The Agency of the Icon
Russian icons challenge the Western viewer to reconsider his or her understanding of art and the role of images in constructing daily life. Icons were never created to function in the same way as the “art” that most readily comes to mind— an object hung in a museum or gallery to be enjoyed or admired. Although Russian icons have been marginally accepted into the cannon of art history, and it is not completely uncommon to find them in museums, galleries and auctions, it was not until the 17th century after years of Western influence that a word for painting as “art” (zhivopis, or “painting life”) even existed in Russia. Even after the idea of “art” was introduced, icons, known as ikonopis, or “painting icons,” remained in a category of their own.
Perhaps the largest difference between icons and “art” lies with the idea of agency— the ability of an object to affect its environment. From a believer’s perspective, the question is not a matter of if the icon will impact those who see it, so much as when or how. To Orthodox believers, icons are not just objects hanging on a wall; they serve as windows that connect the heavenly and the earthly. Icons were created to actively influence the consciousness of their viewers, often in the most literal sense.
In 1611, Adam Olearius, a German scholar and secretary to the ambassador, recounted seeing a pious Russian man praying to an icon of St. Nicholas, hoping that it would stop a fire that broke out in Novgorod. When the icon did not diminish the flames, the man threw the it into the fire and shouted, “If you do not want to help us, then help yourself and put it out!” There were even instances reported when, during times of extreme hardship, icons that did not perform miracles were publicly admonished and hung upside-down in punishment.
Russian devotional literature is inundated with miracle-working icon stories. One such story from the 19th century describes the healing of a peasant woman Irina Petrova from the village of Kostiushin who fell ill for seven years with no improvement.
Feeling hopeless, Irina travelled to the nearby village of Ivanovskoe to visit an old church that was being dismantled, and requested one of their icons of the Mother of God. When she arrived in Ivanovskoe, she was told that all the icons had already been distributed, and resolved to have one made for herself. Before she could put in the order, Irina had a dream that there was an ancient icon, blackened with age, on a collector’s plate in Ivanovskoe. The collector in her dream told her that if she returned to the church and prayed before for an icon of the Mother of God named “The Joy of All Who Sorrow,” she would be healed. Once awake, Irina prayed before an icon by that name in her own parish. She then had another dream in which a woman appeared to her and urged her to find the particular icon in Ivanovskoe, assuring her that if she found it she would be healed, and if not her sufferings would increase. Irina returned to the church but to her dismay could still not find the icon. On the third night, she had yet another dream in which her deceased brother-in-law chastised her negligence and urged her to search for the icon of the Mother of God. Irina went back to the church for a third time and begged the parish to help her find the icon of her dreams. Unexpectedly, they immediately located the icon and following a prayer service before it, she was miraculously healed.
These miracle-working devotional stories exemplify the extent to which icons were believed to literally change the lives of all Russians, regardless of wealth, status, or gender. Through icons, even the poorest of believers could perform a heavenly mission, save the nation from misfortune, or find a solution to their worst troubles.