‘Conversing with God, but not for everyone’: The revival of icon painting

The tradition of icon painting first arrived in Kievan Rus, the precursor to the Russian state, after its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in AD 988. Source: TASS

The tradition of icon painting first arrived in Kievan Rus, the precursor to the Russian state, after its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in AD 988. Source: TASS

Icon painting is re-establishing itself in Russia, with a growing number of specialists in the field. Before, only monks painted icons, whereas today most icon painters are female graduates of artistic academies and special courses. An Orthodox priest and an icon painter from a cooperative workshop talk to RBTH about the revival of this spiritual craft.

For Orthodox priest Alexander Yegorov, the moment he first became aware of the spiritual value of icon painting is clearly etched on his memory – it was when he set eyes on legendary icon painter Andrei Rublev’s Trinity at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

"At first I looked at the icon from an artist's point of view, but then, beyond the radiance of the colors, I saw the inner light and it galvanized my entire being," says Yegorov. "From then on I looked at the icon as the source of light, as the source of our life. Andrei Rublev was capable of unveiling the mystery of the Holy Trinity, he was capable of transmitting that light."

The tradition of icon painting first arrived in Kievan Rus, the precursor to the Russian state, after its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in AD 988. Russian icons typically depict a religious event or various saints, and are usually painted on wooden panels, though more ornate examples of the craft feature the use of various metals and precious stones.

Some Russian Orthodox believers prefer to say in English that an icon has been ‘written’ instead of ‘painted’ - in the Russian language the verb pisat means both ‘to paint’ and ‘to write’.

An enigma for impressionists

Yegorov, who first encountered icon painting during lectures on art history at an art institute, explains that in Russia people are educated in classical, realistic art, and for centuries icon painting remained hidden behind a kind of curtain.

Artistic interest in religious images in Russia evolved only in the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was possible to restore earlier works. Before this, due to the lack of proper technology, icons appeared very dark.

"The thing is that icons were covered with linseed oil that darkened in the course of the centuries, which in turn darkened and even blacked the images," says Yegorov. "When we were removing the blackened layer of linseed oil, the colors shone and radiated. It turned out that the images shone with the entire palette of colors."

Many French impressionists who searched for purity and harmony of light were fascinated by the icon painting of Ancient Russia. "Henri Matisse was very interested in Russian icon painting and understood its color schemes very well," Yegorov explains.

"Through him many of our artists also tried to understand the artistic mystery of colors in Russian icons. The [Soviet] mathematician Boris Rauschenbach studied Russian icons and Rublev's Trinity in particular from a mathematical perspective. He saw the laws of higher mathematics in this work."

Yegorov is convinced that Russian icon painters possessed intuition so precise that today it can be described in scientific terms: "Traditionally, icon painters were monks who, before painting the faces of saints, would fast and pray for many days and take hold of the brush only after they felt the grace of the Holy Spirit reverberating within them," says the priest.

"Icon painting itself is also a mystery, and many are convinced that it is the Holy Spirit that moves the painter's hand,” he continues, explaining that this happens when we as humans unite with God's hand. However, he points out, these cases are rare and they can be considered revelatory.

“You can copy an old icon,” says Yegorov, “but it will not have that power of impact. Creating an icon is a complicated process, requiring excellence, inner prayerful concentration, as well as purity of heart and body. Icon painting is conversing with God, but not for everyone."

Yegorov was fortunate to participate in the painting of Russia's largest house of worship, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Alongside him were many artists who later continued practicing the craft. "This job was the first for many graduates and it gave them the opportunity to develop their skills later," says Yegorov.

An icon painting artel

Yekaterina Ilynsky's studio produces icons of all types. And the icon painters who work there are not monks. Artist Yelena Petyaskina, a member of the studio, says that there are now many icon workshops in Russia and that icon traditions are actively being restored and are evolving anew after the Soviet period, when icon painting was banned.

"Five or six years ago there were still very few workshops, whereas now you can't even count them all," says Petyaskina. "We paint icons according to the 15th-16th century traditions, as well as in the 19th century style."

According to her, 50 percent of the people who order an icon become regular customers. "People like to order dimensional icons for newborns, those that are created in the baby’s size," explains Petyaskina, "but also wedding and family icons that depict all the saints, the patrons of the family. Our clients are regular people who want to acquire a family heirloom or just give a very special present. There’s a lot of demand for our works."

Petyaskina originally worked as a school teacher before becoming an icon painter. "I graduated from a pedagogical university specializing in English and German," she says. "I lived for a year in Germany. I liked drawing as a hobby and I really wanted to paint icons but I didn't know how to. Then I saw an ad for icon painting courses. When I finished them I was invited to the studio."

She has now been working at the studio for over five years, where she specializes in painting saints' clothes. The studio functions as a cooperative association of craftsmen, or an artel: One artist paints the faces, another the figures, a third adds the gilt, and so on. "Each artist contributes with what he does best," says Petyaskina. And most of the artists are women.

Petyaskina painted her first icon in her childhood as a gift to her grandmother. "I made a plate out of clay, drew an image with a nail and then colored it!" she says, "I thought it was really beautiful.” However, since the clay was not fired, her work was not preserved.

Prices for religious works of art start at 5,000 rubles ($120) and can reach half a million rubles ($12,500). "The prices in our studio are slightly above average," says Petyaskina. "However, icons were never cheap, and in the past people would save up for years in order to buy them.”

These days, many of the icons on sale in churches and stores are printed, the quality of which Petyaskina acknowledges is reasonable, but cannot be compared to those produced according to traditional methods. “We fully observe the tradition,” she says. “We have real artists working in our studio. The icons are decorated with silver and precious stones. That is why the final result is completely different. It can take two or three months to produce an icon."


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