Drs. Ingrid Zoetmulder

2. Where do we find icons?

Where do we find icons?

Icons can be found in all those areas that form the legacy of Byzantine Orthodoxy: in the Greek Mediterranean world (from the early Middle Ages), in the Orthodox areas of the Balkans and the former Soviet Union (since the 9th and 10th centuries), in certain small areas in the Arab world and in Ethiopia. [8]

8. St George and the Mother of God, 1st half 16th century, Ethiopia, 17 · 10 cm, private collection (The Netherlands)

Byzantine icons

Icons surviving from before the Iconoclasm can be found in the Monastery of St Catherine and in Rome. They vary greatly in style and form. At this early period, no clear norms had been established.

The resumption of icon painting in 843 coincided with – or perhaps gave rise to – the start of a great cultural flowering. The crisis of the Iconoclasm had resulted in a theological definition of the icon, and clear guidelines were drawn up for painting specific types of icon. Various styles are discerned, such as the mid-Byzantine style, also known as the Macedonian Renaissance, which occurred when the  Empire was ruled by the Macedonian dynasty (876–1081) and the Comnenan dynasty (1081–1204). In these periods, the style is strict and dignified, but also detached and spiritual.

Comnenan rule ended in 1204, when during the Fourth Crusade, Crusaders conquered and sacked Constantinople. Once again, many precious works of art were destroyed, while others were carried off to the West as plunder. The Crusader government lasted for nearly sixty years.2  This period saw the production of what are known as Crusader icons.

In 1261, Constantinople was retaken by the first emperor in the Palaeologan dynasty (1259–1453), marking the opening of a final flowering of Byzantine culture. In this Palaeologan Renaissance, the artistic style became livelier and more refined, and emotion made its entrance into art. This style was to be especially influential in Russia.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Byzantine traditions were continued, particularly in Crete, where many artists had sought refuge, but also in Macedonia and the Balkan countries. The names of many Cretan icon paintershave survived. The Cretan tradition experienced a high point during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The workshops offered various styles. For example, the customer could choose an icon ‘alla latina’ or ‘alla greca’. The ‘alla latina’ style showed noticeable Italian influences, such as flowing folds of cloth and engraved ornaments. The ‘alla greca’ style, on the other hand, showed a sharper contrast between light and dark, and the colours were more expressive. New types of icons were also developed in Crete, such as the Mother of God of the Passion [9] and the Madre de la Consolacione. [10] In addition, an influential group of Greek artists living in Venice at this time produced icons in a more Western-oriented style.

9. Mother of God of the Passion, Crete, late 15th century, attr. Andreas Ritzos, 82 · 61.5 cm, Ikonen-Museum Recklinghausen

10. Madre de la Consolacione, Crete, late 15th century, 46.5 · 37.7 cm, Ikonen-Museum Recklinghausen; detail p. 2

Russian icons

Of the various styles of icon art that emerged from the Byzantine Empire, Russian icon art is by far the most significant. It has defined for us the concept of the icon. When we think of icons, we think of Russian icons.

Nestor’s Chronicle, the earliest known source for the history of early Russia, tells how the country was Christianised. Vladimir, the grand prince of Kiev3, was converted in 988. The decisive factor that led him to adopt Christianity was the beauty of the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople. He had sent envoys to various countries looking for the True Faith. First, they visited the Mohammedans in Volga Bulgaria, but they found ‘no joy or virtue’ in that religion. Then they went to Rome and Germany, where they found the churches too plain. ‘But in Constantinople,’ said the envoys, ‘we did not know whether we were in Heaven or on earth: certainly, nowhere on earth could equal its magnificence and beauty.’

In the light of this report, Vladimir ordered all his people to be baptised in the River Dnjepr and he had the image of Perun, the god of thunder, cast into the river. The fact that Vladimir converted to the Greek Orthodox Church rather than to the Roman Church had enormous consequences for Russia and particularly for the development of its art.

In 988, Vladimir married Princess Anna of Byzantium. In her retinue were not only priests and theologians, but also icon painters, and it was they who painted the first icons on Russian soil. The first churches in Russia were built under the supervision of Greek architects and were, in every respect, Byzantine in style and execution. Everything was taken over from Byzantium: the saints, the liturgy, the iconography and the hymnography. The only difference was that the Bible was read in the Slavic translation made by the brothers Methodius and Cyril. Icons were also imported, including the famous early-12thcentury Mother of God of Vladimir (Vladimirskaya).

Later, the Mongol invasion in the 13th century resulted in Russia being cut off from Byzantium. As a result, the monasteries, which had been left alone by the Mongols, started to develop their own style. For centuries, the monasteries would be the only real institutions of art and culture.

New centres arose, such as Vladimir, Suzdal and Yaroslav. Novgorod, the northern trading city, escaped conquest by the Mongols and developed a form of art which, although it remained true to Byzantine tradition, also had its own individual style. This was characterised by pure, unmixed colours, pronounced dark outlining and a simple drawing style. [4, 67] Many icons from Novgorod and other cities in the North remained completely medieval in character until the 17th century. Then, towards the end of the 14th century, Moscow began to grow in political and economic importance, and after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it became the centre of the Orthodox world. The words of the monk Filofei of Pskov are famous: ‘Two Romes have fallen, the third Rome will not die, there will be no fourth.’ Ivan the Great married a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, took the symbol of the two-headed eagle from the Byzantine emperor, and gave himself the title of Tsar, derived from Caesar. The yoke of the Mongols, who had destroyed Kiev, was thrown off; Novgorod and the other princedoms were conquered; and the Roman Catholic Poles and Lithuanians were forced back. ‘Holy Russia’ was established.

As Chateaubriand, who accompanied Napoleon in 1812 on his Moscow campaign, wrote in his memoirs: ‘Moscow, the city of gilded cupolas, shone in the sun, with its two hundred and ninety-five churches, with its fifteen hundred castles and its ornamented wooden houses in yellow, green and pink; it lacked only cypress trees and the Bosphorus.’ Kapuscinski added: ‘This is what it was like, because Moscow was for them a holy city, the capital of the world, the third Rome, the boundary of history, the end of the earthly wandering of the human race, the open gates of Heaven.’ One important icon painter who moved to Russia was Theophanes the Greek. His work is characterised by powerful brushstrokes and subdued colours, which he strengthened with light effects. Together with his pupil Andrei Rublev (1360–1430), he painted the iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. And it was Rublev who painted the most famous icon of all time: the Trinity. [14] The Church encouraged painters to follow Rublev’s style of painting, which they did for more than a hundred years after his death.

In the mid-15th century, Dionisij, another famous Greek painter, came to work in Moscow. Although few of his icons have survived, he determined the Moscow style. This was more refined and delicate than that of the style of the North.

In 1547, much of Moscow was destroyed by fire and many icons were lost. Painters from Novgorod, Pskov and other cities came to help their Moscow counterparts in the work of replacing them. As a result, a mixed style arose during the following century or so, combining elements of the Moscow and Novgorod traditions.

Another important style was developed in the 16th century by the rich and noble Stroganov family, who set up their own icon school. Stroganov icons are wonders of fine miniature artistry. This remarkable school flourished until the late 17th century and continued to be highly influential into the 19th century. [12]

11. The Holy Trinity (New Testament), Russia, 18th century, 32.3 · 26.5 cm, private collection (Russia)

12. Triptych: Pokrov, Crucifixion, The Burning Bush, Russia (Moscow), 1861, with silver revetment marked S. Stroganov, 11.5 · 31.7 cm, Zoetmulder icon collection

In the mid-17th century, a group calling themselves the Old Believers split off from the rest of the Russian Orthodox Church. They could not accept the Western style of icon painting that was being propagated by the State and the Church. The Old Believer painters set up their own villages in the province of Vladimir. Palech and Mstera are the most famous of these settlements. The Old Believer artists painted highly refined icons, with many figures and with a harmonious, well-balanced colour composition. They would also paint icons in any style on request. In addition, they collected icons with the aim of cleaning, restoring and copying them – and, not least, of worshipping them. It is these collections, assembled by Old Believers, that are now to be seen in Russian museums and Old Believer churches. [13]

13. Year icon, Russia, 19th century, 88 · 71 cm, Ikonenmuseum Kampen; detail p. 30

14. The Holy Trinity (Old Testament), 19th century, 62 · 42.5 cm, private collection; detail p. 21

Simon Ushakov (1626–1686) was a prominent icon painter who painted in a Western-influenced style. [6] Working in their ateliers in the former armouries of the Kremlin, he and his pupils applied a chiaroscuro technique, had a keen eye for anatomy and used perspective.

In 1703, Peter the Great made St Petersburg his new capital. He had a modern European city built and set up an art academy along Western lines. For the first time, objects other than icons were painted. There was continued strong demand for icons, however, especially in Central Russia, where they were painted in all styles. Although much of this work was mass production, masterworks were still painted and artisanal workshops were set up in monasteries and in towns and villages. Merchants brought baskets full of icons to market, where they were displayed for sale among the toys and potatoes.

In intellectual circles, where Western culture was en vogue, and French rather than Russian was the preferred language, icons were felt to be old-fashioned and backward – suitable as church ornaments, maybe, but no more. It was perhaps in reaction to this Europeanisation of Russian culture that certain private individuals began to form collections of icons. The first exhibition of icons, held in 1914, opened the eyes of many. Painters such as Kandinsky and Chagall were inspired by the works of art they saw there, and the old icons also made a strong impression on foreign painters, such as Picasso and Matisse.

The October Revolution of 1917 virtually put an end to the tradition of painting icons. Lenin hated religion and anything to do with it; churches were shut or pulled down. Once again, many icons were destroyed, but fortunately many were sold to the West. It is partly due to the interest of collectors in the West that so many icons have been preserved. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, churches and monasteries have been restored. Monks are entering monasteries again, icons have been restored and new icons are being painted. Indeed, many of the icons that were sold to the West are now being bought back by Russian collectors.

Greek icons

During the Turkish domination of Greece (1453–1821), the worship of icons in churches and houses was tolerated, but the role played by icons in public life was greatly diminished.

Today, icons are still made in Greece, but due to the growth of tourism, they have become more of a commercial product, and their mystical nature has largely been lost. Even the icons produced at the isolated monastery of Mount Athos are not free of this, being but pale imitations of their former selves.  While it is true that, for believers, all icons – even modern ones – have a devotional value, for the art collector, their artistic beauty and inspiration are even more important.

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Land, but it failed through lack of resources, and did not even reach Palestine. Instead, the Crusaders attacked and conquered Constantinople, founding what was known as the Latin Empire (1204–1261).


Russia was originally referred to as Kievan Rus. Kiev (now capital of Ukraine) was its earliest city.

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