Understanding Russian Icons By Lazar Brkich
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is reprinted without illustrations from LORE magazine, a
benefit of museum membership. © 1996 Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc.
NOTE: This article is reprinted by Icons Explained.com - Courtesy Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc. 13
In old Russia nearly every phase of life was colored by religion. Every
day in the calendar was dedicated to the observation of some saint. Every individual and every
trade had their patron saints. A distinctly Russian form of representing saints and religious
themes is the icon. Painted on wood, icons are known to the Russians as "obraz", but we know them
better by the term icon, which comes from the Greek word for picture or likeness, "eikonoi". The
painting of icons is the most distinctive art form of old Russia, and Russian icons are the most
varied and beautiful of all.
Until recently, there was not much interest in icons. Even in
Russia, where they were common, icons were taken for granted. But today old Russian icons are
recognized as works of art by art historians and collectors alike.
Collectors of icons
should remember that the best and most valuable icons are to be found in Soviet and European
museums. A great many, of course, have found their way to America and private collectors. From time
to time, early and rare icons are offered for sale by prestigious auction galleries and normally
bring very high prices. Also, icons a century or two old are still found occasionally in some
better known antique shops. But the majority of icons offered today are often of inferior quality.
The collector must be careful because a number of known fakes turn up in the market now and then.
When purchasing an icon it is best to enlist help from a reputable expert.
In buying an
icon there are a few basic points one must always keep in mind. The value of an icon depends only
partially on age. Of undeniable importance, however, is the material of which an icon is made, the
quality of workmanship, and its overall condition. One must take into consideration the design,
color range and aesthetic effect of the icon. The most valuable icons are without exception those
painted on wood panels following traditional, aesthetic and proscribed requirements. Mechanically
produced icons are generally of inferior quality, regardless of their sometimes valuable metallic
coverings. Icon collecting is both challenging and rewarding, but the search for a bargain in this
field demands caution and at least a basic knowledge of icon art and its value.
painting in Russia, as elsewhere, has followed traditional canons. As a consequence, icons can be
so like one another that at times it is scarcely possible to distinguish between them. This is why
icons representing the same subject, although they were painted centuries apart, can be so similar.
One must keep in mind that the forms of the Russian icon remain unchanged through the centuries.
Icons are naturally divided according to subject into two main groups; painted icons which
simply depict holy personages and icons which depict scenes from the Scriptures or events from the
lives of the saints. Icons from the latter category serve a didactic purpose. They have served, so
to say, as an attractive and effective teaching tool. On the other hand, icons which represent
individual saints have been the object of veneration.
In Russian iconography, literally
hundreds of themes have been represented. Images of Christ are numerous, with the type known as
'The Saviour Not Made by Hands' being perhaps the most popular of the Christ representations in old
Russia. There are also other representations of Christ including depictions of the events of his
The enormous and varied iconography of the Virgin is even more impressive. There are
no less than three hundred types, all different. In the Milwaukee Public Museum collection, some
better known icons of the Virgin are: 'The Virgin of Vladimir', sometimes referred to as 'the most
ancient hymn to motherhood', 'The Virgin of Tykvin', 'The Virgin of Kazan' and 'The Virgin of
Shuja'. This profusion of types if also evident in the depiction of the most popular saint of old
Russia, St. Nicholas of Myra.
The Festivals of the Church was another theme popular with
icon painters. Icons of this type were used in sets consisting of twelve or sixteen scenes from the
Scriptures. Furthermore, old native Russian saints and numerous icons have preserved their images,
including events from their lives.
The old Russian icons in the museum's collection are not
uniform in quality, all the more so because they were created at various times and in different
icon painting centers. The collection includes a number of masterfully executed miniature icons and
a few fairly good examples of icons made of materials other than tempera on wood and by varied
techniques. Most of the icons in the collection belong to the nineteenth century, although one
dates from the 18th century, and several were made in this century.
The Virgin of Shuja in
the museum's collection is an excellent example of a tempera on wood. This icon was painted on a
wood panel. In order to prevent warping, diagonal strips of wood were applied on the back. The
edges of the panel rise above the picture space from the frame. The colors were mixed with egg yolk
and diluted with kvas, a popular Russian drink made from sour bread. The completed painting was
given a coat of a special varnish. This varnish at first enhanced the colors, but turned dark and
opaque later, producing the contrary effect. The metal frame and halo, in the form of a crown, were
added much later. Other icons in our collection such as the four small icons of the Evangelists and
the four Parable icons, as well as others, were produced in the same manner. The small icons were
produced in the same manner and display a wonderful precision of execution.
In addition to
icons painted on wood, there are a number of icons and religious objects made of metal. Most of
these icons date from the 19th century but a few in our collection are much older. The design is
engraved on the metal or the background cut away to leave the figures in relief and then perhaps
filled in with white or blue enamel. There is a great variety of these icons including typical
Russian crosses made in the same manner.
A 17th century metal icon mold might continue to
be used well into the 20th century. A very attractive brass quaditych, for example, was cast from
an old mold in Belgium in the 1950's. This is not unusual. Many modern copies have been made in the
old style and sold to unsuspecting people in Russia and Europe. These small brass icons sometimes
consist of a single panel, of two or three panels hinged in the form of triptych or occasionally
even a larger number of panels. They were carried by individuals for private worship.
further departure from classic icons, the 19th century brought many changes. It was a period of
decline, commercialism and mechanical reproduction. A number of icon handcraft shops were
established in which cheap metal icons were produced. Icons were printed in color on time and
became very popular.
In another development, enterprising craftsmen took advantage of
technical innovations and made metal coverings in factories. These metal coverings, or "riza", were
originally applied to icons toward the end of the 17th century. Intended only as a partial covering
of silver, gold, or cheaper metal, the riza covers the entire painting except faces, hands and
feet. Later craftsmen, however, no longer bother to paint the entire panel of the icon but only
those parts of the figures which were to remain visible. Although these coverings were sometimes
made of precious metals, the icon underneath is incomplete and virtually worthless, unlike the
icons of earlier times. Unfortunately, cast metal and other mechanically produced icons constitute
a large part of the icon market today. In the case of icons covered with the riza, one must check
to make sure that there is an entire painting underneath, as opposed to merely a face, hands and
However, it would be wrong to conclude that icons of great charm and value were not
produced in the recent past. A number of craftsmen still continued to produce more expensive icons
and preserved the integrity of icon painting. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century there
were attempts to revive icon art on a larger scale. This attempt, despite the production of a
number of fine icons, had only limited success. The museum has several fine icons from this period
of revival. In particular, the saints depicted on one icon represent the Romanov Royal family:
Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexei, Maria, Anastasia, Tatjana and Olga.
The 1917 Revolution in
Russia brought a halt to the production of icons. The icon painters who had previously been engaged
in icon art now turned their energies and skills to the production of boxes and other objects made
of papier-mache. These objects are universally recognized for their fine quality and artistic
appeal. In that craft the old tradition still lives on. Instead of images of Christ, the Virgin and
Saints, ancient legends and folk tales make up the themes of many miniatures. Other themes depict
the history of the country and the exploits of the revolutionary leaders and heroes. The figures
depicted on those objects are as graceful as in the earlier icons, lacking only the halos and that
unworldly look so unique to icons.
The icon has returned to the Russian home, too. Many
Russians lately have become avid collectors of old icons. As a matter of fact, icons are in great
demand the world over, not necessarily as religious objects but for their intrinsic artistic and