|D E S I G N A N I C O N
Written by Susan Michal, Forest Knolls Elementary School, Silver Spring, MD and Betsy Sandstrom, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, Alexandria, VA.
Grade level: Upper Elementary, Middle school, High school
Electronic Museum Icon Display
Since prehistoric times, many artists have painted the subjects that were most important to their societies. For example, religion was particularly important in Europe during the Middle Ages, and most of the paintings created then had religious themes.
All great paintings, regardless of subject matter, share a common feature. They do more than just reproduce an object. They also express the painters feelings about a subject.
People have always been a favorite subject of painters. A portrait may show an individual or a group of people, or it may be a self-portrait of the artist. The people may appear alone, in religious or historical scenes, or in genre paintings (scenes of everyday life). The presence of people in a portrait can establish a bond between the viewer and the picture. The viewer can be drawn into the painting by eye contact with the subject or out of sympathy, amusement, or even adoration if the painting portrays a hero or religious figure. 5
Until the early 1900s, most of the surviving Russian art was religious. The interiors of churches and monasteries were adorned with wall paintings called frescoes, smaller paintings on wood called icons, and various types of mosaics.
The history of the icon paintings tells the story of the Russian people and their search for and adoption of religion. The story begins long ago (A.D. 988) under the reign of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev. He sent his emissaries to various countries to learn about their religions. Vladimir felt that Russia would become a unified nation if its people practiced one central religion. One of his emissaries traveled to Constantinople and returned to Vladimir to report that the religion of the Byzantine Empire was inspiring. As a result, the prince chose the Byzantine faith of Orthodox Christianity as the faith to bring his country of turmoil into harmony.
When the decision was made, Vladimir invited many priests, architects, and icon painters to Russia. In addition, he requested that many icons be brought into Russia from the Byzantine Empire. In this way, his quest for a national religion would be supported by the religious and arts communities. Many of these people who came to Russia were from Constantinople and of Greek origin. They taught the Russians how to copy some of the icons with accuracy and reverence.
The most popular themes in icon paintings were Christ, Mother and Child, the lives of the saints, scenes from the Old Testament, angels, and historical scenes. Icons were displayed in churches and in private places of worship. The icons were grouped in a set of four and represented Christ, His mother Mary, St. John the Baptist, and the special saint of the church. These four portraits were usually displayed on the iconostasis, the large screen that divided the sanctuary from the main area of worship in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
How Icons Were Painted
Icons were usually painted on panels of wood and supported from behind by two diagonal strips of wood. This support prevented the painting from warping due to the lack of heat or increase in humidity. The wooden panels were covered with a primer like gesso which is normally used to cover canvases for painting. This primer formed the base for the painting so the paint would adhere to a smooth surface. Sometimes a fine cloth was placed over the primed surface to give it a texture. The artist mixed the tempera paints with egg yolk and thinned down the liquid with a substance called kvass, a fermented drink that is produced from fruit or rye bread.
Once the painting was completed, boiled linseed oil was used to cover the art, giving it a sheen, and protecting it from the environment. However, over time many icons became covered with soot from burning candles and incense used in worship. Many icons were also damaged because churches were cold and damp, causing the paint to peel and the wood to mold or decompose. Efforts were made to repair the icons but most were unsuccessful due to lack of knowledge. In the book, The Art and Artists of Russia, the author, Richard Hare states,
The expert restorers of the early twentieth century discovered that a lot of the older ones had been repainted several times, and that many original pure colours had turned black or brown under the old linseed-oil varnish. Unfortunately the basic rule of honest artistic restorers, only to clean and uncover original work, never to add or retouch, was often violated.1
The early Russian painter knew no contradiction between concept and execution: he did not have to suffer that torture of creative endeavor. On the flat surface of the icon, he laid down bright patches of color and beautiful patterns of outlines, eloquent and strikingly pure notes. What he actually depicted could never be accepted as reality, or only in a very narrow sense. One recognizes the figures of people and objects, but they are transformed and at times not even immediately recognizable. The colors are bright and pure, seen in nature perhaps in the sky at sunset or in a field thickly overgrown with cornflowers. Whatever is portrayed always has an inherent quality of novelty, a sense of the unusual and the unique. At the same time this hitherto unseen, strange, colorful something becomes part of the life of the viewer, part of the space he or she inhabits. In its almost ineffable harmony of color and form lies the icons incomparable power of persuasion. 3 Print Resources
1 Hare, Richard. The Art and Artists of Russia. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965.
2 Hartt, Frederick. Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1993.
3 Myers, Bernard and Copplestone, Trewin, ed. Art Treasures in Russia. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.
4 Weitzmann, Kurt, et al. The Icon: The Byzantine Tradition in Europe, Russia, and the Near East through Seven Major Epochs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
5 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia: Painting. Chicago: World Book Inc., 1996.