Russian Icons History and Its Stages

Russian Icons History and Its Stages

The extant monuments of architectural and visual art testify to the highest artistic attitude of the Russian nation. One of the brightest pages of its culture is, without a doubt, iconography. Icon painting is an artistic form that has long been an integral part of the lives of Christian believers and an outstanding example of high art in the treasury of world culture. Russian icons history is truly rich and complex.

In line with a host of icon studies, this celestial art, along with Christianity, came to Russia from Byzantium. The baptism of Russia contributed to the spiritual rise of the nation, as well as the introduction of the Russian people to the abundant Byzantine heritage in various fields of creativity. Moreover, in the 11th-12th centuries, the first masterpieces of monumental art began to appear.

At the beginning of the 13th century, the heyday of Russian painting, large-scale and highly valuable religious paintings emerged on the churches’ walls. New icons executed in a unique style of their own enriched the cultural life of the country. As a result of the cataclysm entailed by the Mongol-Tatar invasion (1234-1480), Russian icons history went through a so-called period of decline. Nevertheless, in the second half of the 13th century, Novgorod and Rostov were re-established as two main centers of the Russian iconography. From then on, the Russian icon was distinguished by simplified methods of painting, exaggerated heaviness of shapes, and tense faces.

The next and final stage of the development of the icons of Russia was the 17th-century painting period. The time of change and turmoil brought the desire to get rid of outdated traditions, replacing them with new genres and subjects. On the other hand, during that period, there were attempts to turn the iconographic tradition into a dogma. With the beginning of the consistent orientation of Russia to the Western European culture during the reign of Peter I, the main stage of Russian icons history was completed – the divine meaning of icons was forgotten and lost.

Modern icon painting treats the subjects of old Russian icons mostly as illustrations to the Old Testament and Gospel narratives, primarily stories about the earthly life of Jesus Christ and the Holy Virgin, as well as the lives of saints and legendary biblical figures.

Russian icons history has shown that holy art pieces created by Russian iconographers represent the primary acknowledgement of the profound spirituality of the Russian people. Such celestial paintings are nothing less than a heavenly phenomenon, something that creates a marvelous possibility of approaching God.

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