The Theotokos of Vladimir
Before entering the world of Russian iconography, we need to consider one icon that stands as a symbolic link between the Byzantine and Russian cultures. This icon is the Theotokos of Vladimir, perhaps the most venerated icon in Russia. The Greek word 'Theotokos' can be translated into English as 'Mother of God' or 'God-bearer.' This title of the Mother of Jesus was adopted by the Christian Church at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431.
The icon was presented to Russian Grand Prince Yuri Dolgoruky by the Patriarch of Constantinople about 1132. In 1156 Yuri's son, Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky, brought the icon from Kiev to Bogolyubovo, his estate near the town of Vladimir. In 1167 it was installed in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir. Ever since the icon has been called 'Vladimirskaya Bogomater', which is the Russian for 'The Theotokos of Vladimir.'
The icon was brought to Moscow in 1395 to protect the city from the advancing hordes of the Turkic conqueror Khan Tamerlane. The Muscovites prayed to the Mother of God and were delivered from the threat. Tamerlane's army pillaged parts of the Ryzan principality, south of Moscow, and then suddenly left Russian lands.
Muscovite chronicles also report that in 1480 the icon turned away the army of the Mongol Khan Akhmet during his bloodless confrontation with the army of Ivan III on the Ugra river, thus putting an end to the Mongol Yoke in Russia.
In 1591 the army of Crimean Khan Kazy Girei approached Moscow but unexpectedly turned back without engaging into a major battle. This deliverance was also attributed to the patronage of the Theotokos.
For several centuries the icon was kept in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. During the Soviet era, it was on display at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia. In 1999 the icon was installed in the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachy, adjacent to the Tretyakov Gallery.
Icons ascribed to Andrey Rublev
Many consider Andrey Rublev the greatest Russian icon painter. His works found recognition during his lifetime and in the 16th century the Russian Orthodox Church already held them up as iconographic standards. However very little is known about Rublev's life and only a handful of facts can be related with any degree of certainty.
Andrey Rublev was born between 1360 and 1370 and died in 1430. It seems that as an adult he became monk at the Savior Andronikov monastery in Moscow, where he was also buried after his death.
Most scholars agree that he executed frescos of the Dormition Church in Zvenigorod, the Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow (with Theophanes the Greek and Prohor from Gorodets), the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir (with Daniil Cherny), and of the Trinity Cathedral of St.Sergius' Trinity Monastery (with Daniil Cherny). Out of these frescos only fragments have survived in the towns of Vladimir and Zvenigorod. But, thankfully, we have several icons that bear the imprint of his genius.
The second and the fird icons on this page come from the deesis (the Greek for 'prayer' or 'supplication') tier of the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. Some scholars attribute this icon of the Mother of God to the famous icon painter Theophanes the Greek, who worked alongside Andrey Rublev in that cathedral.
The icon of the Savior comes from the so-called Zvenigorod deesis tier, which was discovered in 1918 in a barn next to the Zvenigorod Church of the Dormition. The authorship of this piece has never been seriously questioned. This icon of Christ has a dimension of psychological depth rare for Medieval art. In the eyes of the Savior, we find genuine humanity and unsearchable wisdom.
The icon of the Trinity is another highly venerated icon. This symbolic representation of a Triune God speaks of unity in diversity and harmonious fellowship of love. St. Sergius of Radonezh (1322-1392) said that by contemplating the Holy Trinity we may overcome the fear of the odious divisiveness of the world. Today's world needs to hear this message as much as the 15th century Russia did.
Icons by various old Russian masters
On this page you will find icons that come from different locals and belong to different schools of icon painting (those of Moscow, Pskov, Novgorod, Tver and other). In Old Russia, it was not customary to sign icons, so in some cases authorship, date and place of origin can only be guessed or simply remain unknown. The icons are arranged in a chronological order. It is interesting to trace the development of iconographic style over the centuries, which, of course, is a task that requires more material than presented here.
The icon is meant to symbolically represent spiritual reality. Thus an icon of a saint should be understood as that saint's spiritual portrait, not a physical portrait. Nonetheless, Russian icons eventually acquired a decorative character. In the 17th century, icons of Simon Ushakov and other masters lost much of the initial spiritual strength by giving a greater attention to the physical aspects, such as shading nuances (compare the 14th century icon of the Image of the Savior Not-Made-By-Hands with that of Ushakov).
With the development of restoration methods, Old Russian icons were virtually rediscovered in the beginning of the 20th century and had a major impact on a number of Russian avant-garde painters.