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

Page two

The reformation of Russia and the secularisation of the Church, undertaken by Peter I at the beginning of the 18th century, led to a breakdown of spiritual traditions and to a shift in cultural values. For some, ‘Holy Rus’ remained in the past and the newfangled church painting had lost holiness. To others, the old ‘images’ had become clumsy, rude and primitive. This division was shown in the most direct manner by the relationship of society to the testaments of antiquity. Iconography in its traditional forms was first moved to the periphery of spiritual life – among the Russian ‘Old Believers’ – and subsequently became almost completely obscured beneath layers of new developments in the spirit of academic painting, like the ruins of Pompei covered by the ashes of Vesuvius.

In the 18th century, a new, so-called ‘Synodal’, period in the history of Russian iconography began, when it increasingly acquired the traits of western European-type church-historical painting in its artistic forms, trying out in the manner and technique of painting the influence of the ‘great’ styles – baroque, classicism and academicism. And only the circles of admirers and connoisseurs of antiquity continued to value icons painted in accordance with the traditional canons of old Russian iconography.

Throughout the 19th century Russian Old Believers – devotees of the old, pre-reformation Orthodoxy – collected and restored old icons despite continual pressure from the official church and state. Old Believers emerged as the main patrons of the so-called ‘old-style’ painting, in other words, of contemporary icons painted in the Novgorodian or Suzdalian style of the 16th to 17th centuries. A special development of this type of iconography occurred in Mstera, an old Suzdalian village, where the inhabitants had long pursued icon painting as a business. Many famous icon painters and restorers of our times were from Mstera families. Amongst them are the brothers Mikhail (died 1917) and Grigorii (died 1936) Chirikov, whose father Osip Semenovich (died 1903) was the owner of the largest icon painting and restoration workshop, initially in Mstera, and then in Moscow. Other natives of Mstera were the Tsepkovs (Aleksandr and Pavel), the Briagins (Nikolai, Aleksandr and Evgenii), Vasilii Gur’ianov (1866–1920), Mikhail Dikarev, Vasilii Ovchinnikov, and the Tiulins.

The Russian icon only gained broad public appreciation at the beginning of the 20th century, despite the fact that it had begun to attract the attention of experts of church archaeology from the middle of the 19th century, and the first exhibition of old icons was held at the Archaeological conference in Moscow in 1890. 

However, only the recognition of the icon as a work of art, which coincided with the rise of the Russian avant-garde, led it from the category of objects of church piety. Henri Matisse was one of the first to clearly appreciate the Russian icon’s great significance for the development of contemporary art. After his acquaintance with the collection of the Russian icon painter Ilia Ostroukhov (now in the collection of the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow) he wrote: ‘This is authentic folk art. Here is the origin of artistic endeavour. The contemporary artist must draw his inspiration from these primitives’ [5]. The Russian icon becomes the artistic discovery of the 20th century.

It was at the beginning of the last century that the collections of Russian icons in the Russian Museum, the Tretiakov Gallery and provincial museums began to take shape. These collections were significantly enlarged as a result of church closures and the confiscation of church property in the 1920s and 30s. If a few masterpieces of icon painting found themselves in museums, then a huge number of other icons were sold abroad through the ‘Torgsin’ network (from the Russian Torgovlia s inostrantsam – Trade with Foreigners) especially created by the Bolsheviks [6].

  • ^ [5] - Matiss 1958, 97–104
  • ^ [6] - Anikin et al., 2002