RUSSIANS DIDN'T PAINT SAINTS TO LOOK REALISTIC
Russian Icon, silver-gilt & enamel riza of Iverskaya Mother of God, 19 inches by 10.5 inches, $17,920. Photo courtesy of Jackson's Auctioneers
Did you ever stumble upon something really beautiful and know for certain that it had a rich history, but you couldn’t figure out what it was? I had that experience the first time I held a Russian icon.
Icons have existed in Russia for over 1000-years. These colorful images were created not simply as religious paintings, but as sacred objects with a divine connection to the figures they portrayed.
Legend has it that when you prayed to the saint on an icon he listened to you in heaven. As such, they were a “holy” guardian capable of all things from curing disease and bringing rain, to protecting the home and cattle.
The word “icon” comes from the Greek “eikon” and means image. The Byzantines passed the tradition on to the Russians when they converted to Christianity in 988 A.D.
The word is associated most often with paintings on wood, and traditional Russian icons depict religious figures painted on a wooden panel or cast in bronze. But, the word actually applies to all kinds of religious images including mosaics, frescoes and carvings in stone, ivory and metal.
When looking at 17th century Russian icons with a contemporary or western eye, it’s easy to misunderstand them. Their flatness, lack of perspective and natural light, odd coloring and strange proportions makes them appear “off” somehow, like a poorly thought out work of art.
But it’s important to remember the Russian artist wasn’t trying to portray something “real” in his work. If anything, he was attempting to capture the “ideal” in his saints. Icons started to look more realistic like we in the west are accustomed in the mid-17th century combining traditional and Western elements.
With most icons, the person depicted is looking directly at the viewer. You see their almond-shaped eyes, long thin noses, and small mouths up close. It’s meant to be an intimate experience.
Sometimes, the background objects seem larger than the objects in the foreground. Some scholars call this inverted perspective. But the viewer’s attention usually is drawn to the large, centrally placed figure of the saint.
The lack of natural light and shadows is all part of the design. The inner light of sacred figures or the light of Christ is the only real light to be seen.
Although millions of icons were destroyed in Communist Russia, millions survived in the country, and still tens-of-thousands were taken out of Russia. People appreciate the simplicity and balance they see in icons, and they’re collected today for their spiritual and historical significance.
“Value depends on age, size, subject matter, quality and condition,” says James Jackson of Jackson’s Auctioneers & Appraisers in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “The market is plagued with forgeries, fakes and counterfeits, so it’s important to buy from educated sellers who offer guarantees.
Let’s look at some recent auction results for Russian icons. On Nov. 20-22, Jackson’s offered a selection of icons in their Important American & European Fine Art Auction.
St. George, thrusting his lance through dragon, 19th century, 13 inches by 11.25 inches, $2,240.
The Blessed Silence (Christ as an Angel), circa 1850, Ural Mountain School, 21.5 inches by 18 inches, $3,080.
St. John the Evangelist, high quality, 14 inches by 12.25 inches, $3,360.
The Assembly of the Archangel Michael, circa 1890, 14 inches by 14 inches, $4,200.
John the Forerunner, overlaid with exceptional silver filigree riza, 18th century, 13 inches by 10.6 inches, $7,000
Iverskaya Mother of God, overlaid with silver-gilt and enameled riza, 19 inches by 10.5 inches, $17,920.
The Lord Almighty, overlaid with exceptional silver and enamel riza, 12 inches by 10 inches, $20,160.
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