History of Russian Icons in Facts

The New Testament Trinity, with selected Feasts and the Four Evangelists

Russian icons are truly unique pieces of religious icon art. Even the very act of painting Russian icons is already considered a form of worshipping God. Deeply revered by Eastern Orthodox Church members, these holy images of religious scenes and figures have been an integral part of Russian people’s life since their first appearance in 988, a year of Kievan Rus’ conversion to Orthodox Christianity. Here are some facts from their history you might not know about!

1. The first Russian icons were actually Byzantine religious icons painted by monks in Kiev. Russian icon paintings, as we know them today, appeared in the 12th century in Novgorod, under the influence of local folk art. These new Orthodox icons were different from Byzantine icons due to greens, pale yellows, and other light colors used in their creation. Moreover, the Russian iconographers used black lines to outline the depicted figures, which was also new for Byzantine iconography.

2. The early Russian icons were large, which was common to the Byzantine style. However, with the lapse of time, they became much smaller and, at the same time, more detailed. Besides, unlike European religious icon paintings, they were more filled with activity and crowded with figures.

3. In 1551, Ivan IV of Russia, also known as Ivan the Terrible, issued decrees on church and state relations, called Stoglav or The Book of One Hundred Chapters. According to it, no religious icon painting could be displayed without being approved by one of special “icon masters,” which resulted in the examination of every icon in every monastery, church, and village.

4. It is believed that the best antique Russian icons were created before the 17th century when Russian icon art began to decline. However, it’s not quite so. In fact, many exceptional religious icon paintings (e.g. hand-painted icons by Old Believers) were still produced in the 17th century and later; however, many of them were lost.

5. During the Soviet era, icon painting in Russia was banned. As a result, Palekh and other icon-painting regions were turned into producers of artistic miniatures depicting Soviet village idylls, Russian songs, and fairy tales.

6. In the 1990s, after the collapse of Communism, many valuable and antique Russian icons were stolen from churches and monasteries, and taken abroad. Most of them are still not found.

7. For today, Russian icons are venerated not only in churches but also privately at homes of Orthodox Christian believers. Icons of Christ, the Mother of God, and the patron saints are kept in a special place called the Russian icon corner, which is intended to bind the family in common prayer.

It is also worth noting that although most Russian icons represent religious icon paintings on wood panels, there are also other outstanding pieces of Russian icon art, including bas-reliefs, frescoes, and mosaics, not to mention absolutely unique pieces made of silver, gold, ivory, and enamel. However, hand-painted antique icons still remain the most outstanding examples of religious icon art in Russia.

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