Icon Painting

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Icon Painting


a typical of medieval painting with religious themes and purposes. Unlike wall paintings or miniatures, icon paintings, or icons, are individual pictorial compositions that were originally executed by the encaustic method or with mosaic. Later, icons were painted primarily in tempera. Beginning in the 18th century icons were executed with oil paints on wooden panels, canvas, and, less frequently, metal. Icon painting is similar to easel (picture) painting; however, there is a distinction between them. Icon paintings were an organic part of a single ideological and artistic complex, which included architecture and decorative applied art. They were usually executed for a particular place, such as an iconostasis.

The term “icon painting” is primarily applied to medieval Christian (mostly Orthodox) religious painting. The earliest icons in existence are from Southwest Asia and date from the sixth century. Following the traditions of late Hellenistic portrait painting, particularly the funerary portrait, early icons were portraits of saints and, later, of other legendary Christian figures. Beginning in the tenth or 11th century, primarily symbolic scenes were depicted in icon paintings. Beginning in the 14th century, icons narrative in character were prevalent.

Whereas sculpture was the predominant medium in the medieval religious art of most Western European countries, icon painting was the most highly developed form of art in Byzantium. Byzantine icon painting greatly influenced the art of other countries—in the region from Italy to Ethiopia, in Rus’ (where it acquired exceptional brilliance and individuality), in the southern Slavic countries, and in Georgia. In these countries, Byzantine traditions were reworked and gradually overcome, and distinctive schools of icon painting developed.

In the Middle Ages icon painting never served only a ritual function. In its conventional and abstract form, which was determined by its religious purpose and by medieval theology, it reflected the aesthetic experience of the people and was one of the principal artistic means of apprehending the world. In these ways, icon painting was similar to other media of the fine arts.

As a result of the struggle against Iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries in Byzantium, the aesthetics of icon painting was fully developed. It required that divine, spiritual elements be embodied in visual, sensually perceptible forms. However, these images had to be devoid of corporeality, because the church asserted that celestial beauty could be expressed only through the inner spiritual essence of perfect, idealized objective forms of the real world.

Thus, icon painters developed a system of conventional devices for the reproduction of reality. Flat images were placed upon an abstract, often golden background. Realistic representation of forms and three-dimensional space was absent. Elements of the landscape and minor details were subordinated to the symbolic or narrative content of the composition; their purpose was not to render nature. Rhythmic design and the expressiveness of line and color were the principal elements of the images in icon paintings.

Art created for the nobility, in which there were strong ancient Greek traditions, gave precedence to noble and lofty images, subtle spiritual structure, and refinement of form. However, in icon paintings there were vivid folklore representations. The icons produced by local schools were characterized by the naive poetry of a fairy tale, the colorfulness of a lively imagination, songlike imagery, simplehearted narration, and expressive concreteness of details.

In its rejection of realistic representation, icon painting more thoroughly and intricately created the emotional expressiveness of an image. The most significant achievement of this medium of art was the broadening of the spiritual content in works of art. It introduced a number of moral and psychological motifs into art, including moral valor, maternal tenderness, compassion, tragic grief, and joyful exultation. Content approaching reality could only be depicted by icon painters within strict icono-graphic canons prescribed by the church and exemplified by originals (collections of model drawings). These canons forced the artist to develop the spiritual structure of an image with particular subtlety and refinement. The integrity of the aesthetic principles of icon painting was undermined by the crisis of the medieval world outlook and the development of the Renaissance culture. With the rise of realistic tendencies in the painting of various countries, icon painting began to compromise itself in terms of form. It went into a decline and eventually became a handicraft.


Bruk, Ia. V. Zhivoe nasledie. Moscow, 1970.
Lazarev, V. N. “Russkaia ikona.” In his book Russkaia srednevekovaiazhivopis’: Stat’i i issledovaniia. Moscow, 1970.
Wulf, O., and M. Alpatoff. Denkmaler der Ikonenmalerei in kunstge-schichtlichen Folge. Hellerau bei Dresden, 1925.
Gerhard, H. P. Welt der Ikonen. Recklinghausen [1957]
Onasch, K. Die Ikonenmalerei. Leipzig, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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