Arts Curriculum

The Age of the Icon: 13th–17th Centuries

The Age of the Icon: 13th–17th Centuries

Christ in Glory, from the Deesis Tier of the Assumption Cathedral of the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery, ca. 1497. Tempera on panel, 192 x 134 cm. Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk. © Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk

The history of Russian icon painting tells the story of the Russian people and their search for and adoption of religion. The story begins long ago under the reign of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, in 988 A.D. Vladimir believed that Russia would become a unified nation if its people practiced one central religion and sent his emissaries to various countries to learn about their religions. One traveled to Constantinople and returned to Vladimir to report that the religion of the Byzantine Empire (395–1453 A.D.) was inspiring. As a result, the prince chose the Byzantine faith of Orthodox Christianity as the religion to bring his country out of turmoil and into harmony. With this choice came an artistic heritage of decorative style, the use of rich color, an emphasis on religious symbolism, and the depiction of holy images in the form of icons.

“Icon” is the Greek word for an image. In the Orthodox world it came to have a more specific meaning—the representation of a holy personage or event. Icons were painted on wood, using layers of tempera paint to create depth in colors. Icons were not to be idolized superstitiously, but to be venerated. Figures were represented, not in their natural form, but rather in their two-dimensional heavenly form with elongated proportions. The head was never painted in profile; the eyes were the most prominent features of the face.

In old Russia nearly every phase of life was influenced by religion. Every day in the calendar was dedicated to the observation of a particular saint. Every individual and every trade had their patron saints and the depiction of these saints became the most distinctive art form. The faithful believed that these images could work miracles and bring victory on the battlefield.

Orthodox Christian culture had a strong visual orientation, and the image, accessible to the illiterate and literate alike, was a powerful cohesive force in society as well as the bearer of religious, social and historical messages. The icon painter had to be someone who was worthy of his craft, both humble and holy in his faith. Many icon painters were monks who took satisfaction in developing a theology of pictures rather than words as in Western Christendom.

Over time many icons became covered with soot from burning candles and incense used in worship. Some icons were also damaged because churches were cold and damp, causing the paint to peel and the wood to mold or decompose. Eras of anti-religious fervor also caused the destruction of many works. Russia is fortunate in the number, age, and artistic quality of the medieval icons that have survived. They have had a pervasive role in Russian life, standing not only in churches but also in private houses and wayside shrines. Today, Russian icons with their soulful eyes, flattened perspective, elongated features, and gold highlights, are appreciated both for their aesthetic appeal and their art-historical importance.

About this work

During the early 15th century icon painting evolved to portray emotion and dynamism. The development of the multi-tiered iconostasis (icon-screen) in churches gave painters unprecedented creative opportunities. At first, an iconostasis was just a small symbolic wall used to mark the division between the altar, considered a particularly holy area within the church, and the area where the worshippers stood and prayed. This small wall stood as a symbolic division between the heavens and the earth, the divine and the human. When, over years, the placement and removal of the icons from the top of this wall turned into an everyday chore, the icons were permanently installed. With time, the iconostasis wall consisting of several tiers (rows) of icons was developed. Around the 15th century, Russian iconostases reached as many as five or six rows of icons.

The iconostasis was arranged in a particular order with the Deesis tier often being the largest and most important. The Deesis row had to include at least three icons: Enthroned Christ in the middle, flanked on his left (the viewer’s right) by John the Baptist, and on his right by the Virgin. If there was space to include more icons in the row, they were arranged in a particular order: Archangel Michael next to the Virgin and Archangel Gabriel next to John the Baptist, Peter next to Archangel Michael, and Paul next to Gabriel.

Medieval icons shined with metallic gold and bright colors. Each color was considered to have the same substance as words, as well as its own value and meaning. Gold symbolized the divine nature of God. Red became the symbol of the resurrection as well as the color of blood and torment. Sometimes icons were painted with a red background as a symbol of the celebration of eternal life. Blue indicated the infiniteness of the sky and was used to represent the divine world. White was the symbol of the heavenly realm and God’s divine light signifying cleanliness, holiness, and simplicity. Saints and righteous people were depicted wearing white. Green was the color of natural, living things. Ancient iconographers often painted the earth green to denote where life began. Brown was the color of the earth, and all that is transient and perishable. Black was the color of mystery and the unknown as well as evil and death.

Christ in Glory, from the Deesis Tier of the Assumption Cathedral of the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery, ca. 1497. Tempera on panel, 192 x 134 cm. Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk. © Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk

Diagram of iconostasis (icon-screen)

  • What clues can you find in this painting that suggest that these are spiritual figures rather than depictions of everyday people? How has the artist used these panels to indicate which figures are most important?
  • Orthodox Christian culture had a strong visual orientation. Through images, religious stories and teachings were disseminated to the faithful. What stories and teachings seem to be conveyed in these panels? How has the artist transmitted this information?
  • The symbols and colors that are included in these icons would have been familiar to the faithful. Which symbols can you recognize? Which symbols are puzzling to you?
  • Although today we are bombarded with images everywhere we turn, for people in medieval Russia, life was quite different. Try to imagine life in medieval Russia, before electricity and all the modern conveniences of 21st-century life. Describe the impact that viewing this iconostasis might have had upon worshippers.
  • During the early 20th century, some Russian artists (including Vasily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and Kazimir Malevich) looked to medieval icon painting for inspiration. As you view the 20th-century works in this exhibition, consider which aspects of these early paintings might have served as inspiration for modern artists.
Christ in Glory, from the Deesis Tier of the Assumption Cathedral of the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery, ca. 1497. Tempera on panel, 192 x 134 cm. Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk. © Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk
Diagram of iconostasis (icon-screen)

  • A medieval painting workshop would have resembled a science lab. Artists made all of their own tools and materials, including their paints. Master painters took on apprentices to do much of the work of preparing materials. In exchange for their labor in the workshop, the apprentices learned the techniques of painting from the master painter. Russian artists used egg yolk mixed with colored pigments to create egg tempera paint. Pigments were made from ground minerals and other elements, prepared and blended according to a specific recipe. Because egg tempera dries very quickly, artists had to paint small areas at one time.

    Students can experiment with this technique with readily available materials. A lesson plan with detailed instructions is available on the Web site of the Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It includes step-by-step instructions for classroom explorations of egg tempera painting technique.
    Visual Arts

  • Icon painters used color symbolically to impart meaning. Early 20th century artists would also theorize on the power of color to communicate. The Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) considered yellow disquieting and stimulating, green as peaceful and passive, and red as turbulent. What associations do you have with various colors? Through research of other historical periods and cultures, consider whether color associations are universal, cultural, and or personal. Discuss your findings.
    Social Studies