In a previous posting, I discussed the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the muslim Turks, and how even before that time some painters had emigrated to Crete, beginning the Cretan School of icon painting. And I mentioned that even before the fall of the Cretan chief city of Candia to the Turks in 1669, some painters had already moved on to other places. Some went west to Italy. Others went north to the monastic settlements of Mount Athos, on the Northern Aegean Sea in Macedonia, bringing with them the influence of Italian painting models. And some went elsewhere.
So icon painting did not die out in the Greek Orthodox world with the Fall of Constantinople. Instead the trend was toward movement of icon painters away from the former urban centers and into more remote regions. And a further tendency, particularly after the conquest of Candia, was away from “lay” icon painters to more monastic icon painters, and also to a more limited clientele than was available to Cretan painters. So in this period, the painting of more stylistically conservative icons was centered in the already existing monastic settlements of Mount Athos in Macedonia, Meteora in central Greece, Ioannina in northwestern Greece, and other locales. Some painters from Crete moved as far as Jerusalem and the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai. But the major center of conservative Greek painting in this period was at Mount Athos, which in spite of the adoption of some “new” icon models from western Europe, continued to prefer a rather conservative and repetitive approach to icon painting, resulting in the kind of stagnation later deplored by many both in and outside the Eastern Orthodox realms.
Meanwhile, what was happening in the Slavic countries to the north?
Long before the fall of Byzantium, Greek Christianity was taken north and into Kievan Rus, where in 988 Prince Vladimir converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and also converted his people by edict (he did not bother to ask them). Greek icon painters came north and began training the Slavs, who over time developed distinctive regional styles in such places as Novgorod and Pskov. Native Russian saints such as Boris and Gleb began to appear in icons, and over time Russian painting looked less to Byzantium and more to the growing power of Moscow, which as mentioned previously, became the new center of Eastern Orthodoxy for Russians, particularly after Constantinople fell.
A major shift in Russian icon painting, which was conservative even while developing regional styles, took place in the middle of the 1600s, when Nikon, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, decided to force various changes that he considered reforms on the people. He ordered alterations made in texts and in rituals, to bring them more into line with what he saw as “correct” Greek usage. This caused tremendous dissension, because traditional Russians saw outward forms and usages as the manifestation of the “True Faith,” and so even such matters as changing the position of the fingers in blessing, or altering the spelling of the name of Jesus were seen as heresy, as abandoning the Orthodox belief handed down by their fathers. But Nikon would not relent, and so a great schism took place in Russian Orthodoxy, with Nikon’s State Church on one hand, and the traditionalist “Old Believers” on the other.
Even though the Old Believers wanted to maintain Russian Orthodoxy as it had been practiced in Russia, the State Church declared them раскольники — raskolniki — “schismatics.” And then the terrible persecutions of the Old Believers began by the State Church, using the powers of the Russian government as its punishing arm.
That did not, however, deter the Old Believers, who steadfastly kept to their views in spite of their chief spokesman, the Archpriest Avvakum, being murdered by the State Church.
The schism between State Church and Old Believers in the mid-1600s was just the first sign of a great change that affected Russian icon painting tremendously. By the later 1600s, State Church painters had become strongly influenced by western European religious art, and imperial patronage favored western styles as well. So where previously Russian icons had been very stylized and deliberately non-realistic, now the State Church favored a more realistic western approach, with Italian-looking saints and flowing draperies. The Old Believers, however, kept strictly to the old stylized manner of painting, though over time western elements crept into their icons as well, generally as more realistic background landscapes while the saints themselves continued to be stylized rather than realistic.
The result of all this was that by the 19th century, much of State Orthodox religious art in Russia looked very much like Italian religious painting, while the Old Believers preserved the conservative and stylized icon forms that tend to be thought of as typically Russian today.
Of course Russia was not the only Slavic country to adopt Eastern Orthodoxy, and with it icon painting. There was also Bulgaria, Serbia, and Romania with its part-Romance, part-Slavic language. Though previously strongly influenced by Byzantine icon painting, after the fall of Constantinople the Balkan countries began to develop their own distinctive styles, in spite of Turkish domination and oppression. The tendency in the Balkans was for icon painting to continue in small and scattered workshops and monasteries rather than in the large cities where Turkish authority and dominance were most obvious. Denied both the freedom and the markets of Russian icon painters, neither the Balkans nor Greece, as a result of Turkish domination, ever developed the wide range of icon types that appeared in Russia, nor did the numbers of of icons produced in Greece and the Balkans ever reach the prodigious levels attained by the production of Russian icon painting workshops.
Keep in mind that Greece did not achieve recognized independence from the Ottoman Turks until 1832;
Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottomans in 1908;
Serbia did not achieve full independence from the Ottomans until 1898;
Romania declared its independence of the Ottomans in 1877, but did not fully achieve it until the defeat of the Turks in 1878.
Of course by the time that Greece and the Balkans achieved independence from centuries of domination by the muslim Turks, the world had moved on, and Eastern Orthodoxy, though still prevalent in Greece and the Balkans, no longer had the power it once had. There were little revivals of icon painting here and there, and attempts by conservative individuals such as Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965) in Greece to revive earlier standards of icon painting. Kontoglou was influenced by the monastic works of Mount Athos and the pre-Cretan School frescos of Mistra, with a particular fondness for the painting of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), who though born in Crete, later lived and worked for a time as a monk at Mt. Athos; and also that of Frangos Katelanos, who worked at a number of the significant post-Byzantine sites, including Mount Athos, Meteora, Ioannina, Kastoria, etc. in the 1500s.
We see the influence of Kontoglou in many modern Greek Orthodox icons (particularly in the printed icons put out by Orthodox bookshops). Many of them represent the kind of icon painting I call the “Play-doh” style, because the hair and beards of the saints in such neo-Greek icons look like the thick strands of “clay” extruded through that popular child’s toy device, the “Play-Doh Fun Factory.” If you have seen them, you know what I mean.
In spite of such attempts at a neo-Byzantine styles, many recent and modern popular icons and icon prints in Greece and the Balkans represent the more realistic manner favored for so long in Western popular religious art, making many Orthodox icons very similar in style to the “prayer cards” with pictures of Italian-style saints one still finds in Roman Catholicism. Western converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, however, generally prefer more traditional styles, thinking them somehow “pure” while not realizing that Eastern Orthodox iconography has been influenced by European Catholic and Protestant religious art for centuries, whether in Russia, the Balkans or Greece. This influence extended even to such traditional monastic centers as Mount Athos, which, for example, used images from the woodcuts of the German Catholic, then Lutheran artist Albrecht Dürer.
Of course there are other icon painting regions that I have not even touched on in this brief and very generalized overview, for example there are the icons of the Egyptian Coptic Christians and the very distinctive icons of Ethiopia, as well as those of Georgia, Armenia, etc. But that will do for now.