The World of Icons

Sacred Spaces

Visitors to Russia never ceased to be amazed by the number of icons that saturated the Russian landscape. In his memoir, The Journey of Patriarch Makarios of Antioch to Russia in the Mid-17th Century, the Syrian archdeacon Paul of Aleppo described with awe how “in each house there is a countless multitude of icons, adorned with gold, silver and precious stones, and not only within houses, but also at all doors, even at house-gates, and this is true not only of Boyars, but of peasants in the villages, since their love and faith towards the icons is very great.” Indeed, nearly every domestic and public space, including trees along the forest’s edge, was home to icons.

In order to keep pace with the colossal demand for icons, during the Imperial period an expansive network of icon workshops was established in towns, monasteries, and hamlets. Together, these workshops supplied Russia with millions of icons each year. By the mid-19th century, icon production in Kholui alone had reached 1.5 to two million icons per year and employed all 700 of the town’s residents. By the early 20th century, V.T. Georgievksy claimed that even a small icon-painting workshop with five to six workers could produce between 100 and 300 icons per day.

The staggering number of icons that proliferated in Russian daily life not only shaped the population's spiritual beliefs, but also impacted their conceptualization of the world. A popular 19th century Russian proverb which described the world as the “incorruptible raiment of the Lord,” for example, supported the idea that that the physical world, like an icon, was not an identical representation, but a reflection or “shining shadow” of God. This metaphor was also used to describe Russia as a second heaven.

Old Believer author Semyon Denisov (1682-1741) wrote, “Behold the all-encompassing splendor, see the ecclesiastical grandeur, and also behold the all-saving goodness of the monasteries, and also turn thine eyes to the heaven-like beauty of the coenobium, and how great it is and how great also the heaven with bright stars, like wonderful pearls, like greatly valuable precious stones with which it most marvelously adorns itself: so greatly extended and all- encompassing is Russia, with its fine monasteries and magnificent places of God’s worship: as finely adorned, as richly set out as if it were even worthy to be named a second Heaven.” In this passage, Denisov clearly makes a connection between heaven, Rus, and icons by referring to them interchangeably.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the heavenly paradise manifested as Russia, and most strongly experienced in its church, moved into the home, transforming it into a place of veneration and worship. Just as in church, domestic icons were prayed to, venerated, kissed, and held by family members. As many visitors to Russia noted, domestic icons greatly transformed the daily life at home.

Johann Pernstein, a Czech governor, recorded how “on entering or leaving a house [Russians] always kneel three times before the representation of the Crucifixion or before the icon of the Holy Virgin as a sign of respect, and they perpetually keep lighted candles in every room... Only after the completion of this ritual do they begin to converse with those in the house; they do the same as they bid farewell to their hosts.”

Home was considered to be one of the symbolic manifestations of Sophia, the Wisdom of God, and was thus associated with the heavenly ordered world, fenced in from chaos. To experience paradise within the home, Russians were urged to keep their houses orderly and to place icons in every room.

This practice surprised Paul of Aleppo, who recorded that “in each Russian cell there is an icon screen with images, and not only within, but also outside, above the door, even above the staircase door, for such is the custom among the Muscovites, that they hang icons on all doors of their houses, their cellars, their kitchens, and their store-room.”

In every Russian house, one would see a “red corner” or “main corner” that displayed the household icons. In a peasant house, the “main corner” was usually constructed by placing the family icons on a simple wooden shelf. In the houses of the wealthy, the “main corner” was often transformed into a domestic church, a “prayer place,” or an oratory wall that was completely covered in icons.

By filling every space with icons, Russians created the heavenly world in public churches as much as they did in their private homes. In this way, sacralized internal and external spaces were united to create the one sacred space, the worldly heaven, the Great Icon that was Russia. 


This Kazan Mother of God icon illustrates some of the changes made after the Great Moscow Council. In accordance with the New Ritualist reforms, Christ is shown performing the three-finger blessing and the faces and hands are rendered in a European style.  

St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker

This St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker icon contains Old Ritualist symbolism including the two-finger blessing and the IC XC spelling of Christ. Many Old Believer icons were painted over or destroyed after the Great Moscow Council. 


The naturalistic rendering of this Kazan Mother of God icon is evidence of the Western influence on Russian art and culture. 

God’s Nation

The idea of the Great Icon shaped Russia’s national identity as much as it influenced the daily lives of its citizens. After the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire in 1453, the ubiquitous presence of holy images reinforced the notion that Russia was championed by God to become the “Third Rome,” the inheritor of Orthodox Christianity. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, “Holy Russia” was incorporated into the Slavophile myth used to distinguish Russian culture from that of the Western "Other," and to suggest the inferiority of Westerners who had forsaken God.

The idea of “Holy Russia” that once unified a nation became a point of contention after the Great Moscow Council of 1666-1667 reformed the church and established new rituals, sign systems, and styles of icon. The country was suddenly divided into two factions: New Ritualists, who accepted the reforms of the Moscow Council, and Old Ritualists or Old Believers, who adhered to the previous devotional norms established at the Stoglav Council of 1551.

The mid-17th century church reforms in Russia introduced several alterations to icon iconography that were largely influenced by the popularity of Counter-reformation ideology in the Russian court and the introduction of Latin and Western religious rhetoric. Icons created before the Moscow Council (and those that continued to be used by Old Believers) showed saints making the sign of blessing with two fingers, and depicted the name of Christ with the letters “IC XC.” New Ritualist icons wrote the name of Christ as “IиC XC,” and opted for the three-finger sign of blessing. Furthermore, Old Believers opposed the representation of God in icons, while many New Ritualists began to portray God in their icons and other church art. Icons of the new devotion were also much more accepting of Western stylistic influences.

One Old Believer recounts how the creators of new icons “paint the image of Savior Emmanuel: the face is rounded, the mouth is bright red, the hair is curly, the arms and muscles are plump... as he is all as big-bellied as a German... and all of it is painted in a fleshly corpulence and have rejected the value of tears.”

While these distinctions may seem trivial, they dramatically altered Russians' conceptualization of their world, their nation, and themselves. First and foremost, changes within the church signified to many Russians the end of Russia as the Third Rome, the loss of God’s protection, and, ultimately, the end of the world. The changes brought by the 1666 Moscow Council bore an apocalyptic fear of Russia transforming into Satan’s empire, a tsardom without grace. Some sects of Old Believers, including the “Priestless,” even believed that the Antichrist was present in all aspects of Russian life.

Old Believer Feodosii Vasilev described how “in fulfilment of 1666, the kingdom of Antichrist has extended itself even to Rus. This can be seen in the first place from the fact that Nikon has brought in heresies of precisely the Latin faith. Such for example are the four-ended cross, the spelling ‘Iisus’ [Jesus], the litany of saints and in particular the three-fingered crossing of oneself.”

The New Devotion also demanded that icons with old symbols be either repainted or burned alongside Old Believer texts by offical decree. The creation of new icons or the worship of icons that followed the old traditions was a criminal offense, although many Old Believers continued to do so in secret. Many writings and handcrafted popular prints (lubki) describe the persecution of those who rejected the new reforms.

One lubok entitled The Terrible Execution of Captain Vasilii Levin for Making the Sign of the Cross and for the Ancient Tradition (early 20th century) bears the inscription: “In 1722 in Petersburg there took place the terrible execution of Captain Vasilii Levin, who underwent terrible insupportable sufferings in extreme old age for not accepting the new books and new icons as for being a supporter of the two-fingered sign of the Cross, and a propagator of holy antiquity.”

 A second miniature, The Execution of Colonel Nemchinov, tells the story of Colonal Nemchinov who would not renounce the two-fingered sign of the cross, for which “they cut off Nemchinov’s head, and his body was stuck on stakes in various places so as to frighten others.”

The persecution of Old Believers caused many to flee to the Northern territories of Russia, where they were free to carry out traditional worship. Many of these Old Believers brought with them traveling icons, that were smaller and often could be worn as a pendant. For this reason, many Old Believer icons are found in the most rural areas of Russia.