Palekh Religious Icon Art

Palekh icon

Although Palekh religious icon art as an independent phenomenon of Russian icon painting appeared at the end of the 17th century, its roots can already be found in early 17th-century Suzdalian and Moscow art affected by European naturalistic tendencies. However, along with the use of the new trends, the Palekh iconographers did not forget about their old local religious icon art tradition, which resulted in the appearance of a regional school that reached the peak of its popularity in the 18th century.

Palekh hand-painted icons have many traits borrowed from the Stroganov tradition and the 15th-century Novgorod style of icon painting. For example, richly decorated gold vestments and ornaments, fine linearity, low horizon, various landscape elements, miniature figures, and the overall complexity of the composition – all indicate the proximity to the Stroganov school; while the laconic color scheme and peaceful, meaningful images reflect the influence of the 15th-century Novgorod style.

Palekh religious icon art of the late 18th – 19th century is distinguished by the use of the Fryazh style of painting that appeared in Russia under the influence of Western European art. Such icons can be divided into two general types: with “golden background” and with “blue background.” The first type includes hand-painted icons with the golden background, edges, and halos – all covered with embossed ornamentation and lacquered colors imitating enamel. The second type – religious icon paintings with “blue background” – appeared in the late 19th century. It is characterized by the use of the blue background, while the edges and halos still remain golden with embossed ornamentation. In many ways, religious icon art in the late Fryazh style was strongly influenced by academicism, which is most clearly expressed in naturalistic landscapes.

In general, Palekh icons can be characterized by elongated proportions of figures, light execution of faces, reddish-golden color pallet, thin multi-layers of paint, and architectural elements executed in the traditional Stroganov style of painting. They are undoubtedly very complex compositions created with the use of many different figures, elements, and border scenes, especially when it comes to hagiographical icons of saints. Along with that, their forms are very symmetrical and complete, which makes Palekh hand-painted icons stand out among many other religious icon paintings.

The last known large-scale work by the Palekh iconographers is the restoration of the murals in the Cossack Cathedral of the Elevation of the Holy Cross in St. Petersburg in 1907. With the establishment of the Communist regime, not only the holy icons themselves but the iconographers became enemies and were arrested or persecuted. At that time, most religious icon painters went to other handicrafts, such as producing painted wooden boxes, making toys, wickering bast shoes, etc. Using the technique of miniature painting and many other iconographic methods, they began to create really unique pieces that enjoyed great popularity all over the Soviet Union.

For today, Palekh is again a center of Russian icon art, with many workshops and talented iconographers following the traditions of their ancestors. However, hand-painted icons created by local masters years ago are still considered the best examples of Russian religious icon art, which makes them highly collectible and valuable pieces for many.

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