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Dmitry Zhuravlev, Shrine Foundation. 1996, water-color on paper, 56 x 70 cm
Russian Icons As Primary Sources For Developing
Russian Contemporary Art
by Yuri Tsapayev
The Byzantine period was one of the major influences in the development of Russian iconography. The Byzantine was founded in 330 B.C. after Constantine declared Constantinople as the capital of the empire. The period ended in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. The reign of Justinian I (527-565) was considered as the golden age of Byzantine art and architecture. It was also during his reign that Romans managed to recover her lost territories. Consequently, as part of the program for Imperial glory, massive rebuilding efforts were made to restore the old glory of the empire devastated by previous wars. He was credited as the founder of Byzantine architecture when he constructed the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Justinian I was also best remembered as the one responsible for the codification of Roman law, Corpus iuris civilis. This was not only a great legal achievement in codifying Roman law; it was also the first systematic attempt to synthesize Roman law and jurisprudence with Christianity. Although Byzantium would eventually fade in influence, from the eleventh century onwards, Justinian's Corpus iuris civilis became the foundation of all European law and legal practice (except for England). (“The Byzantine Empire”)
Christian ethic replaced the humanistic ethic of Greek art. If classical art was intended for the glorification of man, Byzantine art was thoroughly in the service of theology. Main themes of Byzantine art were mainly for the glorification of God, particularly Jesus Christ. The Imperial absolutism of Justinian I was responsible for the Empire’s adherence to Christian values. He imposed on the Empire his religious views on all his subjects. Justinian's legislation dealt with almost every aspect of the Christian life: entrance into it by conversion and Baptism; administration of the sacraments that marked its several stages; proper conduct of the laity to avoid the wrath God would surely visit upon a sinful people; finally, the standards to be followed by those who lived the particularly holy life of the secular or monastic clergy. (“Byzantine Empire”)
The Romans did not entirely abandon their Hellenistic heritage. Instead, they draw upon it as a form of inspiration and renewal. Reflected in most of art and architecture of the period were Christian values and veneration accorded to God. The icon or image of Christ, the Virgin or Saint were the subjects of many art works. There was a decline in the importance of naturalistic representation in art. In Classical arts, the human form or nude sets the standards. But during the Byzantine period, society reverted back to sexual conservatism. Artists had lost interest in portraying real people in their canvasses. Painters and mosaicists often avoided any modelling of the figures in order to eliminate any suggestion of a tangible human form, and the production of statuary was almost completely abandoned after the 5th century. Sculpture was largely confined to ivory plaques (called diptychs) carved in low relief, which minimized sculptural effects. (“Byzantine Art and Architecture")
Byzantine art focused exclusively on the figures of deity, saints and martyrs of the Christian traditions. Isabelle Sabau in The Power of Symbolism in Byzantine Art described Byzantine art as “a complex phenomenon that incorporated along with the search for an absolute meaning and truth in life, a spiritual component and an educational, almost propagandistic aspect.” It was a synthesis of theological, religious and aesthetic concepts. The use of iconography in Byzantine art created concrete manifestation of the spiritual realm. As most of the Church’s subjects were illiterate, there was a need to express spiritual context in physical and tangible forms.
There had been much debate regarding the visual construction of religious images. One of the most contentious was the “proper” way of representing Christ and the “admissibility of other religious representations.” (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus 7) This restriction covered the choice of subjects, technique and form (7). The main requirement for replicating religious themes was to “faithfully reproduce the characteristic features of the persons or scenes portrayed -features whose authenticity should be vouched for by tradition.” (7) Iconography destined for veneration was not created with aesthetics in consideration. The requisites follow a “rhythmic, symmetrical composition of a hieratic character that is confined to essentials and is clear and comprehensible.” (8) In the context of the Byzantine period, the icon was not a “"thing" but a dogma in picture form.” (8)
Byzantine icon art reached Russia at the time when its popularity and function had diminished and icon art were used as decorative art. Icon painting that appealed to the Russians used tempera technique and on wooden panels. Large sized panels were later developments but preference to small-scale icon paintings for domestic veneration was popular. The icon painting in Russia was unrestricted by any social, economic or geographic standards (8). The three Russian schools such as Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal and Yaroslavl were sources of the oldest known Russian icon paintings from the 12th to the 18th centuries (16).
The Beginnings of Russian Icons
Byzantine influence came to Russia when Vladimir converted to Orthodox Christianity in 988 (Rice 10). Among the various forms of Byzantine art, “icon-painting, with a tempera technique, on wooden panels - large size for the iconostasis” appealed to the Russians (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus 8). This art form existed in Russia for 800 years from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries (8). Within those periods, they were also marked with changes in direction. It was most prominent in the sixteenth century where western influences dominated that reduced the extent of Byzantine influence in Russian art. Moreover, the changes were also a consequence of the reforms introduced and adopted by the Council of Trent in 1554. The practice of the art was expanded to include lay artists (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus 8).
A primary example of work where the Byzantium theme was prominent was seen in the Virgin of Vladimir, specially commissioned in Byzantium for Kiev (See Figure 1). A second painting, Virgin and Child was also commissioned for a church built by Mstislav, a son of Vladimir Monomachus in the Pirogoshcha district of Kiev (T.Rice 36). Tamara Rice wrote that the icon commissioned displayed unique Russian features despite it being done by a Byzantium artist. “The icon of the Virgin of Vladimir shows a degree of tenderness which is quite unusual for its date, the Virgin's head touching the Child's in a gesture of such deep affection that, iconographically, the rendering bears the designation of 'tenderness'.” (36) The commissioned work became the standard in portraying images of the Virgin and Child. It was also a prime example showing the humanist side of icon art working within the Byzantium framework (38).
Two major trends in Byzantine art developed. The first was the Eastern attributed to Syria and Anatolia and the other was Hellenistic or Greek (Rice 10).
Figure 1 - Virgin of Valdimir (Rice 03)
Hermitage Art Center