The Arch Angel Michael stares distantly from a prepared wooden board, hung in the Icon Corner of an Eastern Orthodox home. He’s swathed in red and blue, wings blackened and gold-edged, olive-skinned and auburn-haired.
Through browned layers of time, ancient flax-seed oil and the paint and repaint of devotees trying to re-capture the receding past… see: the details rendered in medieval tempura; the band tying back flowing curls, the slender spear, eyes tired by an eternity battling demons of the pit.
Old incense still washes the venerated air, thinning the barrier between the mundane and the divine. The likeness fades and re-fades in oil lamplight, meticulously tended to burn constantly as an embodiment of the living soul.
Alongside are other faces, figures and scenes, some familiar to Western eyes, others not so: Christ in Majesty, The Annunciation, The Virgin of Vladimir, St. George, The Petrovskaya Virgin, St Nicholas, Boris and Gleb, and more.
Russia absorbed the concept of the icon with its conversion to Christianity in 988 AD, but the origins can be traced back to Syrian and Greco-Roman imagery, and then upwards through the Byzantium empire, with its own interpretation of the form. Similarly, Russian Orthodoxy absorbed and re-interpreted the iconic heritage, reshaping it into the visual style still in use today. Now often replaced with cheaper prints (a parallel for modern religion itself?), the historical icon – or production thereof – was an act of devotion in its own right.
Although specifics may vary between artisans, a typical icon would have a “core” of manually-smoothed wooden board onto which layers of primer would then be applied. The primer (gesso) consisted of animal glue mixed with powdered chalk/alabaster and applied to a canvas base.
When thoroughly dried, the hardened surface would be polished smooth and inscribed with outlines to guide the final, painted image.
This would be rendered in tempera (water soluble, powdered pigments mixed with egg yolk) and built up by layer, ranging from dark to light. The painting may be finished with gold leaf detail, gold paint or other metal leaf tinted gold as required. A suitable drying oil (linseed, flax, etc.) would then be applied to “cure” the painted surface.
Unfortunately, whilst initially enhancing the tempera colours, the oil browned and darkened over time, dulling the icon’s lustre and obscuring the painted image.
The icon’s “frame” would, until the 14th Century, be created during the preparation of the wooden board. By shaping the edges of the wood to form a prominent, central fascia for painting, a frame was effectively formed. However, from the 14th to 17th Centuries, metal frames or façades were introduced, becoming increasingly large and elaborate, the most extreme examples encroaching upon the image itself until all but the central detail was obscured.
When we look at original Russian icons prior to the 18th century (an important turning point, which we’ll get to…) we can’t help but judge them as “outdated” in style compared to the unspoken conventions – rules even – of our modern imagery. More importantly, most of us aren’t aware of the equally binding conventions of the historical Russian icon painters. Why would we be?
Perhaps the fundamental difference is our literal pictures vs their representational objects of devotion.
Whereas we assume that the image “ends” on the paper, to them it was a conduit to The Divine and as such the appropriate respect had to be (even symbolically) accorded. For example, it was not about artistic self-expression or ego, hence no artist names or signatures, or liberal interpretations of the subject matter. Rather, a strict adherence to traditional, accepted designs laid out according to a Podlinnik, which was basically a reference manual of permitted images that could be inscribed onto the prepared surface as a guide for painting.
In terms of layout, due to the nature of the subject, conventions of “mundane” proportionality, form, lighting and perspective did not apply. A technique now referred to as “inverse” or “reverse” perspective was employed, removing our receding depth of field to make distant objects appear disproportionately large, and placing the figure(s) of importance directly up front in the composition. The most important figure was made the largest, and centralised for a one-to-one connection with the viewer.
Features were gracefully stylised and purified to show a transcendence of mere mortality and the only lighting present is the subject’s divine, inner light. In the case of group scenes, the participants are usually depicted out of doors to avoid ambiguous relationships with internal objects and structures.
From the 18th Century onwards, with the building of St Petersburg, the influence of Western values was increasingly felt across Russian culture. This brought classic Renaissance style and perspective into icon creation, causing a modernist split from the style of the conservative “Old believers”. The new style was increasingly to be favoured by a progressive, Europe-friendly state. The Old tradition persevered, however, even though its pure form was now diluted.
The painted icon as a medium was also to survive the mass production techniques of the 19th and 20th Centuries, along with communist oppression and the expansion of artists into secular lacquerware. Currently the form is undergoing a renaissance of its own, even amongst modern movement of artists outside of Russia. Originals have crept out of hiding, having survived the communist purge, and are valued for their historical significance and also, paradoxically, as works of artistry in their own right, transcending their Orthodox origins and intent.
Next time: Shadow Man in Circumspect (Part 1):
Rasputin: separating the myth from the reality.