Russian Icons

Russian Icons

Russian Icons are the foundation upon which Andre Ruzhnikov built his reputation as one of Russia’s foremost art dealers. Meaning ‘image’ or likeness’ in Greek (eikon), icons are devotional tools depicting holy figures—typically Christ, his Mother, or saints—or sacred events. Following a Byzantine tradition, icons became part of the ritual of belief in Russia after Prince Vladimir I of Kiev converted to the Orthodox Christian faith in 988.

Strict rules control governed the composition of icons, and the subjects it was considered appropriate to depict. Perusing the icons collected together by Andre Ruzhnikov in the course of his career, it becomes possible to appreciate the full range of themes, techniques and styles that flourished during the golden age of icon painting in Russia. Among the most popular subjects for icons are the Umilyenie or ‘Loving Kindness’ icon depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child; the ‘Hospitality of Abraham’ showing the first meeting of Abraham with the angels; the ‘Christ in Majesty’ icon designed to inspire awe and reverence; the ‘Mother of God of Kazan’; and many popular scenes from the lives of saints.

Rather than object of worship itself, the icon functioned as conduit, offering the believer a direct means of communing with the holy figure it portrays. Created first for churches, icons became domestic fixtures from the fifteenth century, often placed in the uppermost corner of a room. Conceived as religious objects rather than work of art, icons are rarely signed with the name of their painter. It is nonetheless possible to identify an icon’s origin by the particular style in which it is painted and its depiction of the events described in the image.

The Moscow school, which flourished in Moscow in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is well represented here. Having overtaken the Novgorod school, through which the Byzantine tradition had been preserved, the icon makers working in Moscow adapted the existing conventions to create a truly national art. The village of Palekh later gained a reputation as one of the most important centres for Russian icon painting, its work distinguished by the expressiveness of the narrative scenes and ornamental detail, as exemplified by the fine Baptism of Christ icon in this collection.

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An icon offers the believer a direct means of communing with the holy figure it portrays.

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