The Russian art of icon painting has survived from the medieval ecclesiastic art. It still uses the technique established in the Byzantine Empire. Wooden boards are prepared with a grounding. The paint that is used is tempera paint, based on raw eggs. Tempera is a mixture of oil, water, glue and natural substances. The paint has to be mixed immediately before being applied as it cannot be conserved. The technique is also difficult and requires long training and a lot of skill.
Icons can only be painted by someone who firmly believes in God. The icon isn’t picturing real things but transcendent affairs. It is meant to communicate the believer to the Lord, the saints and paradise. The icon is meant to solve the contradiction between living in the reality and believing in an outer world. Therefore all of it is symbolic. The colours resemble various aspects of faith, such as Trinity, Creation, Immortality, and so on. A hill, for example, is not a hill but a symbol of ascension towards the reign of heaven. Every single detail of the icon is a hint for something divine, saint and unearthly. So apart from the techniques of painting the icon painter has to have a profound knowledge of the symbolic means of each colour and each feature of an icon.
Gold is the colour of the divine, but also the infinite. Gold as a background to an icon painting means that the painting has no background, and the figure on it more or less floating in space. This is why gold is such a prominent colour on Russian icons, and has always made the churches very attractive for robbers and plunderers. As a consequence of that it led to the fortification of churches and monasteries within the ”kremlins“ that could even resist attacks and sieges from hostile armies.
The iconostasis, the wall of icons separating the believers from the room where the priest prepares mass is the border between the earthly and the divine.
The Russian art of icon painting was introduced by the Greek missionaries and for centuries followed exactly the norms established by their Greek fellow painters. The icons of the Kievian Rus, as far as they have been preserved, resemble the Byzantine art of painting.
The greatest and most probably last Greek icon painter who practiced his art in the Russian lands was Theophan Grek in the 2nd half of the 14th century. He influenced all his Russian contemporaries and his legacy gave birth to an own and independent Russian icon art. He was one of the teachers of the most famous Russian icon painter of all times, Andrei Rubljov. His influence on Russian painting can perhaps be equalled to El Greco’s impact on Spanish art.
In his film ”Andrei Rublyov“ the director Andrei Tarkovski gives his partly fictitious, partly realistic account of those times and of the relationship between the two artists. The outgoing 14th and beginning 15th century was a part of the dark times of the Mongolian yoke. Besides the bloody feuds between the various Russian Grand Dukes of Novgorod, Moscow, Vladimir and other smaller principalities the raids of Tartar hordes took place, and there was also a cruel persecution of the adherents of pagan beliefs and rites by the church authorities anxious of their power.
In this film Theophan Grek, as the representative of a doomed empire tells his opinion of the world to the young monk who doesn’t know it but he is the member of a great empire-to-be: ”If Christ were to walk again among us he would again be crucified.“
Icon painting is on the rise again. Various schools have been established and are practicing. The most renowned is in the town that has emerged as the centre of orthodox scholarship and art: Sergiev Posad (former Zagorsk).