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The Revival of Russian Iconography

Irina Yazykova

Editor’s note: The first part of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Summer 2011), 5-7.

Father Zinon in Pskov

In 1994, the ancient Spas-Preobrazhensky (Christ’s Transfiguration) Mirozhsky Monastery, located in Pskov, was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, and an international school for iconography was founded there, headed by Father Zinon. There several monks and novices assisted him in his work, some specializing in preparing the boards, others in painting the icons. In this way, the inhabitants of this monastery formed not simply a monastic community, but a fraternity of iconographers—a wholly unique phenomenon in Russia. Little by little, through the efforts of this fraternity, the monastery, formerly in a state of utter collapse, began to revive.

Among other achievements, these iconographers restored the Church of Saint Stefan the New Martyr. Father Zinon constructed an original stone iconostasis for it and painted icons of the Savior, the Theotokos, and several saints in medallion (circular or oval-shaped) icons. Over the course of three years, dozens of artists completed apprenticeships there, and many icons were painted. The school became a focus of the iconographic renaissance and acquired an international reputation. In 1995, Father Zinon, in recognition of his mastery of the art of iconography, was awarded the State Medal of Russia.

However, in 1997, Bishop Eusebius, the ruling hierarch of Pskov and Prilutsky, placed a disciplinary ban on Abbot Zinon and his brother, forcing Father Zinon to leave the Mirozhsky Monastery. In the absence of its founder, the school was hard pressed to continue functioning. Father Zinon moved, along with a handful of other monks, to the village of Gverston, located in the west of the Pskov Region. He lives there to this day. Since the 1990s Father Zinon has received invitations to work in a variety of other countries including France, Finland, Belgium, and Italy.

To an extent, Father Zinon was influenced by his interaction with Maria Sokolova (Mother Juliana), who during the 1970s had worked in the Trinity Lavra where he too had been invited to work by Patriarch Pimen. Sokolova, who esteemed before all else the Moscow School of the days of Rublev and Dionisius, considered this period not only the high point in medieval Russian art, but the gold standard for iconography of any time or place. This was likewise Abbot Zinon’s initial point of reference, as can be seen, for example, in his icon of Saint Daniil of Moscow painted for the Saint Daniil Monastery.

A Growing Byzantine Influence

But even during this Moscow phase we can see, in certain of his icons, that Father Zinon was drawn to an even earlier style, evident in icons such as The Baptism of Russia, created for the millennial celebration of 1988. Decorative elements typical of the Russian school of the pre-Mongol invasion period were integrated into his treatment of the painted surface. The faces in his icons produced for the Pskov-Pechersk Monastery remind us of images from the pre-Mongol period. In his iconostasis for the Saint Serafim of Sarov side chapel of the Trinity Cathedral in Pskov, we find movement toward the monumental style of the twelfth century. The central image of the Savior, Christ in Majesty, is clearly modeled after the famous twelfth-century Sinai Icon.

Father Zinon’s gradual retreat from the generally accepted, more-or-less standardized iconographic style and his adoption of Byzantine and early Christian art as his point of reference, may be observed in the iconostasis for the Church of Saint Stefan the First Martyr, located in the Mirozhsky Monastery. Here we find an image of Christ inspired by the Ravenna (Italy) mosaics. Even the face of the Savior has been made youthful, as was the accepted practice in the pre-iconoclastic period. And the image of the Mother of God on her throne recalls early Roman icons. Also in this church, Father Zinon painted a number of saints’ medallions that are bold and energetic, even exhibiting a degree of naturalism, as was typical for early Byzantine frescoes and encaustic icons (painted with hot wax). The iconostasis, assembled from roughly cut stone and with deep niches for icons, was modeled after altar barriers found in some Greek churches. All of this speaks eloquently of the artist’s high degree of freedom and mastery of form.

The general trend of Father Zinon’s creative search is a movement toward the very heart of Church tradition, toward those early sources of holy tradition within which lie hidden a great many possibilities of which history has never made use. Contemporary iconographers, he believes, should once again go through the steps of mastering their Byzantine heritage, just as was done at the dawn of Russian iconography. This, he now believes, is the only path that can lead in the end to the creation of something authentic—that will lead to an iconographic style adequate to today’s faith, instead of a mindless reproduction of prior patterns.

One of Father Zinon’s most recent works, painted in 2002-2004, is a two-tiered frescoed iconostasis prepared for the Church of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in the village of Semkhoz (not far from Sergiev Posad). This church was raised on the place where Father Alexander Men was murdered in 1990. In profound respect for this pastor, preacher, and theologian, Father Zinon created a highly original iconostasis.

The artistry of Archimandrite Zinon occupies an important place in the Russian iconographic tradition. His authority is recognized even by those who do not agree with his theology or the direction taken by his creativity. His great achievement is having been the first to blaze a path forward during the tumultuous and chaotic process of reviving Russia’s iconographic tradition. His current work provides ongoing grounds for optimism about the future of Russian iconography.

The Revival of Monastism

Father Zinon’s work also underscores the revival taking place in Russian monasticism. Over the past 20 years hundreds of monasteries and hermitages have been revived, many literally on top of their own ruins. In many cases, neither walls nor support structures nor even the church buildings had been left standing. Today, the traditional monastic arts-and-craft traditions are also being revived. And in many monasteries, including the Optina Hermitage near Kozelsk, Novospassky Monastery in Moscow, and Saint John the Theologian Monastery in Ryazan, so too is the monastic iconographic tradition.

The Novo-Tikhvinsky Monastery in Ekaterinburg is particularly successful in this regard. Founded in 1810, then shuttered in the 1920s, the monastery was reopened in 1994. The residents include more than 150 sisters, of whom five have reached the highest spiritual rank of the Great Schema and 48 are novices. The former traditions are gradually being restored here, including a monastery choir and studios for iconography and embroidery work. Monastic iconographers here produce individual icons and have created several entire iconostases.

Prior to the revolution some 100 sisters worked in the Novo-Tikhvinsky icon studio. The icons created by the nuns, as well as their handmade miniature and painted souvenirs, were very widely known, and sometimes even given as gifts to members of the royal family. Today seven nuns work in the convent’s icon workshop.

The iconographic works created by the Novo-Tikhvinsky sisters show the influence both of the canonical foundations of the icon—with special attention to classical Byzantine prototypes—and of the folk art aesthetic, for which ornament and decoration are of such great importance. Great attention is given to folding icons, such as triptychs and diptychs, as well as to the manufacture of beautiful icon-cases. In sum, the elegant iconographic style of the women artists at Novo-Tikhvinsky Monastery represents a revival of a worthy tradition.

New Saints and New Artistic Freedom

Over the past two decades a great many new images have made their appearance within Russian ecclesial art. This has happened because the church now has the freedom—of which it had been deprived for many years—to canonize saints. It now is working actively to make up for lost time. During the church councils in the 1980s and 1990s, dozens of persons were canonized. And during the Jubilee Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in the year 2000, some 1,154 new saints were sanctified, most of whom were either new martyrs or confessors who suffered through the Soviet period (1917-1991). Tradition dictates that a new icon be created for every saint. It is difficult for the Church to cope with this sudden large increase in the number of saints and to properly study the person and personality of each. Never a hurried, assembly-line affair, the creation of new icons takes time.

In considering the work of contemporary iconographers, it is important to note that they have more freedom than any previous generation of artists, and they are also better informed. Modern means of communication, whether print, audio-visual, or media, provide artists with almost unlimited opportunities to learn about preexisting traditions. Artists today can bring into their studios the complete spectrum of iconographic models that have been created in every different region or time period, whereas iconographers in ages past were limited to their local school, or at most to the small number of icons that might happen to find their way into their village or city of residence.

In the world of iconography, we frequently come across debates between proponents of the Russian and the Byzantine (Greek) styles about which style or school is more appropriate or relevant to contemporary iconography. To be sure, within the Orthodox world these styles were never seen as being in opposition. After all, the art of Old Russia was born out of the Byzantine canon, and only over time acquired its own style and personality. What is more, Greek art has always been valued in Russia, just as Greek icons were always held in high esteem. Even after the fall of the Byzantine Empire Russian iconographers continued to respect and learn from Greek master iconographers. Today the choice for Byzantium or ancient Rus’ amounts essentially to an aesthetic preference. Some artists favor the classical precision of the Byzantine style, others the gentle colors and softness of the Old Russian style. Arguments about which is better become pointless because in the end it is the talent of the individual artist that is all-defining. F

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

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