Among graphic arts, the icon took first place in Russian life. Apart from the early Novgorod wall-painting, we may call the icon the chief expression of religious thought and popular feeling as early as the fourteenth century. Later, when wall-painting became subordinate to icon-painting, the icon became the one and only symbol of faith. In view of its special significance and its derivation from the Byzantine model, the Russian icon takes its place as the continuation of a high artistic tradition and in its development offers an unparalleled example of artistic craftsmanship. In its decorative qualities, the uniqueness of its composition, the severity of its types, the ideal character and spiritual depth of the religious thought it conveyed, the icon is to be compared with the early period of religious art in Western Europe.
Besides this, the historian of art must bear in mind that the easel-picture arose over time from the icon. They must make every effort to comprehend the artform of the Russian icon in order to understand the historical traditions lying behind easel painting and influencing it to this day. Finally, from the early eighteenth century to the present day, the Russian icon has long existed as a handicraft or kustár’ product.
As such, icons deserve the attention of art historians, for artistic handicrafts present difficult and complicated problems to historical interpretation which, for such reasons, have long been avoided. The time has come for Russian archaeology to study Russian icon-painting and trace through this particular phenomenon’s five centuries of history. Three centuries of neglect beginning with Peter the Great have sundered the Russian people from the last flourishing period of this artform and destroyed a greater number of icons than all the town fires and devastations in the Russian countryside combined.
Inventories tell us just how rich in icons the Russian cathedrals, monasteries, and private houses once were and also demonstrate the Muscovites’ reverence before ancient and hallowed icons. With great precision, these documents allow us to follow the disappearance of icons from Russian churches since the eighteenth century. Even as late as the early nineteenth century the Moscow churches were full of ancient sacred objects. The walls of the monasteries were hung with ‘Votive’ and ‘Festival’ icons and the outer chapels with panels of the saints of the calendar (Menaea).
As people ceased to care for them, forgot about them and no longer looked after them (and they require constant repair), they were put into storage – and that meant destruction for many of the best icons. It was in the face of this destruction that there appeared all sorts of imitation work on tinfoil (fólezhnoe), podubórnoe, paper, and other materials of the cheapest sort.
Icon-painting hid itself in the depths of the country: at Suzdal’ and in the Súzdal’ district there arose whole settlements of icon-painters, Mstëra, Palëkh, and Khóluy, but of these Palëkh and Khóluy had already adopted the ‘Frankish’ style and ‘naturalistic’ painting (zhívopis’). Little Russia had rude ‘naturalistic’ icons as early as the seventeenth century: the success of Borovikóvski’s talent attracted general attention…
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