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Two worlds of Russian icon. Рainting 17th century icons from the collection of the Museum of Russian Icons

Icons from the collection of the Museum of Russian Icons presented at the exhibition date back to the 17th century, one of the most complex and controversial periods in Russian culture – not by chance called the “era of change”.

The iconography of this time completes the centuries-old history of the development of Old Russian art and stands on the threshold of the realistic painting of the New Age. It is during this period that gradual secularization of art occurs, as the interest of icon painters in the person and the surrounding world increases. From the middle of the century, the influence of the European artistic culture is increasing, which leads to a significant expansion of the range of subjects and the complication of iconography. The conductor of new ideas is the icon-painting workshop of the Moscow Kremlin Armory, in which the best izografs are concentrated and even foreigners work. This is where the transformation of the pictorial language of the Russian icon takes place – the so-called “life-like” style is introduced, distinguished by more realistic approach to painting of saints, use of light and shadow, depiction of volumetric plastic form. The aesthetic criterion is now the main one in evaluating works of religious painting, and the concept of “divine” is often replaced by the concept of “beautiful”.

An important milestone in the history of the 17th century was the reform of Patriarch Nikon (1652–1666), which caused Raskol (schism) in church circles and in society. Clamoring against introduction of new styles and techniques, the Old Believers kept and honored the “pre-Raskol” icons, preserving the “subtlety of the ancient painting”, any changes in which they perceived as blasphemy. Thus, in the middle of the 17th century, a “split” of Russian church art took place, and one of the ways, the “life-like” style of the masters of the Armory, was officially supported by the sovereign and the patriarch and gradually became widespread in the provinces. The second was subjected to constant repression and persecution, which in the 18th century led to a complete misunderstanding and denial of the artistic language of the ancient Russian icon.

An important role in the evolution of Russian culture of the 17th century was played by an incredible economic growth, which intensified construction of churches and contributed to the prosperity of trade as well as the rise of merchantry, which turned into a serious customer. New centers, primarily in the Volga region, such as Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Nizhny Novgorod gradually emerged on the artistic scene; Northern cities – Veliky Ustyug, Kholmogory – were also gaining strength.

A variety of Russian paintings of this time can be traced through a wide range of monuments belonging to the Museum of Russian Icons. The work of metropolitan icon painters demonstrates a whole series of icons created at the beginning of the reign of Romanov dynasty using traditional methods, and those made in a completely new style of the Armory in the second half – the end of the 17th century. A significant number of items from the museum collection belong to the leading icon-painting centers of the Volga region. The works of Yaroslavl masters, distinguished by the refined ornaments, sophisticated graphics and decorative painting, deserve special attention. Different artistic trends cover a wide range of icons related to the art of Tver, Rostov, Pskov and Ryazan cities that did not lose their value as legislators of iconographic and stylistic innovations in the 17th century. Of great interest are also the icons painted in various iconographic centers of the vast lands of the Russian North: Vologda, Arkhangelsk, Kargopol and Povazhye. They are not only distinguished by their naive and modest painting language, clearly close to the folk artistic culture, but also present examples of rare iconography.