The student newly introduced to Russian icons cannot help but notice that they divide into two major categories — those painted in a very stylized and manner and those painted in a more realistic manner.  A more common way to characterize these divisions is to describe the one as “traditional” and the other as “westernized.”

What exactly do those terms mean in regard to icons, and what is behind them?

As mentioned in a previous posting, stylization of form — a kind of abstraction — is something that developed gradually in the history of icon painting.  We can see from the famous icon of the “Sinai Pantokrator” that stylization was not always practiced.  It was in fact a tendency within icon painting that, over time, became fixed.  Eventually it was felt wrong to paint an icon of a saint or other religious figure that was in any way realistic.

The philosophy behind this stylization arose after the fact as an explanation of why icons were and should be painted in a stylized manner.  It came to be believed that icons should depict saints in their “spiritual” or “heavenly” manifestation, not as though they were everyday people one might see on the street.  To make a saint look realistic was believed to make him look sensual and worldly.  Even buildings and backgrounds had to be painted in a rather abstract manner, because they were to convey not real buildings, but the “notion” of buildings, and the belief arose that their odd forms and skewed perspective reflected the nature of the heavenly world in which normal laws of light and perspective do not apply.  But again, keep in mind that the explanation came after the style arose, and was formulated to justify what had become solidified as a tradition.

All of this changed after the great schism took place in the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century.  On one side was the State Church, with the authority of the Tsar behind it, and on the other were large numbers of “Old Believers,” sometimes called “Old Ritualists,” who refused to accept the changes in liturgy and practice harshly introduced by the head of the Russian Church at that time, Patriarch Nikon.  The State Church called the Old Believers raskolniki — “schismatics,” though it was of course the State Church itself that caused the schism by departing from traditional Russian usages and demanding, under threat, that everyone must follow its lead.

Though they differed on a number of points that may now seem to us rather trivial, both sides initially kept to the stylized manner of painting icons.  But as the State Church became more and more influenced by the culture and art of Western Europe — of countries such as Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands — both the Russian aristocracy and eventually even icon painters began to accept aspects of the more realistic painting practiced in those Catholic and Protestant countries.  In fact “realism” as it was understood at the time came to be seen as the proper way to paint icons in the State Church, while the traditional, “abstract” manner was kept alive largely by the icon painters providing icons for Old Believers.

That is why, if one looks at great numbers of icons from the 18th and 19th and early 20th centuries, it is not difficult to mentally divide them into the “stylized” and “westernized” categories.  It even happened that some painters combined aspects of each, which we can consider a third, intermediate category.  One finds, for example, some Old Believer icons in which the figures of the saints are still quite stylized, but the trees, rocks, and streams in the background are depicted with a kind of simplified realism, showing the obvious influence of Western European art.

Some icon painters even used Western religious engravings in the realistic manner as models for icons painted in the more traditional manner, often, again, combining elements of stylization and realism.  State Church icons, in general, eventually took on a kind of saccharine quality, much like the Roman Catholic pictures of saints one finds on “prayer cards” in the middle of the 20th century.

Let’s look at three examples of a very famous Russian icon type, the “Kazan” Mother of God.  There are countless copies of this icon in existence because it was one that had a reputation as a great miracle-working icon (I won’t go into its origin story today).

Here is the Kazan icon painted in the traditional stylized manner:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The garments and faces are stylized, and a dark base color for the flesh is only slightly modified by lightened overpainting to form the features.

And here is the same type, painted in what at first seems the same manner, but we can nonetheless see touches of Western influence.

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

Even though the overall forms of garments and faces are still stylized, there is an obvious Western influence, for example in the lighter, more “realistic” coloring of the faces and in the   more natural coloring of the lips.  So we might call this “intermediate” in style, with some influence from each side, even though in overall form the icon is still quite traditional.

Finally, here is an obviously very Westernized version of the same icon type:

(Courtesy of
(Courtesy of

The garments have lost their stylized straight lines and angles, and have begun to “flow” like real fabric.  The faces too are far more realistic, and have lost the dark coloring and abstraction that we still see in the first example.  Even the manner in which the features are formed has changed.  It is no longer simply a matter of a dark base color for the flesh, over which lighter shades of the same color are superimposed and finished by simple highlights.  Instead there is an effort to blend colors in an attempt to depict how flesh really looks, even though the painting is not highly sophisticated.

No one would mistake the third example for a pre-schism icon or for an Old Believer icon.  It is quite obviously the product of a painter supplying believers within the State Church.

Interestingly, there is a movement in modern Russian Orthodoxy that has undertaken a kind of reversal of taste by re-introducing a preference for the stylized manner kept alive by the Old Believers; some even put it forth as being more “Orthodox” and acceptable. So now, even within the State Church, both stylized and westernized manners of icon painting may be found.  So fashions and trends in icon painting change over time, heavily influenced by what is going on within the culture that produces them, and also, of course, by the views of authorities of both Church and State, as well as by the preferences of ordinary people.


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