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 3

Amongst the ancient icons which ended up in foreign collections were ‘old style’ icons painted by Mstera artists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and forgeries, which even today are sometimes taken for genuine. Even before the 1917 revolution in Russia there was a ‘boom’ of sorts in the collection of ancient icons, which in no small measure triggered the manufacture of ‘old style’ imitations and the so-called pereshivochki’ (alterations), [7] which filled antique markets of the time. Participants in the Russia-wide conference of artists in 1911 observed with dismay that ‘our old iconography is highly valued, not only here, but in Western Europe and America; foreign collectors are keenly hunting for well-preserved old icons. Such an attitude to our church antiquities inspires amongst Russian icon traders the desire for profit, sales of antiqued imitations, owing to which in recent times a special type of handicraft has developed – the restoration of barely surviving icons and even icon painting on old panels, creating ‘old style’ forgeries’ [8].

After the revolution, not only a significant part of the Russian people – including prominent cultural figures – was forced into emigration, but also part of Russian culture itself. The Finnish researcher of Russian iconography Kari Kotkavaara once defined this phenomenon as ‘icons in exile’ [9]. Indeed, not only icon-painters (who settled in Paris, Prague, Riga, Finland, Germany and other countries) were in exile from the country, but also many hundreds of icons – ancient ones originating in Old Rus of the 13th to the 15th centuries, and later icons from the 18th to 19th centuries.

The huge body of Russian icons which found their way into collections abroad – either through the force of the tragic events of the Soviet period or thanks to foreign interest in the art of iconography – did not attract serious attention from researchers until recently. It is noteworthy that there are wonderful collections of iconography in the museums of Recklinghausen and Frankfurt am Main (Germany), [10] the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm (Sweden), [11] the Orthodox Museum in Kuopio (Finland), [12] the Banca Intesa in Vincenzo (Italy) [13] and others.

The first researchers of Russian icons after the Old Believer connoisseurs discerned from the outset different ‘styles’ or ‘schools’ – the Novogorodian, Muscovite, Suzdalian. Later, in the works of Soviet scholars of the 1920s to the 1970s, a definition of local ‘schools’ took shape –  medieval Russian culture was enriched by the artistic originality of the separate political centres and regions which made up ‘Ancient Rus’. Academics perceived schools of Novgorod, Pskov, Vladimir-Suzdal, Moscow, Tver, Iaroslavl, Vologda and others in Old Russian art, and also an art of the ‘Russian North’, in which they likewise distinguished regional peculiarities [14]. Unifying tendencies began to appear only in the second half of the 16th century, when a centralized state was formed under the despotic rule of Ivan the Terrible. However, today the customary oversimplified division into ‘schools’ comes up against greater complexities. The very understanding of an ‘artistic school’ as a certain stylistic unity does not always coincide with the geographical limits of a region, because of the provenance of an individual artist and other factors. The stylistic, and often also the geographic, boundaries of a ‘school’ are blurred, especially in relation to works from the 16th and 17th centuries. Definitions such as ‘Novgorodian province’, ‘Upper Volga region’ and similar have appeared. Not infrequently this leads to one and the same artistic work being attributed to different ‘schools’ in the works of different authors. But despite this, in all centuries the Russian icon preserves its outstanding originality and always clearly differs from icon painting of the Balkans and other cultures of the Orthodox world.

Dr Yury Bobrov
Academy of Arts, St Petersburg
May 2008

Translated from the Russian by Stella Rock

  • ^ [7] - Icons in which fragments of later times were reworked and finished with the aim of giving the icon a much older appearance. Often ‘vrezki’ were prepared, that is fragments embedded (‘vrezannye’) in a new panel.
  • ^ [8] - Trudy Vserossiiskogo, 79.
  • ^ [9] - Kotkavaara 1999.
  • ^ [10] - Haustein-Bartsch 1995; Althaus et al. 1990.
  • ^ [11] - Abel, Bobrov and Moore 2004.
  • ^ [12] - Thomenius 1985.
  • ^ [13] - Pirovano 1999.
  • ^ [14] - See Lazarev 1981, and Temple, 2004.