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Russian Icons As Primary Sources For Developing
Russian Contemporary Art
by Yuri Tsapayev
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Stroganov School
The Stroganov School emerged in the eighties of the sixteenth century. The name was attributed to a
prominent family, first established in the Government of Perm in 1470 and became one of the
wealthiest merchant princes in Russia (Bunt 96). The Stroganov icons were particularly small but
highly elaborate. The miniaturist paid “very particular attention to the thoroughness with which they
executed their work.” (97) As accomplished miniaturists, the artists produced images that were well
proportioned. They were not merely copying images but creative artists retaining the nobility and
simplicity of their style (97).
David Rice described the works of artists from the Stroganov School as having
Bright, gay colours, minute compositions and a linear manner predominate; black, deep brown and
red play a very important part in the colour scheme; the attitudes of the figures are elegant, the
proportions fine and slender. The icons are mostly small, but even large ones are characterised by a
minute manner of painting. The grandeur of the early icons has, it is true, disappeared, but it has
been replaced by a delightful delicacy, which makes of these Stroganov icons lovely and highly
precious objects, even if they are no longer great works of art (37).
Two of the prominent artists from the school include Procopius Chirin (floruit 1620-42) and Simon
Ushakov ( 1628-86) (37).

Icon Painting Technique - A General Description 
Having mentioned the different influences and significant periods in Russian icon art, it is most
appropriate to look into the general techniques used by the artists to create the icon paintings. Cyril
G.E. Bunt in A History of Russian Art gave enlightening narrative on the production process. The
icon was usually done on a panel, composed of one piece or several others glued together local
wood. The panel was shaped using an axe. The panel was prepared until the surface was smooth.
Primers used were meant to cover imperfections in the wood. The primers consisted of “a layer or
layers of thin glue made from hides, or fish-glue, mixed with chalk and smoothed down with a
species of palette knife.” (109-110)
After the primer has dried thoroughly, the artist smoothened the surface with a knife, pumice stone
or, in later times, glass-paper (110). The design was laid out by directly sketching or making outlines
on the gesso. The outlines of the details were later incorporated using a brush in pale green colored
pigment made from “garlic or onion juice, a brew of kvas (rye beer), sugar and soot, thin cinnabar
or other substance.” (110). After having completed the preliminary outline, the artist “fixes” the
design using a sgraffito or needle like instrument and engraved the outline onto the panel (110).
After the outlines, the artist laid out the gold and pigments. The artist did not use a palette to mix
colors and the colors used on the icon art were limited. The artist mixed the colors as the work
progressed. Typical vegetable based pigments use include the colors white, black (soot), ochre,
crimson, azure, cinnabar, maroon, chrome yellow, cinnabar green and umber (111). There were two
methods of applying the colors: the wet and dry methods. In the dry method, the artist applied the
colors in thick condition and moistened periodically. The result was smooth, solid, almost opaque
colors. In the wet method, the artist applied color with saturated brushes. The result was thin wash
and transparent (111). After all the details have been incorporated, the artist prepares the panel for
a final treatment. The olif (varnish composed of linseed oil and amber) was applied to preserve the
completed work. The painting or panel rested horizontally to allow the varnish to dry (112).
Material and Spiritual Context of Russian Icons
When the Russians embraced the icon traditions of the Byzantium, the Eastern Orthodox church
formulated its own doctrine of veneration and the technical requisites in the production of these
icons. Only individuals of good moral values and blessed by a priest were authorized to create icons.
The icon paintings were never signed by the artist, as these were never considered as art (Espinola
17). The finished paintings were blessed by a priest and found their homes in churches, museums
and private residences (17).
Materially, each part of the icon had traditional meanings associated with it. The panel was usually
made of lime, pine, larch or spruce. A resin covered the panel to protect it from moisture. A gold
leaf was often used as a background for the painting. Gold projected light thus associating it with the
illumination from God (18). Early 11th century artists mixed gold with silver giving the work a
greenish tone. On later icons, the gold was bright yellow with reddish tinge (from copper) (18). The
icon was measured and laid out in thirds and the church also provided guidelines on how artists
should represent the religious images on the panels.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, metals or Oklads were used together with wood. A Basma or
handstamped sheet of silver or silvergilt less than half a millimeter thick was attached to the selected
areas of the panel using small nails. By the 17th century, the oklads came as a single sheet of
repoussee and chased metal that repeated iconography (19-20). Oklads could also be made of
gold, gold-plated silver, solid silver, brass or copper, silver plated or plain with additional enamels or
filigree (20).
It was only in Russia that the Byzantine tradition of icon art enjoyed uninterrupted progress. In
Russian icon art painting, the “Byzantine dogma became prayer, and representation became legend.
Clearly-told stories, with no romantic miracles; asceticism without martyrdom: saints without devils;
light without shadows; vision without mystic veiling -these are the new features, which emerge in
ever clearer forms (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus 11). The existence of venerated icons in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provides the beliefs and religious contexts associated with
the Russian Orthodox Church. Every village was assigned an icon of veneration and the veneration
of these icons crossed gender and socioeconomic boundaries (Shevzov 27). The veneration was
also prevalent among the clergy and laity (27). The roots of venerated icons were traced from “an
individual’s perceived encounter with the sacred by means of a particular icon.” (28) In the Russian
Orthodoxy, the venerated icons were “iavlennaia or epiphanic icon.” They were considered unique
not because of the manner they were found (obretannaia) but “because they were perceived as a
sign in the unusual manner” when they appeared to devotees (29).
Special venerations for icons could be a personal or community observance. Often the common laity
figured prominently in special venerations. One could be a personal experience of epiphany and the
other could be a special veneration handed from one generation to another. The veneration of icons
also involved stories. They could be from personal accounts of anomalies experiences associated
with a specific icon. They stories could also come from Eastern Christian Theology of icons where
they were not considered merely as representations of persons and events but they “convey the
presence” of the persons or events that were depicted in icons. Miracle-working icons had roots in
private devotion and passed on from one generation to another (Shevzov (b) 615-617). The faithful
associated the icons with spiritual awakening, comfort and a strong sense of God’s presence (619).
Russian Orthodox theology writers and preachers often used biblical imagery to explain the
“revelatory nature” of miracle icons (624). The biblical reference to the Ark of Covenant and the
presence of God was also associated with the presence felt in miracle icons (Shevzov (b) 624). The
Church emphasized that the presence and the miraculous power were not from the persons or
events represented but from God (624).





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