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Russian Icons As Primary Sources For Developing
Russian Contemporary Art
by Yuri Tsapayev
It is also worth mentioning Theopanes, a Greek artist born in Russia and one of the leading
artists in Russia in the earlier periods. Others believed him to have been originally from
Constantinople and then moved to Russia because his style distinctly echoed Byzantium
principles (Rice 15). One of his most important works was the Dormition of the Virgin. The
painting was about the funeral procession of the Virgin and the reception of the soul in heaven
(16). What distinguished the icon as Russian was the “elongated proportions, great delicacy of
detail, bright tones and a markedly rhythmical composition.” (17)
One of Theopanes’ students was Andrew Rublev. His copy of the Our Lady of Vladimir
clearly showed Theopanes’ influence on his student (17) (See Figure 2). Rublev’s paintings also
had become “personal and expressive, the stress on rhythm is developed in the figures and the
composition, and the backgrounds become more stylised yet more decorative.” (28-29) What
usually characterized Byzantine influences in icon painting such as “the bright highlights on the
faces in white, greeny white or mauve” were juxtaposed with “tones which aim at achieving a
more naturalistic effect of modeling.” (29)
The difference between Theopanes and Rublev’s executions of icon art were reflected in their
styles. Theopanes retained some of the Greek traditions of “old sternness, the old
expressionism, the old high lights and the old symbolism.” (30) Rublev’s work was less severe
and his figures “sway with the delicate rhythmical movement of dancers.” His work reflected a
style more “humanistic rather than expressionist or symbolistic.” Finally, Theopanes’ works
were more monumental while Rublev’s was more personal in nature (30).
Andrew Rublev’s most famous painting was the Old Testament Trinity (ca. 1410), created for
the Monastery of the Trinity and St. Sergius near Moscow (30). (See Figure 3) Alexander
Voloshinov in "The Old Testament Trinity" of Andrey Rublyov: Geometry and Philosophy
studied extensively this icon art. In most Russian icon paintings, the following integer ratios H:L
was typical of icon paintings during the 14th and 15th centuries: 4:3 (-30%); 5:4 (-30%); 3:2,
6:5, 7:5 (-12% each). Rublev chose the 5:4 proportion of a rectangle for the Trinity (104).
By using the golden property of the rectangle, Voloshinov was also able to discern the three
concentric circles in the Trinity painting. The concentric circles connected the “face of the left
angel with the hand of the right one, the face of the angel in the middle with the cup, etc.,” (106)
The philosophical context of the circles was best explained by “the ecclesiastical dogmata of
Triunity, Homoousios, Non-Amalgamation, and Inseparability: the Triunity of the angels in the
one circle, and the Homoousios (or consubstantiality) of the algorithm of constructing the circle,
which is uniform for all points of the circle.” (106)
Voloshinov also found a geometry of inverse perspective explaining that its roots lie within the
philosophy of “the heavenly world, the celestial town, which is higher than any geometrical or
logical details.” (108) There was mirror symmetry between the two angels flanking the central
angel. This was interpreted as favoring theologians N. Golubtsov and A. Vetelev’s conjectures :
“the angel in the middle is the first hypostasis of the Trinity, God the Father, appealing for the
necessity of offering his Son for the redemption of sin. For, "Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) (cited in Voloshinov 109).

Vladimir-Suzdal School

The Vladimir-Suzdal school became a prominent source of icon paintings during the second half
of the 12th century and the first third of the 13th century. The school was under the auspices of
Andrei of Bogolyubovo ( 1111-1174) and Vsevolod "Great Nest" ( 1154-1212) (Grabar,
Lasereff and Demus 16). Deesis of Emmanuel and angels originated from the school. They
adorned the altar screen and placed above the holy gates. A later addition would be placing
icons of apostles along the architrave on both sides of the Deesis (16). From the 13th to
the14th centuries, new icons depicting saints and prophets from which classical Russian
iconostasis emerged (16). It became central to the subjects of icon painters in the medieval
period. The most popular forms of icon paintings from the Suzdal school were wall paintings.
Some of the best examples were found in the Church of the Virgin at Nerli of 1153, and those
in the Church of the Assumption at Vladimir of 1160-61 (Rice 26-27).
Byzantine prototypes were also seen including the use of gold ground. The colors were subtle
and fresh, bright and delightful. Another characteristic of works from the Suzdal was delicate,
reserved and of good taste (Rice 27). A fine example from the Suzdal school was the
Crucifixion of the fifteenth century found in Obnorsky Monastery. The figures were long and
elongated and features distinctly Russian. There was rhythmic pattern observed to be Russian in
origin as described in the previous sections. The modeling was markedly Byzantine in origin
(Rice 16).  The Vladimir-Suzdalian schools also contributed to the emergence of icons that
made them distinctly Russian. Deesis panels became popular in the Vladimir-Suzdalian
Principality where “intercessionary role which Russians associated with their icons” were
present (44-45). Decoration was a basis of Vladimir-Suzdalian art (47).


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Figure 2 - Copy of Our Lady of Vladimir attributed to
Rublev (Rice 012)
Valery Molchanov, Angel”. 1997, mixed techniques on paper, 80 x 60 cm
Figure 3 - Old Testament Trinity (ca.1410)
by Andrew Rublev (Rice 011)
Continued
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