The Secrets of Russia's Most Ancient, Most Sacred Art

A theology of colours and images, rather than words

Originally appeared at: RUSSIAN ART FOR THE SEEKING SOUL

In Russia, the first art to appear and flower was religious art, or iconography. Icons, or religious paintings and frescoes comprised a key into the spiritual realm; they carried a deep and subtle theology through images. Through them, Christian stories and teachings became accessible even to those who couldn’t read.

For only images have the power to transcend both illiteracy and other linguistic boundaries. And while words are a powerful tool for explaining things, images speak the language of beauty that everyone seems to understand.

Icons still weave narratives and communicate ideas through colours, perspective, size and much else. And while most people can instinctively understand, at least partially, many of these subtle cues, knowing them helps the viewer more fully appreciate the depth of this ancient art style.

The Old Testament Trinity, the Hospitality of Abraham, XVI Century

Here are a few pointers on how to decipher the world of the icon.

1. The Colour Code: What do certain colours communicate to the believer?

In icons, colours are rarely arbitrary, never chosen at whim in a fanciful flight of the artist’s self-expression. Instead, different hues have acquired meanings throughout the centuries and help artists communicate theological truths or narrative concepts.

The Meeting of Christ in the Church

XVI Century.

Pskov

Gold, for example, has come to represent the heavenly world and the radiance of the Divine. Nimbus clouds, or halos, that depict sainthood on religious images are typically gold in both Eastern and Western religious traditions.

For this reason, the background of the icon, as well in Western paintings before the Rennaisance, is often gold: the sacred image is likes a window which opens to reveal a glint of heaven to the viewer. 

16th Century

Red, perhaps the most multidimensional colour in iconography, symbolises the fire of the Spirit, by which the Lord baptises His elect. Red shines in the wings of the archangels and fiery seraphs that abide close near God’s throne.

The Novgorodians (dwellers of Novgorod, one of the oldest and most important historic cities in Russia) had a particular love of red, and often used it instead of gold to communicate the radiance of the heavenly kingdom. 

The Holy New Martyrs of Russia

In Russian, the word “red” (Красный, “krasniy”) also means “beautiful,” so the red background was also associated with the imperishable beauty of Jerusalem. That is why red became a symbol of the Resurrection – the victory of life over death.

At the same time, it is the color of blood and torment, the colour of Christ’s sacrifice. Red in the garment of Christ signifies His human nature and suffering. Thus, Martyrs (those saints, who have died for their faith) are also often depicted in red robe.

(Click here to find out what green, blue and other colours symbolise in the religious image)

2. PerspectiveWho looks the faithful in the eye and who hides their faces?

Christ, the Mother of God, saints and angels on icons are almost always depicted full-face. That is, they squarely face the viewer and often their hands are folded in a blessing.

The Assumption of Mary

Even if the saint engages in action (walking, running, talking with other heroes,etc) he or she is usually depicted not in true profile. Instead, three quarters of the face is visible: the head is not turned away fully, and the second eye remains visible. 

Just as in our daily interactions with other people, the connection of the faithful with God or holy people (who, according to Orthodox teaching are just as alive as those walking the earth) becomes easier when their gazes meet face to face.

The Baptism of Christ

XV century

Russian North

In those days, iconographers may have considered the profile angle an incomplete, and therefore flawed, version of an image so it was unsuitable for heroes of faith and spirit. One common exception, however, is the depiction of Apostle Paul bending over the Virgin’s bed on icons of the Assumption.

Negative characters, however, such as demons and sinners, were most often portrayed in profile. However, portraying the devil or demonic prince, the Old Russian master sometimes violated the unspoken rule and unfolded his full face: the central or hierarchically significant character (even negative) should be illustrated to the viewer as fully as possible.

Saint Nikita with a demon. XVI century. Uglich State Museum of History, Architecture and Art

3. Size: Who looms largest on the icon?

On the icons of the Nativity of Christ, the reclining Mother of God appears larger than Joseph, who is sitting nearby and speaking with a shepherd, and the magi who bring gifts to the Baby.

The Birth of Christ, 16th Century.

Icon painters often magnify the central figure, and the point here is not in realistic accuracy or perspective, but in the status of the character. Large size communicates the significance of the figure depicted, indicating that this is the main character of the visual story.

But there are exceptions. For example, in the “Entrance into the Temple of the Blessed Mary” the main character, Maria, is much smaller in height than the surrounding people. In this case, the size emphasises the incredibly young age at which she was taken to the temple.

“Entrance into the Temple of the Blessed Mary”

XVI Century

Occasionally, icon painters do not depict large the whole figure, but only its significant part – for example, a blessing hand or eyes turned to the worshipper. This voluntary imbalance draws attention to the key details and attracts the attention of the viewer.

4. The Ever-Present Heavens: How and Where They are Depicted

Towards the top of the icon, a semicircle often appears. Sometimes a hand appears in it, folded into a blessing gesture. Sometimes, the hand holds scales or multiple human figures. 

Rays of light or even tongues of fire may pour out from there. At other times angels or souls of people ascend into this semicircle (for example, the soul of the Virgin on some icons of the Assumption). 

The Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah. Russian North. 15th Century

This simple geometric figure represents Heaven, the abode of God. The hand with the scales represents the “measure of righteousness,” the image of the judgement of human souls. The hand holding human figures symbolises salvation and the right hand of the Lord holding the souls of the righteous. Finally, the blessing right hand, as well as the rays pouring from heaven, symbolises the action of God’s grace. 

The Miracle of St. George About the Serpent. XVII century

Vologda region, State Hermitage Museum

Often, this semicircle appears on icons which illustrate miracles performed by saints. For example, in the “The Miracle of St. George With the Serpent,” this heavens depicted in the corner suggest that the miracle, the slaying of the dragon, happened by the will and grace of God, and not by the strength and skill of man.

5. Crowns of Glory: How to Tell Who is a Saint

The nimbus, or the golden crown (also known as the halo), became the main sign of holiness in the language of icons. Saints in Russia are very rarely depicted without this most important attribute.

However, in some gospel scenes (such as The Last Supper, the arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, The Entrance into Jerusalem etc.), the apostles are usually deprived of halos. This means that before the Savior’s resurrection, they were still simple people on their journey to becoming great pillars of faith and grace.

But on the last icon of the Gospel cycle, “The Descent of the Holy Spirit”, where the disciples of Christ receive the gift of speaking tongues, and become apostles in the full sense of the word, halos crown their heads.

On Christ’s halo, a geometrically drawn cross is visible – a symbol of His passions, resurrection and salvation.

Although images of God the Father in human form were considered non-canonical (not allowed by the church) they nevertheless became widespread from the 16th century onward. On icons, He is depicted with an eight-pointed halo: the interchanging blue and red rhombuses signify the earthly world and the heavenly world created by God.

6,What the presence or absence of a beard can tell you about a saint

In ancient Russia, a beard was considered the most important attribute of a grown man. “Beardshaving” was condemned as a sin, for medieval Russians could not conceive that a man might willingly alter the image of God. 

Their logic was simple: Christ wore a beard and the Creator rewarded men with a beard for a reason. In shaving a beard, a man thus deprived himself of an important sign of strength and masculinity.

“Boris and Gleb on horseback” XIV century. Andrei Rublev

Not surprisingly, almost all holy men were depicted on the icons with beards. The absence of a beard on a saint usually symbolises young age.

The lack or presence of a beard becomes especially useful for establishing the identities of brother-saints on icons. Only with the help of the beard, one can immediately differentiate the elder from the younger brother; their faces are typically otherwise identical.

The Princes Boris and Gleb. XVI Century

For example, the princes Boris and Gleb, who were killed by an order of their malicious brother, can be easily distinguished from each other precisely on this basis: the younger one, Gleb, unlike the older Boris, does not wear a beard. The same holds true for the holy brothers Flor and Laurus, greatly celebrated in the Russian land.

The Miracle of Flor and Laurus. XVI Century. Novgorod

Ethereal spirits, angels and demons, of course, have no gender, and, accordingly, they should not have facial hair. But the devil sometimes has a beard. This is a sign of hierarchical supremacy: like a full-face spread or larger, a beard allows you to distinguish the devil in the underworld or to distinguish the leader from the surrounding simple demons.

7. How the banners reveal the outcome of the battle

Many ancient Russian icons and miniatures depict the battles and combat, in which people believed the outcome was decided by God’s interference. Troops attack and retreat, spears are raised above the heads of the soldiers and banners of different shapes and colors flutter above everything else.

The miracle of the icon “Our Lady of the Sign” (Battle of Novgorod with Suzdal). XV century Novgorod (State Tretyakov Gallery)

Paying attention to the banners flying above the troops, however, reveals the direction in which the the armies are moving . Without them, it would be impossible to identify which army will emerge victorious.  Through them one discovers which of the colliding troops will be graced with victory: the banners of the losers are turned back, indicating their future flight from the battlefield.

8. Tetramorphs, or Strange Beasts with Halos

Church frescoes and icons often display images of a calf, a lion and an eagle adorned with halos. A fourth character appears next to the animals, a winged being who looks like an angel.

Apostle Luke Painting the Icon of the Virgin. 16th Century Volga Region

These figures originate in Biblical texts. The vision of the prophet Ezekiel tells of tetramorphs, or fantastic beasts that looked like four earthly creatures simultaneously: each one had the faces of man, lion, calf and eagle as well as four wings. Later, the four beasts with the same faces, but as separate entities, are mentioned in the Revelation of the Apostle John, in the Apocalypse:

“..And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. 

Fresco of the monastery High Dečany I V Century Kosovo, Serbia.

And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.

 And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” Revelation 4: 6–8

As early as 200 AD, Christian theologians began to associate these animals with the four apostles-evangelists.

The most popular interpretation first in Europe, and then in Russia, became the explanation of St. Jerome. He analysed fragments of the four Gospels to argue that the man symbolises Matthew, the lion—Mark (hence the winged lion on the column of St. Mark’s Square in Venice), Luke—the calf, and the eagle represents John.

Ancient Russian church embroidered image

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote that the four beasts also symbolise Christ himself, who was born as a man, accepted death as a sacrificial calf, when resurrected He was like a lion and ascended to the heavens as an eagle.

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