The strongest single influence on Russian art was the acceptance of Christianity in A.D. 988. Transmitting the idea that the beauty of the church's physical attributes reflects the glory of God, Byzantine religious art and architecture penetrated Kiev, which was the capital of the early Russian state until about 1100. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Until the predominance of Moscow was established at the beginning of the 16th century, Russian art and architecture was primarily Byzantine in character. Most difference were regional variations. Russian culture has evolved hand in hand with the Russian Orthodox Church, which was introduced from Constantinople to Kiev around a thousand years ago by Prince Vladamir.

Byzantine nourished art and religion of Russia and the Balkans. The northern cities of Novgorod and Vladimir developed distinctive architectural styles, and the tradition of painting icons, religious images usually painted on wooden panels, spread as more churches were built. The Mongol occupation (1240-1480) cut Muscovy's ties with the Byzantine Empire, fostering the development of original artistic styles. Among the innovations of this period was the iconostasis, a carved choir screen on which icons are hung. In the early fifteenth century, the master icon painter Andrey Rublev created some of Russia's most treasured religious art. *

As the Mongols were driven out and Moscow became the center of Russian civilization in the late fifteenth century, a new wave of building began in Russia's cities. Italian architects brought a West European influence, especially in the reconstruction of Moscow's Kremlin, the city's twelfth-century wooden fortress. St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, however, combined earlier church architecture with styles from the Tatar east. In the 1500s and 1600s, the tsars supported icon painting, metalwork, and manuscript illumination; as contact with Western Europe increased, those forms began to reflect techniques of the West. Meanwhile, folk art preserved the forms of the earlier Slavic tribes in house decorations, clothing, and tools. *

Byzantine Art

Byzantines created icons, frescoes, monumental reliefs, paintings, chalices, religious manuscripts, coins, ivories, enamels, jewels, silks, ceramics, and precious objects made gemstones, gold and silver. Many works of art were created as objects of prayer. Symmetry, order and harmony are important concepts in Byzantine art.

Byzantine art evolved in Constantinople and the Byzantine empire but was nourished by the art and religion of Russia and the Balkans. Artist who made even the greatest masterpieces are unknown. Artist didn’t put their names on works partly because they were supposed to be divinely inspired. Sometimes there is a name on the works but it not known whether it was an artist or patron.

Byzantine mosaics and frescoes usually depicted vivid scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary or one of the saints. One of their functions was to instruct and educate common people who were mostly illiterate. Common Stories Were Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Christ Before Pontius Pilate, St. Peter Taken Prisoner, Christ's Resurrection, Jacob Wrestling with an Angel, Daniel in the Lions Den, the Martyrdom of St. Paul, Job and the Whale, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, Moses Crossing the Red Sea, the Parting of Lot and Abraham, and the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

Churches are decorated with frescoes, mosaics and icons that are both objects of venation and devices for instruction. Different subjects often have designated places within the church, The Last Judgement, for example, is often on the west wall. Most viewers of the mosaics and frescoes in a Christian church were supposed to be familiar with the stories of the Christian scenes hence the artwork was viewed as more of a dramatic representation of the scene with new insights and embellishments not a narrative that is telling the story for the first time.

"Christianity in the old Russian empire was the frontier faith of a colonizing people," wrote Russian expert James Billington in Smithsonian magazine. "The rugged new converts sought to beatify their churches and worship services rather than to discuss the fine points of dogma. So they developed a 'theology in pictures' in pictures rather in words—filling their churches with frescoes, icons and candle, embellishing them in the northern climate with new, snow-shedding onion domes and tent roofs that differed from the hemispheric domes of the Mediterranean world."

The Orthodox Church has traditionally been against the use of statues. There are virtually no freestanding statues from the Byzantine period. They were associated with pagan worship. The closest things are reliefs.

Byzantine Treasures

The period between A.D. 843 and 1261 is regarded as the Second Golden Age of Byzantine civilization. Many of the Byzantine masterpieces that survived today are from This period. The years 843 marks the end of the Age of Iconoclasm. The years 1261 marks the end of the Roman occupation of Constantinople after Crusaders sacked it in 1204. [Source: Helen Dudar, Smithsonian magazine]

Byzantine treasures include a 12th century chalice made for the Abbey Church of St. Denis that included a first century B.C. sardonyx cup; a 9th-century reliquary made to hold pieces of the True Cross; 12th century Belgium triptychs that held the True Cross; 11th century marble reliefs of the Virgin facing Christ; a 10th century golden vessel with reliefs of holy figures; the “Deacon Stephen” (a 12th century mosaic from the Ukraine that occupies seven feet of space); and a necklace from Bulgaria with filagree work and pendant-like pieces with portraits of saints.

Orthodox Christian art from Russia includes religious objects such as bibles censors, chalices, and altar clothes covered with gold and studded with jewels. One 17th-century altar cross has an enamel image of Christ surrounded by uncut diamonds, rubies, sapphires and semiprecious stones. Some religious objects are adorned with skull ad crossbones. An eccelestial pendant from the 17th century features a central sapphire with octagonal gold mount studded rubies and emerald attachments.


Icons are images of religious figures or scenes. Deeply revered by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially in Russia, they are regarded as dematerialized ideal forms and the very act of painting them is regarded as a form of worship.

Most icons are small pictures painted on a panel of wood from 12 centimeters to 30 centimeters in height but they can also be large paintings, sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, bas reliefs, and other art forms made from marble, ivory, chalcedony, cloisonne enamel, silver, gold and terra cotta.

Icons (also spelled ikons) are worshiped privately at home and publically in churches. They have traditionally been displayed with candles burning in front of them. This practice has meant that many old icons are covered in soot and damaged by heat.

Icons are treated with great reverence because they are regarded as material forms of spirituality and symbolize the resurrection of the body o bring about harmony between the material and spiritual worlds. Icons were originally painted by monks as a spiritual exercise. The Byzantines decreed that only Christ, the Virgin Mary, the angels, saints and episodes from the Bible could be painted, and these were supposed to be copies of prescribed images.

Icons have traditionally been kept in the “red corner” of a peasant’s home. Up until the time of Peter the Great icons were the main form of art in Russia. The veneration of icons was adopted in various figurative ways by the Communist party for its own sacred imagery.

Book: “The Icon” by Kurt Weitzman (Knopf)

Icon Images

Icons depict Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and scenes from the Old and New testaments. Traditional Christ images include the Pantokratier (All-Tuler) and the Mandilion (an image of Christ's face said to have been imprinted on a handkerchief of St. Veronica. Other themes include: Feasts, Meditations, the Mother God.

Icon themes included Feasts, Meditations and the Mother God, Believers in the divinity of icons claim that Christ himself allowed St. Peter to paint his image and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary were miraculously placed on the earth by God himself.

Icons were usually flattened figures, suspended on a gold background. The religious scholar Nicolas Zernov wrote: “Men and women depicted on ikons represent those Christians who gave up their selfish and self-centered existence and entered into the wider and inspiring world of loving followings, with their Creator and their fellow-men. Such an achievement required struggle, self-discipline and sacrifices. The saints therefore represented on ikons are ascetics, whose movements are restrained and whose bodies bear the signs of voluntary privations, but their robes are shiny and their faces are turned towards the new world of joy and freedom. The triumph is expressed in their eyes, and the contrast between their bodies and the intense aliveness of their eyes, and the contrast between the immobility of their bodies and the their reconciliation with their Creator ad the perfect control over after which they have achieved.”

Purpose and Veneration of Icons

Icons are believed by many to have healing powers and the ability to bring luck, wishes and even miracles. But, Zernov wrote: “The aim of the ikon is to help the worshiper to realize his dependence on the spiritual world and assist him in his efforts too attain harmony between his body and soul,”

To express their veneration of icons, Orthodox Christian faithful buy a candle, cross themselves in the Orthodox style, light the candle and place it in front of the icon and kiss the icon. Placing a candle in front of an icon represents the warm affection for the Saints and the interdependence of the work of the Saints and the dead with those of living human beings.

"To the Orthodox," Princeton University professor Kurt Weitzmann said, "an icon is more than an object of reverence. It stimulates the worshiper to apprehend the spiritual value portrayed—and it performs a definite function in the liturgy of the church. At the beginning of a service, the priest and the deacon bow before and pass smoking censers in front of the icons of Christ, of the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, the saint of the church and the saint of the day."♪

Making an Icon

Icons were usually painted in tempera (inorganic pigments mixed with a binder such as egg yolks) on wood. They tended to fade with time. Often touch up work injured the work by the original artist.

A properly-made icon was created from paint mixed with baptismal water by a fasting artist who abstained from worldly pleasures such as enjoying a feast, drinking alcohol or dancing. The best icons are made egg with tempura paint applied with a squirrel-tail brush on papier mache.

“Encolpia”, or “phylacteria”, are small icons intended to be carried long journeys. They are carved in stone, bone or ivory or cast in bronze or copper.


Icons are placed in different parts of the churches. The most important ones have traditionally been found on the iconostasis, a large screen that divides the sanctuary (altar area) on the eastern end of the church from the body of the church and conceals the altar from the congregation. The screen represents the line between the heaven and earth.

Main icons on the iconstasis honor Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and the saint of the church. Above the main icons are smaller icons, arranged like a calendar to depict the saints and their feasts during the ecclesiastical year. Orthodox worshipers often walk up to icons and kiss them.

The iconostasis is generally comprised of up to six tiers of icons. The largest is the central row, which depicts Christ enthroned as a judge with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist interceding for humanity on either side. Apostles, archangels and saints of Eastern Church may also appear here.

Below the central row are one or two rows of smaller cions: the bottom is for saints associated the locality of he church. Above this is the festival row showing the annual festivals of the church. There is also a prophet row, with Old Testament prophets. Sometimes there is a patriarch row, with Old Testament patriarchs.

The iconstasis has three doors leading into the sanctuary. The central one is called the Royal Door. It is decorated with pictures of the Annunciation and of the four Evangelists. Only the person representing the Redeemer can enter this door for it represents the opening of the door to the divine world for mankind by removing sin. Through this door the Redeemer brings the Bible and the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist.

Icons as Art

Icons were traditionally regarded only as objects of veneration. Only in the 20th century did they become thought of as works of art.

Helen Dudar wrote in Smithsonian magazine: "To the modern eye, Byzantine images suggest a stiff, stylized figure. But in their own time, icons were true “portraits”, the faces, bodies and costumes authenticated through dreams and visions that provided models or features carefully duplicated, through centuries of portrait painting, from divinely inspired works."

Dudar wrote: "There were obvious rules. The apostles, for example, were likely to show a modest degree of both motion and emotion; sharing life on earth made them more human than later acetic saints who were disembodied—depicted as rigid and flat—because they had a special closeness to Christ as God.”

Novgordian school of icon painting is famous for its high artistic quality and prolific output. Icons from Georgia are known for the gentleness and expressive emotion. Those from Thessalonika, Greece are noted for their realism. Ones made in the Middle East during the Crusades mixed Eastern mysticism and Western realism.

Oldest Icons

The Lateran icon of Christ has been regularly used in church rituals at Lateran church in Rome since around A.D. 600. Encased in silver since the 13th century and repainted and repaired many times, it has two small doors over the feet which are opened on Easter Sunday by the Pope who kisses the feet of the icon and calls out three times, "The Lord is risen from the grave." The icon was reputedly made by St. Luke.

St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai is the oldest Byzantine church in the world after Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. It also has the greatest collection of Byzantine manuscripts, art and iconography in the world—and ironically its isolated location is responsible for this. During the 8th century the Byzantine hierarchy decreed the destruction of all icons. Isolated by Islam, the order was never heard and never enforced at St. Catherine's Monastery. Consequently, nearly all the 6th and 7th century icons in the world today are found here. Its collection of 3,000 manuscripts, with texts written in Ethiopic, Syriac, Greek and Arabic, is equally old and equally remarkable.

History of Russian Icons

The first "Russian" icons were made by Byzantine monks in Kiev. Uniquely Russian forms evolved in Novgorod where icon makers began employing methods used in Russian folk art such outlining the figures with well-defined black lines, using lighter colors such as pale yellows and greens and giving the figures softer faces.

The earliest icons came from the Constantinople-based Byzantine Empire. From Constantinople the influence of the Byzantine style of icon spread to neighboring countries especially in the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and Russia. Early icons were large and were similar to European religious paintings. Over time they became smaller and more crowded with figures.

According to the 100 Chapter Council established by Ivan the Terrible in 1551, no icon could be displayed without the approval of special "icon masters" charged with the responsibility of examining every painting in every village, church and monastery.

The conventional wisdom is that icon painting started to decline in the 17th century. A more accurate assessment is that many more icons were produced after that and good pieces were lost among a large numbers of works of all levels of quality. Many of the best works from the mid-17th century onward were made by Old Believers.

The Communists banned icon painting. Icon painters made their living by painting miniatures of Russian folk tales and Soviet village idylls. In the post cold-war chaos there was a wave of icon stealing from churches in eastern Europe.

One Russian soldier who fought in Chechnya—Yevgeny Rodionove—became an icon and unauthorized saint. Images of him in religious robes and with a halo and a military uniform appeared. He was selected for this honor because, the story goes, after he was captured by Muslim fighters in 1996, when he was only 19, he was killed because he refused to renounce his religion or remove a small silver cross around his neck. Earlier he was captured at a checkpoint he was manning. He was held captive in a separatist base for 100 days before he was killed. A number of websites devoted to him were launched. Many were run by nationalist groups. His grave in the town of Kurilova became a pilgrimage site. There have been a number of reports of his icons releasing rivulets of holy perfumes as some extremely sacred icons reportedly do.

Russian Icon Makers

Theopahnes the Greek (1340-1405) is the most well-known early icon maker. He worked in Constantinople and then Novgorod and then Moscow. He is credited with bringing to grace and delicacy to the art form. His finest works are in the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin.

Andrei Rublyev (1360-1430) is regarded as the greatest artist in medieval Russia. He was an icon painter who has much influence on icon painting as Giotto did on Renaissance painting. His works are remarkable for their skill and use of perspective.

Rublyev was a monk at the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, Sergiev Posad and the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow. Only a handful of his works remain. The most famous is the “Old Testament Trinity” in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.

Other famous icon makers include Dionysius, a 15th century layman credited with making the figures finer and refining the use of color; and Simon Ushakov, a 17th century Moscow-based artist, who incorporated Western elements such as perspective and architectural backgrounds.

Palekh Icons

Palekh, a village near the Volga River about 200 miles east of Moscow, is generally regarded as the home of the best icon painters in Russia. Icons and miniatures from Palekh can sell for thousands of dollars. Palekh, art is so famous in fact that art markets in Europe and the United States have been flooded with fake of Palekh art.

The Soviet government once possessed a monopoly on the sale and export of art from Palekh but since the collapse of Communism, the monopoly has been broken. In the 1990s and the villages 350 or so painters formed seven competing guilds that allowed the artists to receive up to 25 percent of retail price from their work, compared to 5 percent in the Soviet era. They earned about $100 a month, about the same as a Russian worker.

The masters in Palekh began making gold-trim lacquer boxes for businessmen and their mistresses. Some artist are insulted to do this kind of work; others saw it as an opportunity.

Famous Russian Icons

Among the most famous works at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery the museum is the 12th century Byzantine masterpiece, the “Vladamir Icon of the Mother of God”, the most valued icon in Russia and an inspiration for icon makers all over Russia for centuries. Equally famous is “Old Testament Trinity” (1402) by Andrei Rublyev (1360-1430), regarded as the greatest artist and an icon painter in medieval Russia. There also famous icons by Diobysius, and Theophanes the Greek,

Priceless icons line the walls of the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow. The iconostasis was raised in 1652. The oldest icons ar on the lowest level. They include “Savior with the Angry Eyes” (made in the 1340s) and an early 15th century, Rublyov-school copy of the “Vladamir Icon of the Mother of God” (the original is at the Tretyakov Gallery). The oldest icon, “St. George” made in Novgorod, dates back to the 12th century.

The famous 12th-century “Archangel Gabriel With the Golden Hair” icon is in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. “Apostle Peter and Paul” by Andrey Rublyov and the figure of “Doubting Thomas” (circa 1500) are found there.

The famous 17th century "Our Lady of Kazan" icon is a painted image of the Virgin and child smothered by an elaborate frame of gold and jewels.


The first churches were built of heavy stones, had few windows and consequently were very dark. Mosaic, one of the more illustrious forms of art, were used in part to brighten up the interior of churches. Gold, which is especially bright, was commonly used for the backgrounds. As time went on the figures of Christ and other Christian figures in mosaics become darker and gloomier, a characteristic brought out all the more with a gold background. [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

Mosaics are beautiful and take a lot of labor-intensive, meticulous work to create but they have lasted through the centuries because of the indestructible nature of the stones, glasses and other materials used to make them.

Mosaics date back to the dawn of civilization at Mesopotamia where architects used small colored objects to decorate the temples in Uruk in the forth millennium B.C. In the third millennia B.C. Sumerians used them to decorates architectural surfaces.

Mosaic art was first practiced on a large scale by the Greeks and Romans. They used pebbles and shells to make pictorial composition around the forth century B.C. Early Greco-Roman artisans began making mosaics with pieces of colored glass broken off in different shapes from thin sheets baked in a kiln.

Greco-Romans set pebbles, then cut stones and small cubes of marble and finally glass into a plaster bed. They decorated a few walls this way, but most of the work was confined to floors. The earliest known Greek mosaics date to the eighth century B.C. and were found in Asia Minor. They were used to decorate floors in much the same way carpets are used today.

The ancient Romans raised mosaic making to a high art. They used mosaics almost exclusively on the floors of their bathes and villas; frescoes adorned the walls. Typical Roman mosaics contained battles scenes with charging cavalries; mythical scenes with romping gods and goddesses, accompanied by nymphs and satyrs. Christianized Romans did not want their sacred mosaics to be walked on so they used them to decorate the walls and cupolas of their new churches.

Byzantine Mosaics

Wall mosaics began to catch on in the late Roman period but it was the Byzantines who raised mosaics to an expression of high art. Romans built mosaic floors while Christian Byzantines made mosaic ceilings and upper walls to glorify God and heaven. Many Byzantine mosaics have a gold background.

Byzantine mosaics were made to both dazzle and instruct the people who came to the church, the majority of whom were illiterate. The exterior of the churches that housed the mosaics were usually drab and monolithic.

"A symphony of shapes and symbols," wrote Robert Wernick in Smithsonian magazine, "was to conduct the eye toward the triumphant truth of revealed religion. Truth was overhead in the rounded ceilings of domes and apses, in the from of a golden cross in a starry sky, a Virgin and Child, a mystic lamb, a baptisms in the Jordan. On the walls below, drawing the eye upward, were scenes from the Old Testament—the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek, the visions of Moses and Elijah—prefiguring the coming of Christ; scenes from the New testament confirming the prophecies of the Old: processions, rituals, saints, martyrs, birds and beats and flowers."

The Byzantine art of mosaic making reached its zenith in A.D. 5th century Ravenna, where artisans used 300 different shades of colored glass—broken into square, oblong, teasserae and irregular shapes—to compose pictures of landscapes, battle scenes, abstract geometrical patterns and religious and mythical scenes.

We know virtually nothing about the artisans who created the great Byzantine mosaic masterpieces. they didn't sign their names and scholars are not even sure whether they were Romans or Greeks.

Among the largest icons still in existence are an 11th century marble mosaic from Constantinople which was six-and-half feet tall and huge 10th century mosaic images of Christ still in place above the door at Hagia Sophia.

Making Mosaics

To create a mosaic says Princeton University professor Kurt Weitzmann "a master artist, advised by a learned cleric concerning the theoretical accuracy of the subject matter, first sketched an entire scene. Assistants helped to design a series of cartoons; they determined the preliminary lines to be drawn on the wet plaster. Then in descending order of ability, the best mosaicists executed the heads of the figures, others filled in the details such as draped backgrounds, and still others the plain background. Since successful workshops depended on long traditions and complex skills, only great artistic centers could maintain them. For centuries Constantinople dominated the world of mosaic art."♪

Many mosaics are made from stone cubes about the size of dice. Herbert Kessler of John Hopkins wrote in Smithsonian: ""Course plaster laden with straw was troweled into the wall and over it; a smoother coat was spread in areas just large enough to finish before the bed hardened. Designs from carefully prepared cartoons were transferred to the wet surface, and then finally, the master mosaicists worked their magic creating flesh, cloth and feathers from stone and precious metals, and torrents of rain, smoke and sky from marble and glass. In some passages they used subtle tonalities to produce a subdued effects; elsewhere, they animated the surfaces with splashes of yellow, red and green. Throughout their comprehensive pictogram of decoration, however artistry and technical virtuosity knit an infinitely complex design into a cohesive whole.”

As Serat and the Pointillists later discovered, mosaic images made with fragments of pure color radiated power and intensity when viewed at the proper distance. This effect was intensified in Byzantine mosaics which were often made of highly reflective colored glass.


Frescoes were the most common kind of paintings found in Byzantine churches. They were painted on wet plaster, meaning the artist had little time to work and little room for error. Before getting the plaster ready, the artist drew a picture of the fresco image he wanted to create. Next, his helpers trawled a layer of wet plaster on top of a dry layer and the picture was placed over the plaster.

The artist then outlined his figures by pressing a stylus along the lines of the paper which left a groove in the wet plaster, or he pricked pin holes along the lines of the drawing and rubbed charcoal over the holes which produced a dotted outline of the image. The artist then painted the picture, with darker colors that he wanted on the final product, because when the water-based pigments bonded with the plaster their color lightened.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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