the main reason why they are different from Western ones. So what are the main characteristic features of Russian icon paintings?

1. Icon setting

Although the practice of using a metal cover to protect religious icons originated in Byzantine art, in Russia it got a special meaning. Such setting, also known as oklad or riza, has become a symbol of light and beauty of God’s world. No wonder, it is usually made of silvered or gilt metal and decorated with precious and semi-precious stones.

2. Unique stories

Eastern Orthodox iconography is distinguished by a variety of biographical icons of saints that are very popular in Russia. Moreover, many of them, like the well-known Intercession of the Theotokos, don’t have Byzantine prototypes, which makes such images truly unique.

3. Canon

Whether it comes to the color of the saint’s clothes, the age of the depicted person, or even the form of the beard – Russian icons are subject to the canon. In fact, all of the details are painted according to the first descriptions of a particular saint borrowed from Byzantium, however with minor changes and additions by Russian iconographers.

4. Harmonious form

The most perfect and harmonious form is undoubtedly circle. Moreover, this symbol is associated with the Heavens. No wonder, it has always been widely used in Russian icon paintings, from mandorlas intended to express Christ’s or the Mother of God’s glory to circular aureoles in the icons of saints.

5. Colors

Eastern Orthodox iconography is full of different colors, each with its own meaning. To be more exact, you can find every color in Russian icons, except for gray. It is the only color that is never used in painting for a simple reason – being a mixture of black and white (i.e. evil and good), it is associated with emptiness and uncertainty.

6. Golden background

Most likely, you have noticed that in many Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Mother of God, and icons of saints, the background is usually golden. It is another characteristic feature of Russian icon paintings that means divine radiance. Therefore, to show the Heavenly Kingdom in all its beauty, the icon background is painted gold or yellow.

7. Inverse perspective

Last but not least, Russian icons are distinguished by the use of inverse (or reverse) perspective that creates the illusion of looking “through” the painting as if looking out a window. It is one of the reasons why religious icons are often called “windows into heaven.”

These are the main characteristic features of Russian icon paintings. Stay with us to learn more about these amazing sacred images!