The moving history of heavenly treasures

An icon among the flowers atthe silent memorial at the Lubyanka metro station

An icon among the flowers atthe silent memorial at the Lubyanka metro station

The current boom in demand for icons – religious artwork s – reflects the resurgence of the Orthodox church and a renewed interest in Russian history and culture.
Among the flowers and candles on the platform of Lubyanka station, scene of the recent terrorist attack on the Moscow metro, there were a number of miniature icons. It is not surprising. Icons, gold-backed images of saints or holy figures, are central to orthodox Christianity. You can see them everywhere in modern Russia: by springs, wells and wayside shrines, in shops, shacks and galleries. They have come to symbolise both the renewal of public faith and an increased interest in Russia’s cultural history and art.

A brand new Dom Ikoni (House of Icons) opened six months ago on the elite Spiridonovka Street in the heart of Moscow. Its first exhibition, entitled “Godlessness”, explored the early days of communism, displaying photos of desecrated churches and slashed icons. Since then, the gallery has become a thriving cultural centre, hosting regular lectures, concerts, seminars, lessons and, last week, a film premiere.

The top floor of the complex houses a restoration workshop. “Every person of every faith is welcome here,” says Ekaterina Vasina, the gallery’s spokeswoman.

“Here they can learn about the history of religion, ask questions, find information and perhaps some psychotherapy for the soul.”

Since the collapse of atheist communism 20 years ago, the Russian church has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Queues of pilgrims waiting to kiss the tombs of saints are longer than ever; patient lines to receive holy water or Easter blessings stretch round the block. Almost every village and city suburb is building, has just built or has plans to build, a stone church with shiny domes.

Icons form a major part of the decoration of any Eastern Orthodox church. The iconostasis, a towering wall of icons in rows, divides the main part of the church from the holiest sanctuary and further icons adorn the walls. But they are not confined to the church. Many orthodox households have a “red corner”, a household shrine with icons ranged on an embroidered cloth. Icons are also given as presents on numerous significant occasions: births, baptisms, weddings, funerals, journeys, saints’ days, holidays… small wonder icon-painters are busy.

“Demand for icons today is truly insatiable,” Oleg Torchinsky writes in the newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda . He points out that, in many newly opened churches, believers had to improvise with postcards and reproductions of icons cut from magazines before installing the real thing.

The Church of the Life-giving Trinity in Orekhovo-Borisovo is a perfect symbol of the newly self-confident Russian Orthodox faith. Completed (a little behind schedule) in 2004 to celebrate a millennium of Russian Christianity, the towering blue-domed edifice on the blossoming banks of Lake Borisovsky is Moscow’s second largest place of worship.

The Trinity, one of the Patriarch’s official churches, has its own icon workshop in the centre of town. The theological school, here by the lake, also teaches icon painting to packed classes of children and adults every weekend. “We are very busy,” says Svetlana Alexandrovna, an assistant at the school.

“Many people want to learn how to paint icons. They do it for religious reasons, of course, but also because they are interested in Russian history and culture.”

Icons and church frescoes were the main artistic tradition in Russia until the time of Peter the Great. The Byzantine traditions were adapted by 15th-century monks, like Andrei Rublyov. Rublyov’s incandescent images have become hallmarks of early Russian art. In the last few years, there have been tensions between churches and museums as to the proper place to display the icons. Many icons, like the famous Virgin of Vladimir, on display in a church annexe in the Tretyakov Gallery, are still seen as having special powers of protection or healing. Recent interest by contemporary artists and private collectors adds another layer of complication.

Award-winning artist Davina Garrido de Miguel has spent two years studying icon painting in Moscow. Her experiences throw a fascinating light on the arcane process of constructing an icon. She initially had to wait a year and a half before the icon school would accept her. “You are meant to be a religious person to paint an icon,” she says. “On painting days, we don’t eat meat and we pray before we start work.”

Walking round a modern church, she is dismissive of the icons on display. “Most of these have been painted with the board upright,” she says. “You can see the brush strokes. The traditional process involves laying the wood flat and floating layer after layer of transparent egg tempera over it to build up the image.

“This is what I love about it: the complex, ancient technique, which you can only learn from a teacher. There are no books about it. It is a spiritual discipline. At university, you could paint whatever you liked. Now, I feel I’m really learning something.”

Elena Knyazeva, art director at another of Moscow’s leading centres, agrees that an icon’s original purpose was not to be looked at as a work of art, “but to see through it a different world, the divine one”. She concedes that, for better or worse, many people, particularly foreigners, have begun to take an interest in icons as collectible artworks: “The matryoshka-balalaika boom is over, while the icon market has become deeper and more diverse.”

Igor Vozyakov, former financial director of Lukoil and owner of the newly opened House of Icons, has collected three thousand icons of which about 10pc are on display in the gallery. Vozyakov describes the centre as a unique multi-purpose initiative, where people of all faiths or none can learn more about icons.

The commercial aspect of the House of Icons is less important, according to the manager, Marina Kachusova: “Primarily, we are an educational and cultural centre. During the last century, there was no chance to see or even know about icons. Knowledge is vital.”

Ekaterina Vasina says: “We do not try to convert our visitors. We simply try to show them the beauty of the faith of the Russian people.”

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