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Evolution of Russian Iconography #413860 11/23/15 03:11 PM
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AncientTruth Offline OP
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I deeply appreciate Russian Iconography as a beautiful form of Christian art.

I recently purchased a number of new icons and note that there are some major stylistic changes taking place in what is classified as Russian Iconography. For instance, among the Icons officially being produced by the Russian Orthodox Church, there is a wide range of styles being used.

This triptych icon for instance possesses a more traditional look: http://authenticchristiangifts.com/products/traditional-nativity-triptych-russian-icon

While this triptych has a bit more modern feel, but still contains some traditional elements:
http://authenticchristiangifts.com/products/popular-nativity-triptych-icon-imported-from-russia

This triptych seems to have a more European style painting on it: http://authenticchristiangifts.com/products/jesus-in-bethlehem-triptych-icon

All three are produced by the Russian Orthodox Church at Sofrino. Is Russian Iconography evolving as time passes by, so that new styles are being developed? Or do I have the genre too restricted in my mind? I like all three mind you, but they do not all maintain the feel of a traditional Russian icon.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413862 11/23/15 06:17 PM
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bwbyzman Offline
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There was an unfortunate period in Russian iconography (roughly 1700's to about 1850, if memory serves) during which a great many influences from Western European "realistic" art crept into liturgical art schools in Russia. This usually entailed the use of landscape backgrounds and the abandonment of inverse geometry, both very important elements in traditional iconography. The first link does seem to be more traditional, while the latter two definitely show the influence of Western religious art. There are, of course, a great many examples of Western art which do produce a holy response in the viewer--the "Pieta" comes to mind--but as a recent Pope pointed out (either JPII or Benedict) there really is an ontological difference between the traditional icon and Western religious art. They simply are not the same thing. In my opinion (and I suspect the opinion of most serious iconographers) mixing the two does justice to neither and is actually injurious to the purpose.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413863 11/23/15 08:47 PM
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AncientTruth Offline OP
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Very interesting! I'll need to do some further research on the concept of "inverse geometry" you mention.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413865 11/24/15 08:16 AM
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The place to start in studying the icon is "The Meaning of Icons" by Lossky and Uspensky. This is the "Bible" for iconographers. That being said, there is beginning to be a great literature concerning icons now, from both Western and Eastern sources. Many Western spiritual writers have come upon the spiritual power of icons. The books range from technical manuals to devotional works. Actually, iconology (is it a word?) is one of the more wide open branches of theology these days. There simply were many centuries where systematic work was rarely done. Mostly you find scattered canons and references in Councils and synods. There is not even a collected book of these scattered canons!

Re inverse geometry. This is one of the areas which deserves further study. Just as there is a transcendent theological form of arithmetic (The Holy Trinity: 1+1+1=1; the Mystery of Matrimony: 1+1=1) there is also a form of geometry which transcends earthly perception. (We won't speak of theological calculus and astrophysics here, though I am sure there is work to be done in those areas as well!) Western realistic art largely depicts what the human eye perceives by leading the eye into the painting until it comes to a stop at the point where the scene vanishes into the distance. The icon acts opposite to this. There is no way to get the eye beyond the background of an icon--it is blocked by an area of solid color or gold. (Thus, no landscape for a background--it eliminates the reflective power of the image.) Rather, the eye is reflected back at the viewer along with the image. This has the psychological effect of strengthening the power of the image and actually projecting the image into the very heart of the viewer. The "vanishing point" of the icon is actually the human heart!

Well, I could go on forever, unfortunately. But I'll get off my soapbox now. Hope this spurs you to a further study of icons--and, more importantly, making them more a part of your prayer life!

God bless!

Last edited by bwbyzman; 11/24/15 08:17 AM. Reason: spelling
Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413869 11/24/15 01:55 PM
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AncientTruth Offline OP
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Are you saying an icon is intentionally hemmed in with a solid border so that it forces contemplation of the image? I never realized this was the intent of the border surrounding an icon.

I do note that in all of these icons a border still exists which is not always the case with western artwork.



Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413872 11/24/15 04:51 PM
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All three appear to be the "foil art" type which is particular to the Russian icon style. It is striking and I think it presents a beautiful icon but some people may object.

The first example reflects fully the theology and tradition of the Eastern Churches. The second and third show a great Western European influence, especially the "shed." Note that our Nativity troparia and hymns say "born in a cave," not a barn, which I understand is Franciscan tradition.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413890 11/30/15 04:23 AM
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Mark R Offline
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I would not describe this as an evolution of iconography, but the availability of icons in different styles in a mass produced form.

I must admit I was taken aback by the "foil" icons as they became prevalent in post-Soviet Russia. Besides copies of old originals, my gold standard for new icons was Holy Transfiguration in Boston. I think they are a little tacky too: I dislike the reflected shine on most of the halos and the shiny lamination they use. I think Russia's foil style is meant to imitate the Palekh decorative style a little, but it is a little had to get past since design for the sake of design seems a little antithetical to what an icon is supposed to be.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #413894 11/30/15 09:44 AM
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The border of the icon is an interesting topic. In one sense, it does get across the idea that the illimitable (God) has in fact taken on limited human nature and thus voluntarily placed a "border" on divinity-or as St. Paul put it, He did not see equality with God something to be grasped at in His human nature. This was in fact Eve's and Adam's problem--grasping for equality with God without the necessary divine input. Also, you will notice that in most icons the border itself is a bit broken, usually by the halo but sometimes with other elements--angel wings, for instance, or an area near the top with Christ's hand in blessing. Thus the border also indicates that the block between the human and divine is broken--the Temple veil is torn, so to speak.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: bwbyzman] #414091 12/17/15 11:56 PM
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MariaCatherine Offline
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Originally Posted by bwbyzman
Well, I could go on forever...

I hope you do! For now, though, would you consider going on for at least a few more posts?! I can't buy the book you recommend just now, and I was most edified by your explanation of 'inverse geometry'.

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #414376 01/03/16 05:38 PM
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bwbyzman Offline
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MariaCatherine, don't you know you should never encourage a fanatic? I have glazed many an eye and slackened many a jaw on the subject of icons! But, since you asked and I have a few post-holiday moments, here's a bit more on inverse geometry.

The structure of buildings in icons is the clearest indication of inverse geometry. In Western art the buildings in paintings get smaller in the picture the farther away the structure is--or tile floors, or walls or what have you. The icon reverses this; buildings grow larger the farther away they are. I already mentioned that the "vanishing point" in an icon is the human heart (or soul), the viewer in front of the icon. Going in the other direction, into the icon, the geometry tells us that the lines of perspective going out from the icon will never meet in a vanishing point--they proceed into infinity. Well, behind the icon, beyond the impenetrable solid background, lies the realm of the Holy Trinity. Of course the infinity behind the icon is appropriate for the Holy Trinity, since, lo and behold, God is infinite Being! So the icon has the psychological effect of placing infinity in its proper place, with God. In short, the big "thing" with icons is God. Western art--well, in my opinion, one needs to be very careful with Western religious art. The lines to infinity run out of the front of the picture, past the viewer, making the big "thing" the viewer and beyond that, the world. To sum up, the icon tells the truth about the cosmos, since it makes God the biggest thing in the universe. Western art--well, you get the idea. The revolution in art with the Renaissance and that whole era produced wonderful decorative art, even into the modern age. But the turn in religious art from the iconic image to naturalistic forms carries with it the grave danger of humanizing religious art rather than keeping the focus on God. The philosophical turn to humanism and away from God-centered societies has resulted in our somewhat dismal modern situation; I greatly fear that the repercussions in art has done some similar damage to theology.

OK, I warned you! I have blathered on and on once again. I apologize to all you long-suffering forum members! May everyone have a happy, holy, blessed New Year!

Re: Evolution of Russian Iconography [Re: AncientTruth] #414537 01/16/16 07:28 PM
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OK, MariaCatherine, one more little tidbit: the Trinitarian nature of the icon! Behind the icon is the realm of the infinite God, the inner life of the Holy Trinity or, if you will, the realm of the Father. The face of the icon is the realm of the Son since the icon depicts revealed truth in form and color, just as Jesus Christ revealed Divine Truth. That leaves the world in front of the icon, the "lance" or the "sword" formed by the geometry coming out of the icon, as the realm of the Holy Spirit, sent from the Father, through the Son, to be active in the lives of Christians in the world. Oops--did I just perhaps reveal something of my thoughts on the "filioque" controversy?


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