In previous postings I have frequently mentioned that what most people think of as the typical Russian Orthodox icon is actually usually an icon produced by the Old Believers.  They were the original Russian Orthodoxy from which the State Orthodox Church — which is now generally considered “Russian Orthodoxy” — removed itself when it made liturgical, textual, and other changes — causing the schism that divided the two in the middle of the 17th century.

The Old Believers were (and still generally are) the traditionalists of icon painting, preserving the stylized manner that represented the Russian Orthodox icon prior to the split.  The “State Church” painters were those who generally gradually abandoned the traditional stylized forms in favor of the artistic influences coming into Russia from the West — that is, from places like Italy, Germany, and Holland — countries that were Catholic or Protestant or a mixture of the two.

We can easily see what that means if we examine two representative icons.  Both are post-1800.

The first is an Old Believer icon in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of

If we look more closely at the three female saints at right — identified by name inscriptions as “Great Martyr Ekaterina” (Catherine), “Venerable Evdokiya,” and “Holy Martyr Antonida,” we can see the clear sign of Old Believer origin in the position of the fingers  in the “blessing hand” of Ekaterina and of Antonida.  This was to let viewers know that this was a “pure” icon of the Old Belief, not the product of an “heretical” State Church painter.

At left we see saints identified by their name inscriptions as “Holy Martyr Alexandra,” “Holy Great-Martyr Nikita,” and “Holy Mikhail/Michael Archangel.”

Above them in stylized clouds is Christ Immanuel:

Notice the “flatness” of the figures painted on the panel, with no attempt at realism.

By contrast, here is an example showing how far State Church Russian Orthodoxy had diverged from the old traditions of icon painting by adopting Western European artistic influences — an icon of John Chrysostom:

Notice that there is an obvious effort toward depth and use of light and shadow, as well as more realism in the face and garments, even a movement toward emotionalism.  By contrast, the Old Believer style is flat and hieratic, non-realistic and consciously stylized.  Instead of perspectival depth, figures behind are simply placed higher on the panel than those in front.  All of this was in keeping with traditional aesthetics.

Ioann/John is dressed in typical State Church bishop’s garb.  He stands on the ceremonial rug called an orlets — with its two-headed eagle design, and holds in his hand the dikirion (“two-candle”) and trikirion (“three-candle) liturgical candleholders used by bishops in blessing when celebrating the liturgy.  The two candles represent the dual nature of Jesus, and the three candles the Trinity.  Notice the ring-shaped “Western  style” halo above John’s head, contrasting with the flat, plate-shaped halos found on the Old Believer icon.

Western influence is also seen in the triangle in the clouds above John, which has the single word БОГЪ/BOG — “God” —  at its center.

It is a symbol of the Triune God borrowed from Western European art.

It is amusing to see how, in their choice of artistic styles for icons, modern Western converts to Eastern Orthodoxy generally prefer the traditional stylized painting of the Old Believers to the Westernized manner used by the State Russian Orthodox Church from the late 1600s onward.  Most have no idea they are admiring and buying the icons and reproductions of icons of the once so-called Raskolniki — “Schismatics” — though historically it was actually the State Church that caused the schism and abandoned the traditions of the Old Belief.



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