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Icon Painting

To see the invisible

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From ancient times icon painting served as a «language for the illiterates» — a special language with its own rules and symbols. For centuries icon painting masters perfected it trying to convey spiritual otherness by material means. That is why icon painting is still considered to be the most difficult and rare art, a combination of the human possibilities and the divine principle.
Icon painting, also called isography, is a kind of Christian church painting, intended to create sacred images — icons.
Such works replaced the written word with its colours, just as the Gothic cathedral translated the scholasticism and secrets of alchemy into a visual language.

What Is Icon?

The Ancient Greek «ee-kon» (εἰκών) means «image», «likeness». However, the icon painting works are usually the images created for prayer, painted on a board.
Icon Painting. Icons



Icon is often called the «book of faith» and «theology in colours». Throughout the history of Christianity, it served as a symbol of people’s faith in God and His help.
Therefore, icons do not depict anything, they only show the prototype. Its purpose is to reflect the divine essence in the human form.
This arises the need for a strict system of painting sacred images — the iconographic canon. It determined the composition of the image: how to build the story, faces and their actions, surroundings, what is the composition decision.

Positions of iconoclasts and icon-worshipers

Misunderstanding of the icons symbolic essence in the 8th — early 9th century brought to the dispute about the veneration of icons. Iconoclasts condemned the veneration of icons, considering them idols, and worshiping them was said to be idolatry.
Patriarch Nicephorus. A miniature from the Psalter of Theodore of Caesarea. 1066, photo
This position was based on the Old Testament commandment: «You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below; you shall not bow down to them or worship them…» In addition, it was supported by real events, as people sometimes surrounded icons with superstitious worship, fetishizing them.
The words of Anastasius of Sinai from the pre-iconoclastic period are significant: «Many people think that baptism is honoured enough by those who enter the church to kiss all the icons without paying attention to the liturgy and worship.»

Icon-worshipers restored the ancient understanding of the image essence, when:

The icon was considered the visible image of an invisible world

According to John Damascene, «icons are visible of the invisible and shapeless, but bodily depicted because of the weakness of our understanding». Through the icons, we dimly see the divine revelations. Thus, the veneration of icons was fixed by the dogma (immutable truth) of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787.


The Birth of Iconography

Tradition connects creation of the first man-made icons with the apostle and evangelist Luke, who was not only an educated man, a doctor, but also an artist who painted the first image of the Mother of God.
The classical homeland of iconography is Byzantium. It is from here that the icon painting, together with the Christian faith, first comes to the Balkan countries, and then to Ruthenia. Influenced by the Byzantine artistic culture, other national cultures, including the Old Ruthenian one, were formed, and also the iconography of all Orthodox countries developed: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Ruthenia, Georgia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. The culture of Italy, primarily Venice, fell under the influence of Byzantium too.
The earliest icons of the 6th-7th centuries, «Christ the Pantocrator (the Almighty)», «The Apostle Peter», «The Virgin with the Child», preserved the ancient technique of encaustic (wax was the binding agent of the paints). This brings them together with the masterpieces of Egyptian-Hellenistic art — Fayum portraits. Christian images inherited big eyes with a seal of detachment and a golden background from them as well.
  • Fayum portrait of a man
  • Icon "Christ the Pantocrator"

Drawing Up the Christian Image

After the time of iconoclasm, the Hellenistic tradition got revised and adapted to Christian teaching. Antique naturalism disappeared, the image became more conventional, alive faces changed into holy faces. The reverse perspective is used, that is, the vanishing point is not located in the depth of the image, but on the person standing in front of the icon, and the timeless image. There is no light source (the whole icon is light-bearing) and the figures do not cast shadows, for there are no shadows in the Kingdom of God. All these features of the image were designed to separate the «heavenly» world from the «lower» one. For this purpose, it was also forbidden in the iconography to paint the Virgin, Christ and other saints from living people or according to the imagination of the artist, but only in accordance with the icon painting canon. Therefore, they used exempla — special guides for icon painters, where each story was verbally described.

The symbol of the epoch was the Our Lady of Vladimir icon. It has come from Constantinople to Kyiv in the beginning of XII century, but in 1155, it was taken away to Vladimir (hence the name) by Andrey Bogolyubsky.
Russian Icon. Our Lady Of Vladimir
Our Lady of Vladimir, 1130s.

The icon became one of the most famous in Ruthenia and revered miraculous.

It is an early example of the Eleusa iconography, with the Christ child snuggling up to his mother’s cheek, which became traditional and favourite in Ruthenia.
Iconography continued its evolution after the pillage of Constantinople in 1204, giving birth to a new type of icon — the hagiographical icon or the icon with hagiography (besides the saint himself, it depicted scenes from his life). However, the gradual weakening of the Byzantine Empire, the destruction of Constantinople forced the best masters to leave the country and seek work in other countries.

Ruthenian iconography

The Orthodox faith brought the new art to Ruthenia; however, the artists did not copy, but processed Byzantine experience, adapted it to the local traditions, creating unique works. In addition, besides the Byzantine culture, Western culture was popular in Ruthenia, in particular Scandinavian.
Unfortunately, most of the icon painting works of Kyivan Rus did not reach us, having perished in the devastating raids of the Tatars. However, that period still retained the name of the famous Ruthenian icon painter of the 11th — early 12th centuries: Alimpius Pechersky, the monk.
Icon Painting. George
St. George, the late 11th or early 12th century. One of the oldest Ruthenian icons.

The saint martyr soldier George was especially revered throughout the Christian world.
The oldest icons were preserved until later in Veliky Novgorod, in the St. Sophia Cathedral. Subsequently, many Novgorod icons were taken out by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to decorate the Moscow churches. The original decoration of St. Sofia Cathedral in Novgorod is represented by Korsun icons Savior in a Golden Riza, Apostles Peter and Paul (photo).
Icon Painting. The Annunciation
  • Apostles Peter and Paul, mid-11th century
  • Ustyug Annunciation, early 12th century
The earliest Ruthenian icon of the 12th century is the Annunciation (or Ustyug Annunciation), which is stylistically close to two icons: The Angel with the Golden Hair and the famous Saviour Not Made by Hands, depicting the cross worship on its back.
Icon Painting. Christ
Saviour Not Made by Hands, Novgorod, 12th century

It was this solemn and severe face of Christ that was depicted on Ruthenian military banners.
Icon Painting. The Virgin Great Panagia (Orans)


Among the best Ruthenian icons is The Virgin Oranta (The Great Panagia), sometimes it is also called Our Lady of the Sign, Our Lady of Vlahernitis or Yaroslavl Oranta.

Its composition takes into account many Byzantine iconographic traditions, but has no analogues in Byzantine works.

One of the largest Ruthenian icons (184×129 cm) is the Saint Nicholas by the icon painter respected enough, as he indicated his name in the inscription below — Alexa Petrov. In the Ruthenian images of St. Nicholas in XII—XIII centuries, admiration for his image (either the inscription «super-saint», or lines artistry applied) is always very noticeable.
St. Nicolas with the chosen saints on the polya (St. Nicholas «Lipensky»). Alexa Petrov. 1294, (photo)

Saint Nicolas was revered as a defender of the Christian faith and a fighter with heresy.
The weakening of the link between Ruthenia and Byzantium gave favourable opportunities for the formation and development of original art schools in Novgorod, Vladimir-Suzdal, Tver, Pskov and other lands.
The Mongol-Tatar conquest and foreign expansion proved to be rather pernicious for the southern and south-western lands. Therefore, Moscow’s hegemony, established from the mid-14th century, took full advantage to overtake the centre of socio-political and cultural life, which gradually shifted to the north-east. The artistic life of the «third Rome» was led by the great master Theophanes the Greek.
Icon Painting. The Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Our Lady of the Don (front side)
  • The Assumption of the Virgin (turnover)
The best icon created by Theophanes or his entourage is Our Lady of the Don from the Assumption Cathedral in Kolomna, famous as a miracle-working one, with The Assumption of the Virgin on the back.
At the end of the 14th-16th centuries, there appeared such a Russian national phenomenon as a high iconostasis. The oldest surviving Russian high iconostasis is the one in the Annunciation Cathedral. Obviously, it has risen due to the great role of Theophanes the Greek, Andrei Rublev and their comrades. The high iconostasis was a high wall of several rows of icons (tiers).

Photo of the iconostasis from the book by V. D. Sarabianova, E. S. Smirnova «History of Old Ruthenian Painting»

The lowest row is the Veneration tier; it contains the most revered local icons. Then goes the Deesis tier, it depicts the prayer to the Savior for the human race, with the figures of the Mother of God, the Forerunner, archangels, apostles, baptists, martyrs, saints and stulites. The Feast tier includes icons dedicated to the twelve major church holidays. In the 15th century, the Prophets tier appeared, with the Mother of God with the baby in its centre, and in the 16th century, there appeared the Forefathers tier with the central Trinity of New Testament.

The center of the whole ensemble is the middle icon of the Deesis tier, depicting Christ on the throne, surrounded by heavenly powers (Savior In Power or Savior In Glory).

The first seven icons of the Feast tier of the Annunciation Cathedral iconostasis are traditionally associated with the name of the famous icon painter of Ancient Ruthenia, Andrei Rublev.


In 1918, three Rublev’s icons from the Deesis tier (the Deesis of Zvenigorod) were found in a wood-burning barn in Zvenigorod: Archangel Michael, The Savior, Apostle Paul, photo
Andrey Rublev. Trinity

The most perfect work by Rublev is the icon Trinity in the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

In the 14th century, the cult of the Trinity was popular in East Slav lands, which had not only a theological, but also a historical basis. The inseparable Holy Trinity, condemned disunity and preached unity, and the distinct Trinity condemned foreign oppression and called for liberation.

Dionysius was the continuer of the Rublev direction and the largest artist of the second half of the 15th century; his influence affected all the art of the subsequent 16th century.

The 17th century in the history of Muscovite icon painting began with the competition of two art schools: Godunov (many artworks were commissioned by Godunov and his relatives) and Stroganov (by the name of the patrons Stroganovs). In the iconography, the Stroganov school was manifested more vividly, their icons bore an intensified aesthetic principle: a virtuoso drawing and a rich delicate ornament. The most famous master of this trend was Procopius Chirin (photos of icons).

  • Procopius Chirin. Nikita the Warrior. 1593
  • Procopius Chirin. Selected Saints, late 16th – early 17th century
The head of the icon painters of the mid-17th century was the master Simon Ushakov, whose first artworks became a sensation, parting with many canons of traditional icon painting. The icon The Savior Not Made by Hands and other his works provoked rage among the Muscovite zealots of tradition, although they remained within the framework of the Middle Ages.
Gradually, the decline of icon painting begins: icons are painted primarily on commission, since the 18th century, oil painting has displaced traditional tempera technique, and the painting of icons attracts secular, irreligious artists.

The Symbolism×Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

read more Symbolism (фр. Symbolisme) is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-80s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the XІX-XX centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if the author came to quiet despair, but was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



read more
of Icon

The expression «the language of icon painting» is more than just a metaphor. For people, sacral images become the standards of how to see the unseen, rallying the prayers.

Conditionality of the image. The conditional nature of the painting emphasized the unearthly nature, spirituality in the guise of the persons depicted on the icon. This determined the stylized proportions of figures (elongated or shortened) — the idea of a transformed, purified flesh that inhabits the heavenly world.

Inscriptions. Inscriptions (titles) are a necessary element of the icon, expressing the prototype as well as the image itself, so that the icon can’t exist without them. It is symbolic that on East Slav icons, inscriptions are often in Greek, that is, they are not intended for understanding, but for sacred identification of the image and name.
Examples of titles in Church Slavonic, photo
Disclosure of the icon. In the icon-painting language, the process of creating icons appears as a symbolic process of gradual disclosure of the image, as if the image had already existed initially, and the iconographer just reveals it to the world through his spiritual vision. Therefore, it was believed that a non-believer (or an unbeliever) cannot properly open the image and, therefore, his icon was not recognized as sacred.

Colour. The basis of Christian colour symbolism×Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

read more Symbolism (фр. Symbolisme) is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-80s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the XІX-XX centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if the author came to quiet despair, but was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



read more
was developed by the Byzantine writer Dionysius the Areopagite in the 4th century. Thus, the cherry blossom, uniting red and violet (the beginning and the end of the spectrum) means Christ Himself, the beginning and the end of everything. Red is the colour of the blood of Christ, the divine fire; in Byzantium, it is the colour of royal dignity, but on the icons of martyrs it can symbolize sacrifice for the sake of Christ.
Icon Painting. Ascension


The golden colour was perceived as divine or taborian, which is connected with the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, described in the Holy Scripture, where His image appeared in a blinding golden glow.
This colour on icons was created not with paint, but with gold, as a sign of involvement in the Divinity.

White is the symbol of the Divine light, the colour of holiness and simplicity.

Cyan and blue are the colours of the sky, purity, a symbol of eternal peace. Green is the colour of the Holy Spirit, the symbol of eternal life. Christ is always portrayed in a cherry chiton and a blue cloak, called himation, and the Mother of God is in a dark blue chiton and a cherry veil — omophorion.

The sign of sin. In Christian iconography, sin and vice are denoted by hair standing on end, a traditional demonic hairdo. Horns only occasionally appeared in the 17th century, but it didn’t cancel the loosened curls. Such a hairstyle in humans means that they are sinners, heretics or pagans. However, if the crested man is painted in dark paint, then it is a demonic power.
Satan in hell with the soul of Judas in his hands. Fragment of the icon The Last Judgment, mid-15th century, photo
Right and left. In the iconography, the right and left parts are not defined from the viewer’s point of view, but from the central figure of the image. Thus, the «right» part of the image is on the right hand of the character figure (left for the viewer), and the «left» is on the left (right for the viewer). The same applies to the eight-pointed cross: its lower transverse part is depicted with a right-to-left tilt. The opposition of the right and left parts corresponds to the opposition of the Old (left) and New Testament (right side). The figures to the right of the central image are always more significant than those on the left.
In the icons of the Last Judgment the righteous people are on the right hand of Christ, the sinners on the left. (photo)
Overpainting of icons. Overpainting is painting a new icon on an old image, which is has its own sacred character. The fact is that the icons, even those decaying from old age, must not be destroyed. Sometimes they were buried in a cemetery or they were allowed to run along the current water, similar to a burial in a boat. However, people believed that after the overpainting, the first image would certainly influence the second one.

Icon Painting Technique

Icon painting is essentially a continuation of the technique of wall painting, liberated from the architectural dependence.

«The first concern of the icon painter is to turn the board into a wall.»

Icons are painted on carefully selected wooden boards (usually use linden). The board can have a depression on the front side, kovcheg, which is unnecessary. Then the board is prepared for painting, for this purpose it is permeated with well-boiled liquid glue, and stick special canvas or rare hemp mesh fabric. Then the board is primed with gesso consisting of boiled oil and chalk. After that, there goes multiple grinding and the final surface finish with horsetail or, recently, glass paper.
Only afterwards you may use the prepared board for drawing. Initially, the first drawing is made, then the second, a more detailed one. After this the actual coloring begins; they call it roskrysh.
Icon gilding stage, photo
Just like in ancient times, icon painters use egg tempera on natural mineral pigments as paint. At first, everything is gilded with gold or covered with gold hatching: icon polya, light, clothes of Christ and the Mother of God, thrones. Then the artist paints clothes, buildings, landscape, and at the final stage is faces. Upon completion of all the work, the finished icon is covered with a protective layer of linseed oil.

Icons revival

In the late 19th — early 20th centuries, there had been a real revolution in the science of church art. In the West, and then in Russia, Byzantine art is rehabilitated. Interest to the Russian icon is growing. Matisse, who visited Moscow in 1911, said about his impression, «The Russians do not suspect what artistic wealth they have… Your students have incomparably better examples of art here, at home, than abroad. French artists should go to Russia and study×A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? read more
. Italy gives less in this area."

The exhibition of 1913 became a true coup for wide circles. It revealed to visitors, that the icon is «one of the most perfect works of the Ruthenian genius».


Iconography: A Crib


Artists who worked in icon painting: Alimpius Pechersky, Alexa Petrov, Theophanes the Greek, Andrei Rublev, Prokhor of Gorodets, Daniel Chorny, Dionisy, Procopius Chirin, Simon Ushakov, Nikifor Savin, Semen Spiridonov


You are an expert, if you:


• know that you must worship the prototypes that the icons reflect, not the icons themselves
• find the purpose of the icon in prayer, and not in the temple decoration
• understand that all the images on the icon have their meaning and symbolism×Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

read more Symbolism (фр. Symbolisme) is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-80s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the XІX-XX centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if the author came to quiet despair, but was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



read more


You are a layman, if you:

• consider icon painting nothing more than a painting genre
• find analogues of pagan idols in the icons

Author: Iryna Frykina
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Cover illustration: the Byzantine icon Apostle Luke, early 15th century, photo
Artists mentioned in the article
Феофан Грек
Biography • Artworks
Andrey Rublev
Biography • Artworks
Simon Ushakov
Biography • Artworks
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