A catalogue of the Russian icons in the British Museum

By Yury Bobrov / Edited by Chris Entwistle

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Meaning and history of the icon

The history of the Russian icon, it sometimes seems, should be written not in academic language, but in the high language of tragedy. Periods of spiritual flight and artistic revelation, periods of oblivion and repression, periods of reverence and rapture have all found their place in it, as they have in the history of Russia itself. But at all times the icon remained an ‘image’ of the eternal, a just and wonderful divine world, beckoning to itself all those who find within themselves the spiritual strength to perceive this world with their interior gaze.

The Russian icon in its artistic form embodies that ascetic ideal, which, according to Pavel Florensky, the Church Fathers considered not intellectual, nor even moral, but artistic labour. The main goal of such art is a specific, non-formalized, ‘contemplative’ knowledge. Paradoxically, it is precisely this fundamental property of the icon which gives grounds to the contemporary philosophers who define the icon as ‘not art’ in the traditional European sense of the term [1].

The contemporary Russian word ‘ikon’ was borrowed from German only in the 19th century, and in ancient times they used a more accurate equivalent of the Greek ‘eikon’ – ‘obraz’ (image), its purpose being to depict, through pigments on a flat surface, the likeness of a real prototype. Icon veneration was absorbed into Rus along with the rest of Christianity’s fundamental beliefs, and here the value of the icon was perceived, above all, in its sacred meaning. ‘The main function of the image’, in the words of V. Bychkov, ‘became one of worship; that is, they saw in the icon, first and foremost, a holy object of veneration’ [2].  The Kievan Metropolitan Ilarion (mid-11th century) believed that a person contemplating an icon penetrates by his ‘interior gaze’ beyond the representation, and thus gains the possibility of spiritual intercourse with the prototype. And this, he writes in the Sermon on Law and Grace, ‘fills his soul with joy’ [3].

Any representation, any visual form, has its object – in certain circumstances this representation encompasses the visible world or is the embodiment of an idea in the forms of the visible world, in others it is the embodiment of subjective sensations and ideas arising in the artist’s consciousness. Thus Vasilii Kandinsky, the founder of Abstractionism, sought grounds for the creation of artistic form in ‘inner necessity’, which ‘must be founded only on the principle of a wise touch to a person’s soul’ [4].  The icon painter seeks the foundations of form in ‘touching’ the divine. What is such an ‘icon’ then, wherein lies its meaning? The icon has been described as an archaeological item; the icon has been analysed as a work of art. The Church understands the icon as a sacred image of a higher, divine reality, as a visible reflection of the invisible. The uniqueness of the phenomenon of the icon is that all these qualities are simultaneously present. But the most important thing that distinguishes an icon from a painting is its manmade incarnation of the invisible prototype, of ‘alternative reality’. In order to understand the language of the icon one needs to find in oneself the desire to meet with this reality, to ‘enter’ into it, one needs to learn to ‘read’ the icon. It is not accidental that in Russian the creation of an icon signifies not pisat’ kraskami ‘to write with colours’ (to paint) but pisat’ perom ‘to write with a pen’ (to write). The art of iconography is not ‘icon painting’, but ‘icon writing’. Moreover, the icon must never be regarded as a simple illustration to the Gospels or other theological texts. Visual form and Word are here fused together, and the artistic language of icon painting directly embodies spiritual phenomena. Thus the highlights on an icon are not in the least depictions of gleams of light, invoked to create the illusion of rounded form, but a strict system of ‘highlights’ invoking the symbolic incarnation of the emanation of divine energy, which is poured into the world and gives life and meaning to all the created world. In its spiritual symbolism the ancient icon is equal to the contemporary, bearing in mind the differences in strength of the artistic incarnation. The icon painter, layering with colours or gold ‘light’, does not adorn the representation, does not create the illusion of three-dimensionality, but embodies the radiance of the ‘Light of Mount Tabor’.


  • ^ [1] - Belting 1991
  • ^ [2] - Bychkov 1992, 131
  • ^ [3] - Rozov 1963, 141–75. Pamiatniki dukhovnoi 1844, 1–91.
  • ^ [4] - Kandinskii 2001, 68