Russian icons – ‘windows to heaven’

A connection between churchgoers and the spiritual world, icons have traditionally played a major part in Orthodox Christianity.

Apart from fulfilling a spiritual function, icons are also truly manmade works of art, as painting them takes a lot of effort and the best materials.

“To make the paints we use minerals, like lazulite,” icon painter Yulia Ulyanova told RT. “We grind them into powder and then mix it with egg yolk. It all takes time, and you’ve got to be very patient, which is probably the hardest thing about this work. But learning icon painting itself takes time – at least five years of study.”

A typical icon is painted on wood. The art began to develop in Russia in the 10th century. Icons were taken on journeys as protection; they marched at the head of armies and hung in a place of honor in every home. In churches you will see them on a special wall, called the iconostasis, which is made up of several tiers of icons. It is exactly what craftsmen in this workshop create.

“We want to restore our churches to their former splendor – so much was destroyed during Soviet times, so many traditions have been lost,” wood carver Sergey Khlopotov told RT. “You know, no two iconostases are alike – so even if there are certain rules to respect, you can get creative. For me, the bigger the challenge, the better!”

The workshop is located in the city of Sergiev Posad, one of Russia’s greatest spiritual centers. The initial design may be worked out using modern techniques, but when it comes to the actual icon making, ancient traditions are preserved. First, a wooden board is smoothed and primed, then the image is created, and ornate wooden frames are carved and gilded. The meticulous process may take months or years.

“Things can’t be rushed,” Sergey Shakhov, head of the Posad-Izograf workshop, told RT. “We use traditional materials and make a piece from scratch. And the works we create will remain in a church for centuries, because a church doesn’t change its iconostasis; once it’s there, it’ll remain there. So we’ve got to get it right.”

Russian icon painting is a conservative art – rules must be observed, so Orthodoxy never developed the reputation of the individual artist as Western Christianity did.

Still, some Russian icon painters did become famous, like Andrey Rublev. His most celebrated work – the early 15th-century Holy Trinity – is displayed at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

“Like all medieval painters, Rublev worked in a group, and it’s often hard to tell which work is his,” Levon Nersesyan, an expert at the State Tretyakov Gallery, told RT. “But this piece is unique, filled with his extraordinary intellectual and spiritual vision. It was once said about Rublev that he saw his paints and brushes with the eyes of a human but his inner spirituality made him see the beauty of heaven.”

Some icons are believed to have amazing powers, like the 12th-century icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, by an unknown artist. The story goes that in December 1941, as the Germans were closing in on Moscow, things looked so desperate that Stalin secretly ordered the icon to be put on a plane and flown above the besieged capital. Within days, the Red Army finally stopped the German advance on the city.

Whatever their miraculous properties may be, these are the works of art that for many believers truly open a window to heaven.

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