The religious meaning of the icons
and the principal contemporary iconographical schools

The icon (from the Greek: "image") represents one of the most important means of the tradition of the Orthodox Church. Its meaning for the spiritual life of the Christian was fixed by the dogma on the veneration of the icons of the VII Ecumenical Council, Nicea in 787 before Christ. According to the definition of the Council, the icon like the Cross and the Gospel, can be revered with incense, candles, kisses and bows: "the honour attributed to the image is transferred to the primitive image, to the prototype and to bow in front of the icon means to bow in front of who is represented." Every church and every house must have an icon and in the liturgical services the gesticulation of the icon veneration is expressed.

The image not only preserves the truth of the Sacred Tradition, the truth of the incarnation in the history of the Word of God, but also the transcendent and unattainable truths by the common perception. losif Volockij, Russian saint of the 16th century, reflecting on the icon of the Trinity, says: "what is not possible to see with eyes (of the body), can be contemplated with the icons."

In fact, the source of the iconography is constituted by the sacred history (the Old Testament, the Gospel, the life of the saints) and by the theological speculation of the Orthodox Church, by its Fathers and iconogra-phers, by the mystical experience and of prayer of the ascetics. In the orthodox iconography, the image of the Saviour of the world, of the Child of incarnated God, is founded upon three miraculous images "not made by man", but by God: "The Saviour not created by man" of king Abgar's sheet, the image of Christ with the crown of thorns of the cloth of Veronica and the image of the body of Christ of the Saint Shroud. Besides, the iconography of Christ includes the interpretation of the oral tradition, the description of the semblance of the Child of God kept on times of the apostles as the teachings of the Church on Christ, God, Judge and incarnated Almighty. The numerous images of the Mother of God are based on the copies of the icons painted by the apostle Luke (according to the tradition), on the icons which appeared in a miraculous way and on the theological reflection of the Church on the Mother of God, as Virgin, as Queen of the Sky and the Earth, as Interceptor for the whole world in front of the Holy Child. The iconography of the saints reproduces the testimony of their disciples and the teaching of the Church, for this reason every man is image of God and the holiness is the authentic divination of the man. In the icons the saint not only is a historical character, but also the man transfigured by the Grace of God; he has reached salvation and he opened his heart to the compassion to the prayer and the help of all the believers. The symbolic icons or the sacred images (as the representations of the Church of Christ under the form of an ark, of the Last Judgment) are allegorical descriptions, particular artistic interpretations of the dogmatic and mystical teachings of the Church. According to nun Julijana Sokolova's words, one among the most eminent contemporary iconographers teachers, "there is no independent art. The iconography is a part of the life of the Church, one of its expressions... The Church expresses in the images its own teachings, its own history, and the dogmas of the faith or the theology and the prayer as breath of the spiritual life... The language of the icon has been elaborated by the wisdom of the Church, the people and the history under the guide of the always present Holy Ghost."

The iconographical tradition, already present in the first period of the Christianity, came in the Rus' through Costantinople, from which derives the orientation and the style of the Russian iconography. It reached his apex with the works of the schools of Andrej Rublev, Dionysus and Theophan the Greek. To the beginning of the 20th century in Russia a treasure of icons was accumulated and it was esteemed around 200 million plates, a lot of those of high artistic level. If we consider the icons as objects of art, then no country all over the world would have been able to equalize Russia for cultural wealth.

Nevertheless, during the 20th century, with the victory of the atheist and antinationalist Soviet power, many iconographical studios were ransacked, so many icons were destroyed or brought abroad. The rebirth of the iconography took back in the seventies in the Monastery of the Caves of Pskov, in the Lavra of the Trinity of St. Sergej and in Moscow; nevertheless, the exponential growth of the activity of writing of the icons was realized with the restitution from the State to the Church of the Monastery of St. Danilij in Moscow for the Millenary of the baptism of the Rus'.

Naturally the iconographical schools do not exist today anymore as those of the past centuries; in the Russian contemporary iconography three main orientations can be delineated.

The first one continues the tradition of the academic painting and the iconography of the 19th century and it is represented not by iconographers, but by painters that approached to the iconography and to the frescos of the churches thanks to the restoration as for example the colossal one of the church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The decorations have been realized, during the past year, by an equipe of painters under the academician Zurab Cereteli's guide. However, this orientation, sustained by secular artists and, sometimes, not believers, does not have great importance in the development of the authentic iconography.

The second orientation of the Russian contemporary iconography is originated by the craftsmanship, as for example Palech or Mstera. The artisan laboratories, that in the past century gave life to a mass production of icons, during the years of the atheism had to convert themselves to the realization of souvenir as for example the little boxes of lacquered wood and the matrioske. In this type of objects the figurative tradition of the different schools, which are distinguished for the refined decorum, the elegant miniature and the presence of the popular motives, is preserved. Nowadays, however, the number of these teacher-artisans is very decreased, both for the decadence that the craftsmanship suffered in the seventies, and because the technical complex of the decorative iconography requires a prolonged study, a very long time for production and, accordingly, financially well-to-do clients.

Nevertheless the main orientation of the contemporary iconography in the Russian Orthodox Church, reborn after the epoch of the persecutions, is based on the iconographical Byzantine and Russian traditions of the epoch of Andrej Rublev (15th century). Many of the exponents of this tendency are priests; person who reached the world of the iconography by the restoration and others that do not have a professional training.

One of the most famous exponents of the rebirth of the ancient iconographical tradition is the archimandrite Zinon. He says: "Being the spiritual traditions entirely lost, to turn to the image of the 15th century doesn't make any sense. It is necessary to return to the sources of our spirituality through the assimilation of the Byzantine iconography. Today the iconographer has to follow the same itinerary that made the Russian iconographers in the first years of the Christianity of the Rus', when the models were the Greek icons."

Deacon Serafim © 2001-2018 Moscow Icon-Painting center «Russian Icon»