Restoration of Russian Icon

Russian Icons - A Short History. Schools of Icons. Kiev school, Novgorod school, Moscow school, Pskov school. Russian Icons Restoration and Conservation. The icon Restoration Process. Increased complexity in compositions and theological symbolism.

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Saint-Petersburg State Academy of Art and Design


Subject: English

Topic: Restoration of the Russian Icons

Author: student RG-61 Chudaykina Elizaveta




Russian Icons - A Short History

Schools of Icons

Kiev school

Novgorod school

Moscow school

Pskov school

Icon Restoration

Russian Icons Restoration and Conservation

The Restoration Process


Russian Icons - A Short History

Ever since Russia's conversion to Christianity in 988, icons [from the Greek "eikon"= image or representation] have been an important part of the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church and increasingly were an important part of the domestic life of ordinary Russians in Imperial times. With the expansion of the Russian Empire between the 16th and 19th centuries and the creation of a Russian diaspora through emigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries their presence extended into the Baltic countries, Western Europe and the New World.

An embedded part of the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, they were used as a means of teaching Christianity to a largely illiterate population. They were also seen as being attributed with miraculous events through Divine intervention and as a manifestation of God's continued love, mercy and power. They were frequently displayed before battles to re-assure soldiers of God's protection and the righteousness of their cause.

Nor was their presence restricted to Churches, Monasteries and Great Houses. Even the most modest of homes had its Holy Corner to display at least one icon and as early as the 16th century rules appeared as to how to clean and treat icons within the home.

To meet the needs of the great cathedrals and the humblest of homes icons came in all sizes and a large number were portable to provide spiritual comfort and re-assurance whilst travelling.

Metal was used particularly for Travelling Icons but the principal medium was wood, usually pine or linden. The outer parts of the tree were often used for icons between 30- 35cms width and gives them a distinctive curved appearance. The larger icons usually intended for places of worship were made from boards nailed together. The wood was often hollowed out in the centre to provide a raised border or ' kovcheg' [Russian ="ark "]. The wood strengthened with battens to restrict warping was then covered with washed-out linen ["pavoloka"] and primed with chalk or plaster though the priming and the appearance of kovchegs was less common in the production of the less expensive icons. Egg tempura paint was used to decorate the icon which was finished with a final layer of varnish made from vegetable oils. Unfortunately this traditional finish itself darkened after fifty to eighty years which led to the constant demand to clean or re-paint the original work.

In the Churches and great houses the icons were often further adorned with covers that were exposed only to show the face and hands of the subject and leaving the remainder of the icon un-revealed. These covers known as 'oklads' or 'rizas' could be sumptuous creations of gold or silver or, more mundanely, copper, brass or base metal. There could also be a fabric covering enriched with pearls. In the most important icons precious stones were in-set into the oklad or the painting itself.

The designs are traditional and follow strict guidelines laid down by Canon Law. However, this did not prevent the great centres of icon creation Novgorod [12-17 cent.],Pskov [13-16th cent.], Tver [13-17th cent.] and Moscow [14-17th cent.] from introducing their own subtleties of style. By the 19th century the major centres of icon painting had moved to Palek, Mstera and Kholui with the latter especially concentrating on folk art within the context of iconography.

Until the 15th century icon painters were largely anonymous with Theophanes and Andrew Rublev being exceptions. The latter's "Trinity" being heralded by the Church as the blueprint for all further icons depicting this subject. Subsequently other painters emerged from anonymity with Simon Ushakov in the 17th, Leonev in the 18th and Balyakin and Butorin the 19th. The Bogatyryov family were important miniature icon painters at this time

Icons representing Christ either as an"Image Not-Made-by-Hands" [The Mandylion] or as The Saviour [The Pantocrator] were most popular. Veneration of Mary was widespread. Legend has it her representation was based on two portraits made by St Luke. These are the "Hodegetria" [The Presentation] and the "Oumileinye" [Tenderness] which shows a loving and more inter-active relationship between Mother and Son. From these two originals as many as 300 variations of Mother and The Christ child have evolved.

As teaching aids and representations of venerated Saints, icons reflect the breadth of subjects of early Christian life. St Nicholas is especially attributed with special powers of protection amongst the Russian faithful. John the Baptist, St George, SS Boris and Gleb, and Bishop Sergius are important figures in Russian iconography. Icons were also used to mark particular events throughout the Church year and in the lives of the Saints.

Throughout centuries of repression in Russia icons have offered comfort and support in difficult times. They embedded themselves so deeply in the Russsian psyche that they continued to provide spiritual strength throughout Russia's turbulent 20th century.To-day they remain very much central to the Russian Orthodox Church but have also acquired an additional role as works of art... fine and folk... to be admired for their intrinsic value.

Schools of Icons

Kiev school

Kiev School icons: First row, from left to right: Christ Acheiropoietos (Made without hands), The Virgin Orans Great Panagia, and The (Arch)angel with the Golden Hair (all 12th c.). Second row, from left to right: The Dormition of the Virgin (end of the 12th-beginning of the 13th c.), The Virgin of White Lake (Belozerskaia) (13th c.), St. George the Warrior (11th-12th c.), The Virgin of the Caves (Pecherskaia), also known as The Virgin of Svena (Svenskaia) (ca. 1288).

You'll find some of these icons attributed to the Novgorodian, Yaroslav, or Rostov-Suzdal School of icon painting. The confusion stems from mixing two approaches, chronological and geographical, in placing the works within a specific school. If one assumes a purely chronological approach, as we do here, then the earliest Russian icons, no matter in what city they were created, should be attributed to the Kievan School. This school was active from the end of the 10th century, the time of Christianization of Russia, until Kiev was sacked and burned by the Mongols in 1240. And even though there might have been some icon painting in Kiev after the fall of of the capital, the center of icon painting moved to the north, to Novgorod.

The first icons were brought to Russia from the Byzantine Empire and from Bulgaria, which became an intermediary between Constantinople and Kiev, supplying the newly Christianized state with books, icons, and liturgical objects necessary for the celebration of the mass. We may suspect that the first painters in Kiev were also Greeks or Byzantinized South Slavs. They became teachers of the first Russian painters and gave them a sound training in the Byzantine style and tradition. Since Russians were always exceedingly adept not only at blind mimicking but at taking a step forward, they quickly learned how to extend the Byzantine style and tradition and make it their own. The early Russian (Kievan) style was still quite dependent on the Byzantine. The compositions were monumental, uncluttered, and simple. Some icons exhibited close affinities with the art of classical antiquity. Most Kievan School icons were painted in darker, more somber tones and were often large in dimensions because they were hand hewn with an axe from a large piece of wood. However, the Russians very quickly abandoned the Byzantine tradition of portraying Christ Pantokrator as a severe and strict judge and started developing a more "humane," understanding, and forgiving image of Christ, the Savior and the Redeemer. This tendency led later, in the Novgorodian and Moscow traditions to the development of a Savior type best known from the work of Andrei Rublev, and to the appearance of the "Russian" variants of many saints, particularly St. Nicholas and St. George.

Novgorod school

Novgorodian School icons: From top to bottom and from left to right: Saints John Climacos, George, and Blaise (last third of the 13th c.),The Prophet Elijah (late 14th c.), Saints Florus and Laurus (late 15th c.), Saints Blaise and Spiridonos (late 14th c.), Paternitas (The New Testament Trinity) (late 14th c.), The Intercession of the Virgin (end of the 14th-beginning of the 15th c.), The Birth of the Virgin (middle of the 14th c.), St. Nicholas, with Scenes from His Life (fist half of the 16th c.), Saints Nicholas, Blaise, Florus, Laurus, Elijah and Paraskeva (first half of the 15th c.), St. Paraskeva, with Scenes from Her Life (first half of the 16th c.). The last icon is often considered a work of the Tver school.

Novgorod has always been a very important Russian city. Once a prosperous mercantile community, it kept its independence until 1478, when it succumbed to Moscow. Before that year, it distinguished itself for its economic, social, political and artistic achievements. As early as the10th century, it became the cradle for new political ideas. Novgorod was a republic (it called itself Lord Novgorod the Great), governed by the veche, a democratic assembly of all citizens, roughly resembling a parliament. The citizens were called to special meetings by the veche bell; the participants made their decisions together. The Novgorodians rejected the idea of the princely rule; instead, they hired a prince when they needed a leader to help them fight their enemies. When the danger was over, the prince was dismissed and asked to leave the city. The princes' names had been often linked with the building of the most famous churches and cathedrals: Cathedral of St. Sophia (1045- 1050), the Nikolo-Dvorishchensky Cathedral (1113) and the Cathedral of Saint George in the Yuriev Monastery (1119).

Not many Novgorodian 11th-century paintings have survived, but the surviving works of the 12th century (sometimes only fragments) help prove the existence of an independent local painting tradition. The frescoes at Nereditsa and in the Church of St. George at Staraia Ladoga are the evidence of this kind. Icons from the same period display a very strong Greek influence even though they show a very characteristic Russian style at the same time. In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, Novgorod produced some of the greatest works of medieval Russian art, best represented by the paintings of Theophanes the Greek (Feofan Grek). In some of his greatest works it is possible to find the combination of the local style with the style of Constantinople, where he worked before coming to Russia. Most notable are his frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street (1378), the icon of the Virgin of the Don, The Dormition of the Virgin, and The Transfiguration. Later, Theophanes moved to Moscow and contributed to the development of the Moscow School, particularly by working together with Andrei Rublev and other Moscow masters.

Some of the most important features of the mature Novgorodian style of icon painting include:

1. brightness of colors;

2. increased complexity as compared to Kievan and early (10th-13th century) Novgorodian icons;

3. increased liveliness characteristic of their developing "anecdotal style" (Hamilton, 153);

4. "graphic" quality (emphasis on drawing and line).

The late 13th and early 14th century feature a change in style and the introduction of more monumental, flat, graphic qualities together with relative depth of form. The dominant colors are cinnabar, white, ochre, brown and green. The 14th century, a period of great prosperity for Novgorod, is reflected in a proliferation of Novgorodian icons. The period that follows marks another stylistic change: the 15th-century palette becomes remarkably lighter and the compositions are more dynamic and mobile. Moreover, a precise canonical system for the arrangement of icons in the iconostasis wall is finally established. At the end of the 15th century Novgorodian art begins to decline as a result of Moscow's political dominance.

Moscow school

Moscow School icons: From top to bottom and from left to right: Saints Boris and Gleb, with Scenes from Their Lives (ca. 1330-1350), The Virgin of Vladimir, with Scenes from the Life of Christ and with Selected Saints (1515-1519), St. Sergius of Radonezh, with Scenes from His Life (early 16th c.), Blessed Are the Soldiers of the Heavenly King (The Church Militant) (1550s), The Virgin Hodegetria of Tikhvin (middle of the 16th c.), The Crucifixion (end of the 14th c.), The Savior (ca. 1330).

From Moscow's obscure beginnings in the twelfth century as a small village, it developed steadily to become the spiritual and political heart of Russia in the fifteenth century. During this time, the art of icon painting developed under the influence of the changing political and religious atmosphere that shaped the character of Moscow itself. Although isolated from much Western influence because of its historical ties with the Byzantine Church, Moscow became an important collector of Byzantine icons, which in turn colored the development of the Muscovite style. Because of the frequent devastating fires in Moscow in the fifteenth century, it is difficult to trace the development of early Muscovite painting. However, the appearance of Andrei Rublev and Dionisii (Dionysius), two important masters of Russian icon painting, shows that despite limited evidence, Moscow had been steadily developing an independent and unique painting style.

While Novgorod reached its peak in icon painting between the fourteenth and late fifteenth centuries, Moscow's development continued and reached its greatest achievements in the sixteenth century. The different social, geographical, and political position of each region in turn influenced the development and spirit of its icons. While there are similarities in their styles, the Moscow style, reaching its peak after the political subjugation of the unruly republic of Lord Novgorod the Great, took these similarities to another level.

Since Moscow's art had traditional ties with that of the Byzantine Church, new developments in Muscovite style can be traced by contrasting them with their Byzantine heritage. One important development was the change from the severe, harsh portrayal of the Pantokrator as found in the Byzantine models, to the more gentle, compassionate-looking Pantokrator, perfectly rendered by Andrei Rublev. Not only did his image of the Pantokrator differ from Byzantine images, but it also contrasted with the "traditional linearism" found in Novgorodian representations of Christ. This move towards a gentler and softer style of painting, which puts more emphasis on blending of warm colors than on sharp outlines, is characteristic of the Moscow school in particular, and the art of Russia in general.

The Moscow school of icon painting can be characterized by several common features:

1. increased complexity in compositions and theological symbolism

2. more tender representations of Christ and the saints

3. considerable elongation of figures

4. warm, saturated colors and more variation in their selection, including the introduction of pastels

5. increasing degree of miniaturization, leading in the 16th century to Stroganov School, in the 17th to the art of the tsar's icon-painters (partially influenced by Western art), and in the 18th century to local icon-painting workshops (Palekh, Mstera)

6. "realistic" tendency as seen in parsunas (influence of Western art).

Pskov school

Pskov School icons: From left to right: The Anastasis (Descent into Hell) (14th c.), St. George Slaying the Dragon (16th c.), Synaxis of the Virgin (sec. half of the 14th c.), The Old Testament Trinity (15th c.).

The history of old Pskov was always connected with the struggle for independence. The "little brother" of Novgorod seems to have been always fighting against foreign invaders, even though, like Novgorod, Pskov was not affected by the Mongol conquest.

Pskov icons display less sophistication and artistry in execution than those of Novgorod, but they show a greater degree of poetic inspiration. Pskov icons have their own, particular style. The frescoes of Mirozhsky monastery were painted in a static and formal archaic manner. The icons of Pskov show a somber, but intense emotionalism. With time, the style of Pskov icons evolved, incorporating some elements from the Novgorodian art. From Novgorod the painters borrowed certain favorite topics and learned to use strong outlines which increased the graphic quality of their work. The earliest Pskov icons were monumental but the painters skillfully used intense colors (different from the toned-down colors of Kievan School) and created compositions with a strong rhythmic quality, often sacrificing the elegance of proportions to the dynamism of action. The painters of Pskov had a number of favorite compositions which they liked to replicate. Like the Novgorodians, they favored St. Nicholas and Elijah, but they also found inspiration in the stories of Christ's descent into Hell, the Nativity, and the Synaxis (gathering) of the Virgin. One of the distinguishing factors of Pskovian icons is the painters' preference of the deep "Pskovian" red and the deep "Pskovian" green.

Icon Restoration

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russian icon restoration school

The two basic methods of icon restoration differ in the degree of restorers' intervention into the material structure of the work. The first method, a simple "renewal" of the icon, is non-destructive and is most often used on lightly damaged icons. The losses in the ground are filled and the surface of the icon is partially or completely repainted over the old varnish. Sometimes, the entire surface of the old icon is covered with the new ground. The new ground covers the original composition so well that sometimes a completely different composition is painted over it. After several centuries, such an icon becomes a "carrier" of many clearly distinguishable layers which can be separated and removed.

The second method of "restoration" is much more destructive because it is used whenever the icon has considerable losses of the ground and the color layer or when the varnish is too dark and needs to be removed. The bumps in the ground are cut out with a knife, and the painted surface is cleaned; sometimes, to make it smooth, the restorer rubs it with pumice. Then, the icon is repainted with fresh paints directly over the old painted surface and over the new fragments of the ground. As a result, the image on the icon turns into a mosaic of fragments from different centuries hidden under the fresh layer of paint. Even the best scientific restoration of such an icon cannot determine precisely when the overpainting was done and which fragments of the icon are still original.

Reconstructing the damaged fragments of icons, Russian and Soviet restorers have followed the following principles:

1. Complete restoration of the work to its original appearance. This principle has three distinct historical phases, each producing results of different quality:

· naive repainting ("renovation")

· complete restoration of iconography

· scientific and artistically justified reconstruction.

2. Preservation of the original parts of the old work only. This principle contradicts the first principle and disallows any reconstruction of the losses. The restorer's intervention is limited exclusively to preservation of the surviving fragments of the work and to the removal of overpaintings.

3. Rejection of any visible additions by the restorers. It can be called a principle of archeological restoration because it obliges the restorers during their revealing of the original layer of paint to preserve, wherever possible, of various layers of overpainting. The result of such restoration is a monument of history of culture and not a work of art which embodies the idea and the genius of its author. The main principle of such restoration is to leave the previously repaired and restored fragments intact.

4. Reconstruction of the color and tonal unity of the composition. This principle, introduced and developed in the 1920-30s, remains the most popular today. In a restoration guided by this principle, the restorers try to recapture the original artistic unity of the work by developing the potential unity of the surviving fragments. The restorers' efforts should be restricted to the revealing of the possibilities hidden in the fragments themselves, without committing a historical blunder or aesthetically damaging the work. This principle requires that the fill-ins (restorations) be made easily recognizable but at the same time invisible from a distance optimal for the viewing of the work; otherwise the work's unity, which is the main objective of such a kind of restoration, will be destroyed. Therefore, the fill-ins should match the original parts of the work in luminosity and chromatic quality.

Today, with the help of computers, anyone can engage in the "restoration" of icons without fear of irretrievably destroying a magnificent work of art. Digital reconstruction allows us to take a "hypothetical" look at some of the most damaged icons. In the example at the top of this page, I have "reconstructed" the damaged face of St. George from the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin (11th-12th century). My "restoration" was mainly an attempt to reveal completely the facial features of the saint. Indeed, I discovered a face of such beauty and excellence that I would not hesitate to attribute the work to a master from Constantinople. As can be seen, the face of St. George bears close resemblance to the face of St. Panteleimon from an early 13th-century hagiographical icon from Constantinople. It is easy to notice similarities in the authors' rendering of the eyes, the brows, the mouths, the noses, and the characteristic ruddy right cheeks of both saints. Even though the icon of St. Panteleimon seems to be more refined and differs from St. George in the color scheme, the portraits of both saints appear to be the products of one school.

To show the painstaking process of this restoration, I kept taking off layer after layer of damages, saving my images in twelve separate files. When the "restoration" was completed, I combined the images into an animated GIF file: you see how the damage on the face of the saint disappears right in front of your eyes.

Russian Icons Restoration and Conservation

Icons restoration and conservation should reduce the number of operations as much as possible, all newly added elements should be singled out, all additions executed in a modern style. Modern methods of restoration permit the application of all latest achievements of science and diverse physicochemical methods of research for the strengthening of object of art. Diverse materials may be used in the process of restoration but on the surface they should be close to the original materials of the icon and be reversible.

Restoration and conservation of Russian icons and material culture more often has their reconstruction in the condition most close to the original for an object.

Particularly the methods of clearing the latest layers from icons have been changed. Traditional ways of clearing by means of softening the retouching using compresses with organic dissolvents and then their removal with scalpel gave way for careful and scrupulous work under the microscope. Special micro instruments came up to take usual medical scalpels' place. Macro- and microphotography became customary for everyday control of conservation conducting.

The Restoration Process

It is important to understand that the restoration of icons requires an extremely careful and respectful approach at all stages of the process. An icon is piece of multilayer art, comprised of a wooden base, layers of gesso, canvas, and a painted layer which is often parcel gilt and, finally, covered with many layers of varnish. No two icons are exactly identical in their construction or painting technique.

Restoration of icons begins with a careful examination, then the sub-surface layers are streightened with special glues and damage to these layers such as chips, cracks, bumps and flaking are restored. Only after these steps can restoration of a central painting field begin - the restorer has to choose between slight tints in some areas and complete repaints in other areas which sustained complete losses. After that, the outer layers are repaired, such as gilding and writing on the margins. Finally, the icon is coated with special varnishes for preservation purposes. The restorer always aims to blend the restored parts with original surfaces in order to create a unified appearance without clearly visible signs of restoration.






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