Icons and Churches of the Old Rus'

An Introduction

Icons in the Eastern Church and especially in Russia are living manifestations of the portrayed saint or event. Spiritually they are much more than a painting of Christ, the Virgin, or the Transfiguration. They have the spiritual power of healing and consoling, or of protecting the land or a town better than an army. No wonder then that Orthodox believers venerate their icons with a faith and fervor that we have mostly forgotten in the enlightened Latin West - Bavaria comes to mind as an exception...

One of the most haunting Russian icons is Rublev's Christ from the Deesis in Zvenigorod. In a psychological sense an icon is a two-dimensional image, a reflexion of the deepest substrate of the human soul and of the Russian dusha in particular. They allow one to gain an insight into much more in Russia than her Orthodx faith. Our art-historical curiosity, however, is entirely irrelevant to the Church and its believers, and it becomes a real challenge to elucidate the provenance and dates of a particular icon – as I have valiantly tried to do.

The painting of icons began in the Christian Near East in the 5th century. Some of the oldest (6th cent) are in the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. They appear in Kievan Rus' in the 10th century. By the 14th century a specific Russian style had evolved in Northern Rus', which culminates in the paintings of Theophanes the Greek, Dionysus, and most gloriously in those of Andrei Rublev and his school in the early 15th century.

Since the 1920s many icons have been moved to the safety of museums, have been freed of their silver
bemas (precious metal coverings), cleaned of the soot of candles and kisses and subjected to the scrutiny of modern restaurateurs. Copies replaced them in the churches.

The greatest Russian icons have a sweetness which is not found in comparable religious paintings of Greece, Bulgaria, or Syria. Influences from the more relaxed traditions of Macedonia, Georgia, and Byzantine Italy are, however, noticable in the 12th century. By the time Italian Renaissance architects began working in Moscow in the 17th century icon painting had artistically and esthetically declined - which albeit has not diminished the spiritual power of even the latest paintings.

For visual reasons I have tried to associate specific icons with the churches they originated from, an often haphazard endeavor, because these miraculous images were frequently moved to other places by the powerful of the land – viz., the Soviet authorities who hid them in the basements of their museums.

My collection is ordered by their location and date.

Andrei Rublyev, Our Lady of Vladimir, 1408

The precious icons in the possession of a church are displayed in an Iconostasis, a high wood or masonry wall which separates the Holy of the Holiest from the ordinary world. In most churches the iconostases are heavily encrusted with repoussé gold or silver bemas. This is an exceptional fresco which has recently been rcovered from under plaster. The images are arranged in several tiers (“ranges”): In the lowest range the local icon is displayed on the opposite side of the “Golden Door”. The icons of the next tier, the “Deesis”, show a canonized arrangement of large, elongated images of saints, archangels, the Virgin and the Baptist on both sides of Christ in Majesty, who resides in an elliptical mandorla.

Rostov Veliki, Church of the Resurrection, 17th century.

For one of the most splendid iconosasis see Andrei Rublyev's Iconostasis of the Trinity Cathedral in the Sergiev Lavra. Above the Deesis is a tier of Feast Days, smaller icons depicting the high holidays of the Orthodox Faith. The highest range occupies images of Old Testament prophets and church fathers. Closer scrutiny of the Feast Days of the Trinity-Sergiev iconostasis shows that the Eastern Church celebrates holidays which are barely mentioned in the West, like the Assumption of the Virgin and her presentation in the temple.

These pecularities are due to the ever present veneration of the Mother of God in Russia and also to a body of complex edicts which, for example, forbade the presentation of God Father. The prophetic icon of the Trinity in the Old Testament – Abraham receiving three messengers from God - is such a case: it represents the “New Testament” Trinity, which is very rarely present in the older sactuaries.

Arguably the most revered icon of Russia is the local icon of the Trinity Cathedral in the Sergiev Lavra, next to the door in the lowest range of the iconostasis:

Andrei Rublyev, Old Testament Trinity, Trinity Cathedral of the Sergiev Lavra, 1425.

The Churches that house these images are equally different from the churches in the West. The Roman basilica, designed for large crowds – and the display of Byzantine imperial might - has never acquired a foothold in Russia proper. They do exist in Georgia, Greece, and the Balkans. Russian churches are, like in ancient Greece, “Jewel Boxes of the Saints”, enclosures for the Holy Images.

Like the icons they can be seen as three-dimensional mandalas expressing another level of images of the soul. My favorite example is the small church in the Andronikov Monastery (12th cent), the oldest surviving church in Moscow. Early Churches in Novgorod and in Vladimir show the same architectural style: a square floor plan, a varyingly high rectangular body with a single drum and cupola crowning this iconic architecture.

Church of the Savior in the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow (12th cent)

In the copula of their frescoed interior resides the Holy Face of Christ the Savior, the center of the mandala.

The interior of the Church of the Resurrection in Rostov Veliki.

Historically this design first appeared in the 11th century in Vladimir, probably built by Georgian architects, in Novgorod, where Macedonian craftsmen worked, and finally - indigenously Russian - in the 12th century in the many small churches of Pskov.

The oldest churches in Russia were constructed of wood and were invariably destroyed by frequent fires. The surviving wooden churches are from the 18th century and were rescued and conserved only in the past fifty years.

Dimitry Cathedral, Valdimir, 1194-1197

Moscow, which historically was the last capital of the Old Rus', became architecturally important only in the 14th to 16th century.

With one or two exceptions the churches of the Kremlin were built by Italian architects hired by the Tsars. Astonishingly, they faithfully adopted the tastes and ideas of their new clients, only a few outside ornaments remind one of the contemporary Renaissance architecture of their homeland.

In the 18th century Russian architecture espoused the Baroque, a by then fashionable style more akin to the mentality and taste of the powerful elite than the formal severity of the enlightened Renaissance. With Peter the Great the time of the Old Rus' came to an end.

The Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin of Moscow, 1504 - 1508

Finally I have to confess that, seduced by the beauty of the photographs I found in the internet, I included a number of buildings and places, which I did not visit and would have disregarded architecturally otherwise. I had forgotten how beguilingly glorious the colorful fairy towns and their golden copulas can appear in the monotonous, flat Russian landscape, especially after having been renovated in the last fifteen years.

The ill-famed Solovetsky Monastery on an island in the White Sea.

Founded in 1429 it was the greatest citadel of Christianity in the Russian North before being turned into a Tsarist place of exile and later into Soviet labor camp.

This photo is from skyplace.org

All other photos RWFG 1977-1989

This website is based on a Google-Earth file which is linked to in each chapter. It shows the location of the places and many additional Panoramio photos that annotate the pictures presented here.

Last not least this collection is dedicated to the memory and to the enjoyment of the many friends in Moscow who hosted and drove me around during eight extended visits between 1969 and 1989. I came as a physicist invited by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and left wiser and enriched by the visual insights into Russia's enigmatic culture.

An excellent review of the subject appeared just at the right time with a
large exhibition at the Louvre in Paris:

Holy Russia
Russian Art from the Beginnings to Peter the Great
March 5 to May 24, 2010

RWFG, March 2010