A catalogue of the Russian icons in the British Museum

By Yury Bobrov / Edited by Chris Entwistle

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Techniques and materials

Page 2

Paints, even today, are prepared by mixing pigments with a water-based emulsion made from egg yolk. Egg-yolk tempera was well-known from ancient times. Paints made from egg yolks, through polymerisation of the egg oils, become very solid, are not soluble, and their colours do not change. When in the 1900s the bright colours of old Russian icons were first revealed from beneath the many layers of dark lacquer and over-painting, a few Russian newspapers suggested that the restorers might be fooling the public and showing new icons in place of the old. Since old icon painters used natural materials, their palette was limited to a few colours. On an icon one can rarely detect more than five or six pigments, usually of mineral origin. The Russian painters’ favourite colours included bright red cinnabar, white lead, lapis lazuli, ochre and orpiment, and also earth greens, malachite and black charcoal. They also used a few organic colours: cochineal, indigo. On top of the layers of tempera, paint and gold, translucent glazed colours were laid, prepared with linseed oil and lacquer varnishes. Painting techniques became particularly complex in the 17th century, when iconographers strove to create intricate artistic effects.

Egg tempera paints become matt and bleached out after drying. In order to give them clarity and shine, the icon is saturated with oil – heated linseed oil with a type of mastic (the gum of pistachio wood) or with amber, that is oil-based varnish. In the northern climate the oil quickly darkened and became almost opaque. In the 19th century, when there were still practically no restored icons, there arose a myth deriving from one of the greatest historians of his time, F.I. Buslaev (1818–97), suggesting that the dark appearance of the Russian icon explained the naivety and lack of sophistication of the people.

Today the Russian icon has become the property of world culture and it is recognized that its artistic language gave great impetus to the development of the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century. Features of the icon such as flatness, elements of reverse perspective, withdrawing a representation from three-dimensional space and assigning to it the character of ‘a thing in itself’, the localisation of colour, linearity, the speculative nature of scale, multilayered symbolism and assigning meaning to all representation – all of these were, it seems, revealed only in the art of the cubists and artists of the avant-garde. In reality, these time-honoured artistic devices were cultivated in the art of iconography in order to clarify in visual forms the beauty and wisdom of divine creation.

The icon always attracts afresh, because it bears within itself something eternal and unchanging. One may unreservedly apply to the icon the words of St John Chrysostom on the New Testament Epistles of the Apostle Paul: ‘In reading, as if in a meadow, I see a multitude of flowers, of abundant roses, violets and lilies, everywhere diverse fruits of the spirit and great fragrance[3].

Dr Yury Bobrov
Academy of Arts, St Petersburg
May 2008

Translated from the Russian by Stella Rock


  • ^ [3] - PG vol. 49, 17.
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