According to Orthodox tradition, Christ himself created the first icon by miraculously producing his image on a cloth sent to heal King Abgar of Edessa. The popular icon type that depicts this miracle, known as “Savior Not Made by Hands” (known in other Christian denominations as Veil of Veronica and Mandylion), embodies the critical connection between icons and the concept of Incarnation.
As Father A. Schmemann describes, "No one has ever seen God, but the Man Christ reveals Him in full. An image of the Man Jesus is therefore an image of God, for Christ is the God-Man. If the material universe and its matter can be sanctified by the grace of the Holy Spirit... if the water of baptism grants us forgiveness or sins; if the bread and wine of the Eucharist make present to us the Body and Blood of Christ, then a portrayal of Christ... may also be filled with the grace of His presence and power—may become not only an image but also a spiritual reality."
The original "Savior not Made by Hands" icon affirmed that all icons would similarly serve as a direct conduit to the heavenly realm, a visual incarnation of holy people and Biblical events. This idea is also upheld by legends describing Saint Luke, who is said to have painted holy figures, such as Mary the Mother of God, while they were still alive to model and approve their representations. In order to preserve the sacred realism of these portraits as much as possible, icon painters’ individual interpretations were restricted in favor of adherence to strict canons. Pattern books, also known as copy-books, that diagramed all the known saints and holy figures within the Eastern Orthodox religion were widely disseminated in Russia beginning in the second half of the 16th century. Every specific feature of these figures, including their dress, age, clothing, and gesture, was provided in word and image. It is important to note that in maintaining such accuracy, icon painters strove to achieve more than just a photographic likeness of the subjects and events that they painted. Rather than focusing on external, worldly appearances, icons were intended to capture the underlying spiritual essence of a person or event. Functioning as a kind of language in themselves, the objects or figures serve as signifiers of the true forms or ideas they represent in a way that bridges the gap between the viewer’s external reality and the internal heavenly realm of the work.
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that icons remained stagnate for centuries. Every time period and place adapted even the most traditional iconography to fit their evolving beliefs, or inserted new symbols within old narratives. For example, the mirror was a popular symbol in secular Baroque art (17th century) before being adopted in religious painting to represent the all-seeing power of God. The Russians later adapted the mirror to symbolize the icon's ability to reflect both heavenly and earthy existence simultaneously. Pattern books were also altered and recycled over time. The requirement that icon painters depend solely on copy books also changed over time and in varying degrees across Russia. For instance, Igor Grabar described how, “for the Novgorod icon painter the basis of the icon was its artistic vision, for a Stroganov painter it was only a matter of decoration, where his devotion could be measured by his long and self-assured labour on subtlety of vision.”
The fact that, for most of Russian history, icon painters were trained to meticulously reproduce the styles and iconography of old icon types presents a unique challenge to art historians. While there are usually minute differences that betray the date and location of creation, oftentimes icon painters so perfectly copied older models that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between icons (even those hundreds of years apart) without forensic analysis.
While there was always a degree of sacredness ascribed to icon painters, after the Great Moscow Council of 1666 (which reformed the church and thereby divided it into the official Orthodox faith known as the New Devotion and the renegade Old Believers),holiness became a necessary characteristic of icon painters. Old Believers who lost faith in the State Church after the New Devotion began to assign the duties of a priest, such as repentance and confession, to icons, and indirectly, to those who created them. In the quest to prove that only their icons represented the "true religion," New Otherdox and Old Believers placed a newfound importance on icon painters’ closeness to God. Many authoritative texts assert that icons created by unorthodox believers were unlikely to possess any divine qualities.
One such text states that, even if an icon was “discovered in our Greek or Russian Orthodox lands that is ancient, and shall have been devised after the Church Schism, particularly if by a Greek from Italy, and even if the making of the icon is skillfully conceived according to the prototype, it is wrong to make obeisance to it, for it will have been devised by the hands of unbelievers, even if it follows the prototype, for their conscience does not serve purity.”
Like the strict canons of representation, the process of constructing icons was also standardized and ascribed sacred meaning. The outer edge of the icon created by the recessed space in the center was given the symbolically significant name kovcheg, meaning “ark” or “shrine,” in reference to the Ark of the Covenant— a box that stored holy objects and concealed them from unbelievers. By the end of the Middle Ages, the icon’s frame was transformed from a means of concealment to a means of visualization, as in the Western tradition. For this reason, during the Baroque period (17th century) the kovcheg was gradually replaced by the kiot— a case, often made of wood, with a hinged, framed glass door in the front and sometimes adorned with metal castings— that more closely resembled the Renaissance frame. The word kiot also translates to “ark,” but originates in Greek rather than Slavic languages. This new frame represented a shift from the medieval box that conceals and preserves, to a frame that displays and informs. In this sense, the frame brought the icon, and the holy figures it represents, closer to the viewer.
The oklad— a metal covering sometimes adorned with pearls and precious stones— served a function similar to that of the frame. Building on Byzantine traditions of lavish icon adornments dating to the 11th century, oklads informed the icon’s role as a window onto heaven by creating a bridge to unite heaven and earth. The oklad also helped protect the icon literally (by reducing the effects of daily veneration) and symbolically (as the intermediary between the heavenly and the worldly). Like icon designs, oklad styles were altered in accordance with cultural, political, and religious changes. For example, icon adornment was drastically changed during the reforms of Peter the Great in the 18th century, when all superfluous icon decorations were removed and transferred to the Treasury. Over time, oklads became popular again, and were later influenced by the lavishness of the Western Rococo and Baroque styles.
Word and Image
Like the oklad, words, painted or engraved, were used to aesthetically and didactically complement the imagery of the icon. The pairing of word and image in religious imagery was rooted in the opening sentence of Fourth Evangelist, which reads “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Just as in the Bible, words inscribed on icons always possessed an agency that directed the viewers’ interpretations. Similar to icon frames, the placement of text within the composition (initiated during the 18th century) served to protectively contain the heavenly figures within the icon as well as inspire the viewer’s understanding. Many Baroque icons used the title of saints in the space of the halo (nimbus) or its outline. This placement transformed the sting of words into a symbolic boundary between the outer portions of the icon and the inner portions that contained the highest concentration of divine energy. This boundary was also sometimes used on the outer edge of the icon as a way to delineate the divinity of the icon from the world outside it.
In addition to framing the icon, words could be used to direct the gaze of the viewer in a way that inspired revelation or possessed symbolic importance. Many Resurrection icons, for example, feature a central image of Christ with angels holding up the word vokresenie (“Resurrection”). An 18th century icon by Aleksei Loginov splits up this word into four syllables, one for each of the angel’s scrolls. New Devotion icons order the scrolls so that they correspond with the direction that a priest would walk around the altar during communion according to the New Rite, that is against the motion of the sun (in contrast with the Old Rite which was configured in the same direction as the sun).
The sense of perspective utilized in most Russian icons is part of a deliberate choice to adhere to the ancient, and therefore more divinely connected, Byzantine conventions of rendering icons. At the beginning of the 20th century, Oskar Wulff coined the phrase “reverse perspective,” to describe the combination of bird’s eye-view and frontal view in Russian icons. Unlike the one-point perspective used in most Western art (in which lines converge into one vanishing point in the center of the composition) reverse perspective incorporates lines that extend outwards to their own vanishing points, seemingly outside the composition. There is much debate among art historians about the exact effect this sense of perspective was intended to have on the viewer. One theory maintains that reverse perspective is actually an “inside perspective” that opens up the icon towards the viewer so that he or she feels incorporated into the image. This also gives the sense the figure in the icon is looking out towards the viewer as much as the viewer is looking at the icon. Other scholars have argued that the presence of different perspectives is meant to simulate the timeless, all-encompassing vision of God who can see everything, from all angles, simultaneously.