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The Revival of Russian Iconography

Irina Yazykova

Longsuffering Russia and Joyful Icons

One cannot help being struck, while leafing through historical manuscripts and chronicles of ancient Russia, how year after year first one area and then another was overcome by political unrest—half of an entire city burned to the ground, then another city visited by plague or sacked by invaders. The Russian people also suffered repeatedly from impoverishment and crop failures and natural calamities. But when we look at the icons of this same Russia, we find beautiful faces; we see clear colors and the light-filled world of divine joy.

In the 1960s Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky directed the film Andrei Rublev that well portrays the gloom of life in ancient Rus’ under the Tatar-Mongol conquest. Russians in the fifteenth century were entirely stripped of their freedoms. Their churches were defaced, and they were murdered, tortured, burned, and bribed. Russian princes, meanwhile, fought among themselves brother. The entire Russian world, it seemed, was on the verge of complete physical and moral collapse. And yet—as if Russia itself were that phoenix described in its fairytales—the nation rose again from the ashes.

Tarkovsky shot his film in black and white. Only at the film’s end, when the audience sees Andrei Rublev’s timeless icons—the Holy Trinity, Our Savior of Zvenigorod, and Archangel Michael icons, among others—does color burst upon the screen like a flame through the darkness. Tarkovsky found here a magnificent metaphor with which to tell us that heavenly harmony comes into being not thanks to, but rather in spite of, the laws of this world. Audiences of the Soviet era, who lived under the crushing weight of ideology for more than 70 years, were particularly sensitive to this message. Whatever the age, however, the senselessness and ugliness that so often scars this world encounters a bulwark of resistance in the icon—in the radiant face of divine wisdom.

A Renaissance of Iconography

In today’s Russia we are witnessing a renaissance in the art of iconography, and both believers and non-believers are showing a renewed interest in icons. In the 1970s and 1980s iconography had no discernable impact on the country’s cultural life. Under the Soviet system it was all but illegal. The painting of icons with the intent to sell was subject to criminal sanctions punishable by a prison term of up to four years. This is why iconography continued as essentially an underground art form, focusing on either restoration work or fulfilling commissions from private individuals. Far from advertising their work, iconographers hid the fact even from their colleagues, lest one of them turned out to be an informer. With iconographers forced to work under such difficult conditions, it is little wonder that, to the casual gaze, contemporary iconography simply did not exist. But it was precisely during these years of “stagnation” that the innovative masters who define late twentieth-century Russian iconography first began to paint.

The Danilov Monastery

A turning point came in 1988 when the Russian nation celebrated the millennium of its baptism. Even prior to the anniversary celebration of 1988, the state had begun returning some properties to the Russian Orthodox Church. Among the first of these was the Danilov Monastery, which went on to become the focal point for nationwide celebrations. The monastery was completely restored within five years (1983-1988). Iconography work was led by Abbot (Vladimir Teodor) Zinon, who by this time was already renowned as an important iconographer. He was joined by a whole brigade of artists and restorers, including Alexander Sokolov and Alexander Chashkin. Father Zinon participated directly in painting the icons for the Pokrov and Prophet Daniel side chapels of the Church of the Holy Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils as well as the icons for the lower church. He also painted the monastery’s most prominent icon of Prince Daniil of Moscow. The rebirth of Danilov Monastery demonstrated that the Church had managed to revive the spirit of ancient iconography.

Maria Sokolova and her students contributed to the restorations in Danilov Monastery. Maria set up an iconography atelier in the monastery headed by Irina V. Vatagina, an iconographer who trained during the post-war years under Mother Juliana at the Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra. Vatagina’s workshop produced icons both for the monastery and for other churches and monasteries. Her workshop painted the icons of the new saints canonized during the thousand-year anniversary Council of the Russian Orthodox Church that took place in 1988. Together with Sokolova, this workshop created the archetypal images of such saints as Andrei Rublev, Ksenia of Saint Petersburg, Maxim the Greek, Amvrosy of Optina Monastery, among others—the standard upon which later artists based their icons.

The 1989 Modern Icon Exhibit

An important signpost along the road to restoring the tradition was the Modern Icon Exhibition held in 1989 in the Znamensky Cathedral in Moscow. Now located on Varvarka Street, in 1989 it was still Razin Street. This was the first exhibition of contemporary church art held during the entire Soviet period. Prior to that, icons had been exhibited only as museum pieces, if they were shown at all, and always only as something from a previous time period, something from before 1917. The term modern icon did not even exist in the Soviet lexicon. Icons had been treated as though they had no connection with the modern world, but the exhibit on Varvarka Street demonstrated that icons were still a living and developing form. The exhibit provided iconographers newly emerged from the underground with the opportunity to demonstrate their strength. Most of all, the Varvarka Street Exhibition, which included works by more than 100 modern iconographers, showed that the Russian icon, while connected to the past, also had a future. In a review written at the time, M. Gusev commented on the event’s significance:

The simple fact that it was now possible to assemble, within four walls, works by all the nation’s leading iconographers—this was already for them something of a miracle. Many of the participants gathered here are relatively young. Their average age is 30. The future of Russia’s ecclesial art is in their hands.

As it turned out, this reviewer was right. Most of the participants in this exhibition are still actively working today. Their number includes Alexander Sokolov, Alexander Lavdansky, Alexei Vronsky, Andrei Bubnov-Petrov, Sergei Cherny, Vladimir Sidel’nikov, Ilya Kruchinin, Ksenia Pokrovsky, and Olga Klodt, among others. These are the iconographers who are defining the main trends in Russian iconography.

At the end of the same year as the Modern Icon Exhibition, another exhibit opened: “Christian Art: Tradition and the Modern World” (Moscow, Manezh Hall, December 1989-January 1990). Similar exhibits followed on its heels with, today, exhibits of modern ecclesial art becoming a regular and widespread part of Russian culture, held in places like St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, and Pskov, and indeed in cities throughout the world.

The Demand for Iconographers

The primary developmental problems experienced by iconography during the final two decades of the twentieth century were problems of growth. With every passing year, the increasing number of newly constructed or restored churches and monasteries meant that the demand for iconographers far outstripped the supply. The Church’s growing needs required iconographers to organize new forms of labor: unions of workers, work brigades, and production teams. The Moscow Patriarchate officially incorporated some of these groups, conferring certain privileges and benefits in the process. The Sofrino Company, for example, is an iconography studio attached to the Theological Academy of the Moscow Patriarchate. Others remained independent of the patriarchate, without enjoying any special privileges, but still received orders from both churches and private individuals. By the end of the 1990s, in Moscow alone, more than 20 iconography studios and production teams were fulfilling contracts for the Church. Teams formed in other cities as well.

Getting on a “First-Name” Basis with Tradition

Archimandrite Zinon is the most prominent iconographer in Russia today, and his work influences developments in iconography both at home and abroad. In the 1990s, some of Father Zinon’s reflections on the meaning of tradition were published in Conversations with an Iconographer. He wrote, “True creativity is possible only within the framework of a tradition, and it takes time and effort to get on a first-name basis with a tradition. Learning the craft aspect is not enough. An iconographer who takes this work seriously knows that he or she is just an apprentice in training. And nothing more.” The archimandrite considers himself a student studying at the feet of the old masters, even though he himself has been the teacher of a great many iconographers. His creative path provides eloquent testimony to what it means to “get on a first-name basis” with tradition.

Archimandrite Zinon

Archimandrite Zinon was born in Olviopol, a southern Ukrainian city founded by the Greeks. At an early age, he learned from his mother and grandmother to feel at home in the church. When he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Odessa, he became acquainted with icons and frescoes. The artists under whom he was working had no special training in iconography, but as it was the canonical style that most attracted the future iconographer, he decided to study it on his own without a teacher. At first he made copies of old icons, most often from reproductions.

The Pskov-Pechersk Monastery

In 1976, with the blessing of his spiritual father, Archimandrite Serafim (Tyapochkin), he was tonsured a monk, taking the monastic name Zinon. At this time he entered the Pskov-Pechersk Monastery, renowned for its iconographic tradition. The monastery’s abbot, Archimandrite Alipy (Voronov), was both an expert in and a lover of the arts who had a wonderful collection of Russian and West European art and early icons. He himself was a fine iconographer, and his icons and frescoes continue to beautify the monastery.

Even in Soviet times tourists to the area were often amazed at the contrast between the city of Pechersk, gray and dusty like most provincial Soviet towns, and the Pskov-Pechersk Monastery, appearing as if out of nowhere like the fairytale city of Kitezh of Russian folklore. Whether it was the lawns and flowerbeds, the deep blue cupolas ornamented with stars, or the brightly decorated frescoes against a background of freshly whitewashed walls—here, everything was lovingly cared for.

The monastery, naturally, was a constant thorn in the side for Soviet ideologues who made repeated efforts to close the place on one pretext or another. But even during the worst years of Khrushchev’s anti-religion campaign, Abbot Alipy managed to keep the monastery open. For iconographers, the conditions here were close to ideal, all the more so as Abbot Alipy actively encouraged artistic creativity and the further development of iconography.

Sadly, Father Alipy passed away a year before Father Zinon entered the monastery, so the two never met. As a result, entering the monastery, Father Zinon was obliged to take possession of the wisdom of iconography on his own. Fortunately, Father Zinon benefited from the receptive atmosphere for iconography that the good abbot had created. He was immediately given a workshop and was allowed to paint for the Church.

The Patronage of Patriarch Pimen

Early on, the young iconographer’s work attracted the notice of the Church hierarchy. In 1979, Patriarch Pimen called Father Zinon to the Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra where his talents were put to use fulfilling many orders for the patriarch. He painted the iconostasis for the crypt of the Dormition (Uspensky) Cathedral along with many individual icons. Patriarch Pimen, who was an expert in early icons, held the young artist in high regard, and in 1983 put him in charge of icon painting at Danilov Monastery.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Father Zinon also continued to work in the Pskov-Pechersk Monastery creating iconostases for the Church of the Holy Martyr Cornelius (1985), the Pokrov (Holy Protection) Cathedral, and the Church of Pechersk Saints on the Mount (1989-1991). In addition, he created icons for the iconostasis of the lower church of Pskov’s Trinity Cathedral dedicated to Saint Serafim of Sarov.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Irina Yazykova, Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010).

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Fall 2011).

Irina Yazykova is an art historian who lectures at St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological Institute, Moscow, and Kolomna Orthodox Theological Seminary.