Palekh icon-painting: At the crossroads of Eastern and Western traditions

Today, Palekh, a small village in the Ivanovo region, is known primarily for its local handicraft: Palekh lacquer miniature. Few know that the origins of this fabulous painting style lie in the art of icon painting.

The Old Russian village of Palekh is located 350 km north-east of Moscow on the Golden Ring. Drawing from a mix of Fryazh and Stroganov icon-painting styles, the Palekh masters created their own unique manner. Palekh icon-painting flourished in the beginning of the 19th century. Icons from the region were sold throughout Russia and abroad. Palekh painters were in demand at the very highest level. They were commissioned to paint the walls of the Kremlin's Granovitaya Chamber, and restore the frescoes of the cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin, the Novodevichy Convent, the Cathedral of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, as well as cathedrals and churches in Pskov and many other Russian cities.

The showpiece Palekh icon is "Akathist Hymn to the Saviour" of the mid-eighteenth century. An akathist is a eulogy sung in church. Hymns, liturgical texts, and poetic texts praising the glory of Christ and the Holy Mother are found in many Palekh works. This musical basis is reflected in the composition structure, in the color rhythm of the icons. In akathists from the middle of the 18th century, the 1870s to be precise, we see the defining feature of Palekh painting: the combination of Fryazh painting (dimensionality) and late-Stroganov (plasticity of figures). And here we see highly complex composite constructions. Palekh icon painters preferred complex, multi-figured compositions.

When the Bolsheviks seized power, icon painting came to an abrupt halt. But quite unexpectedly, the Palekh masters found a new niche in the production of lacquer miniatures.

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