Icon Painting

Period: 10th–17th centuries

Ecclesiastical art represents almost seven centuries of Russian culture. Until the start of the eighteenth century, art in Russia was mainly based on religious notions of the world. Early Russian history was a series of stormy events – wars, power struggles, and the rise and fall of various principalities. This was accompanied by the construction and reconstruction of churches, monasteries and cathedrals, which were decorated with icons.

For Russians, mundane life was only the beginning, a preparation for a better, posthumous life. Important events – victories or defeats in battle, the birth or death of a member of the leading dynasties – were usually marked by the construction of a place of worship or gifts (“endowments”) to the church. The events of everyday life in this way told on the architecture and interior decor of churches, monasteries and cathedrals. Therefore the icons of the Novgorod, Pskov, Arkhangelsk and Muscovite masters, which might at first glance seem relatively similar, in reality tell the story of six centuries of Russian history and culture.

Despite the rigid canons governing religious art, icon-painting in Rus passed through various forms and stylistic devices. The aspiration towards dimension, ornamentation and resemblance to reality became more and more apparent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The influence of Western originals (the Piscator Bible) was reflected in works of various schools, the Yaroslavl school in particular.

A predilection for three-dimensional painting and the departure from the traditional red and yellow colour scheme were features of the works of Simon Ushakov, an icon-painter of this transitional period. Ushakov worked at the Moscow Armoury, first as a master of silver and then as an icon-painter. He was a truly universal artist, creating miniatures for holy books, making engravings, writing treatises on icon-painting and painting both early portraits (parsunas) and icons. The works of Simon Ushakov are noted for their depiction of dimension, following the example of the West European masters in his attempt to introduce a direct perspective into the representation.

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