Ten centuries of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox art

Russia was officially Christianised in 988. Since then the Russian Orthodox Church has played an important role in the lives of Russians. It has always appealed to the imagination and the emotions, an important factor in this appeal being its gold and general splendour.


The Russian Orthodox Church evolved from the Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Church, which had separated from the Roman Catholic Church, officially during the Great Schism of 1054, but in fact much earlier.

The first centre of the Christian church was Rome, seat of the pope and capital of the Roman empire. A change came from the fourth century AD after Emperor Constantine moved his residence, in 330, to the city of Byzantium, which he enlarged, embellished and renamed Constantinople. In 395 the Roman Empire was divided into an eastern and a western part, each with its own emperor. The eastern part, or Byzantine Empire, flourished. Constantinople regarded itself as the new Rome and its patriarch as the head of the Christian church. This status was not recognised by Rome. When the Byzantine Church decided to use Greek, instead of Latin, as the church language, the two churches grew even further apart. The definitive break came in 1054. The Eastern Orthodox Church regarded itself as the true church, a conviction expressed in its name for the word orthodox means 'sound in opinion or doctrine'.

The Christianisation of Russia

Trading contacts with Byzantium – via the Black Sea – brought the principality of Kiev its first exposure to Christianity. Grand Princess Olga of Kiev (c. 890–969) developed a great sympathy for the religion and was baptised in Constantinople. Although her sons (and successors) did not follow her example, her grandson Vladimir eventually made Christianity the state religion.

At the beginning of his reign Vladimir remained a pagan, until he decided to marry Anna, sister to the Byzantine emperor Basil II. His choice of bride was governed by political considerations: the German emperor Otto II had also married a Byzantine princess, thereby strengthening relations between the German and Byzantine empire, and Vladimir envisaged similar advantages for himself. However, Basil required that Vladimir convert to the Christian faith before he would give his sister to him.

According to the renowned Chronicle of Nestor ('Tale of Bygone Years'), written around 1111, Vladimir made a well considered decision when he converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The chronicle describes how Vladimir sent envoys to various countries to study their religion; the envoys who visited Roman-Catholic Germany found no beauty there, while the Islamic Volga Bulgarians were labelled 'joyless'. However, in Constantinople the envoys were so struck by the magnificent churches, ritual and splendid singing they no longer knew whether they were in heaven or on earth. An attractive bonus for the grand prince of Kiev was the fact that the Byzantine emperor was accorded divine status. Vladimir was baptised in 988 and commanded all the inhabitants of his realm to undergo the same rite. Under a Christian flag he quickly managed to subject the other Russian principalities.

Churches and monasteries

Vladimir gave immediate and forceful expression to his conversion, commissioning Byzantine architects and artists to build churches and decorate these with frescoes, mosaics and icons. These buildings and decorations were entirely modelled on Byzantine examples. Dependence on Constantinople extended to the entire Russian Church. The highest ecclesiastical authority in Russia, the metropolitan, was even appointed in the Byzantine capital, a practice that would continue until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

The first church in Kiev was the Tithe Church, so called because Vladimir donated a tithe, or one tenth of his income, to the building. The Tithe Church was designed in the form of a Byzantine cruciform dome church, with a large central dome (symbolising Jesus) and four smaller domes on the arms of the cross (symbolising the four Evangelists). The large dome was decorated with an image of Christ Pantocrator ('Ruler of all') and the apse with a representation of the Mother of God. The Tithe Church, and other churches from this first period of Russian Christianity, formed the prototype for the majority of churches subsequently built in Russia. This is demonstrated by various nineteenth and twentieth-century models of churches in the exhibition. Decorations were also copied endlessly.

Icon: Christ Pantocrator from the Deesis Row of an iconostasis, Northern Russia, late 13th—early 14th century, Wood, with ark; levkas (gesso), tempera; 65 х 42 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Icon of the Saviour on the Throne from the Deesis Row of an iconostasis, Northern Russia, Novgorod, 16th century, Tempera on wood, 87.5 х 63.5 х 3 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Russian artists and writers learned their craft from Byzantine colleagues. They introduced Church Slavonic into Russia, in books and in inscriptions on icons and wall paintings. This language had been developed in the ninth century by the Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius for missions to Slavic peoples. Church Slavonic made the Christian faith more accessible to the Russians and played a positive role in its spread. Manuscripts were copied in the monasteries that were quickly established on Russian soil; such institutions also promoted literacy. Monastic life flourished in Russia, a major attraction being its aesthetic lifestyle.

The first Russian saints

Naturally the Russian Church acknowledged and revered all the existing Christian saints. From the outset the most important of these were the Mother of God, followed by St Nicholas the Miracle Worker, fourth-century bishop of Myra and deliverer from adversity and calamity. Both the Mother of God and St Nicholas are patron saints of Russia.

Icon of Our Lady of the Don, Volga Region, late 16th—early 17th century, Wood, with double ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), tempera; 32 х 26 х 2.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Icon of St Nicholas, Old Russia, Novgorod, late 13th—14th century, Wood, with ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), levkas (gesso), tempera; 107.5 х 79.3 х 3 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The first truly Russian saints were the princes Boris and Gleb, sons of Vladimir and a Bulgarian princess (before his marriage to the Byzantine princess Anna, the Grand Prince had seven wives and countless concubines). On Vladimir's death tradition dictated that his realm be divided between his twelve sons. A power struggle ensued in which the two devout princes Boris and Gleb were murdered, despite their refusal to become involved in the dispute or fight back. They were regarded by the Church as the first Russian martyrs and almost immediately declared saints – the first of a series of Russian martyrs. The Church drew up a canon which laid down the vita (biography) of these saints and the precise rendering of their icon. Although Vladimir, who had converted Russia to Christianity, was not declared a saint until the thirteenth century, his cult assumed grand forms and he was accorded the honorary title of Apostolic, equal to the Apostles. Down the centuries many more Russian saints would be added to the canon. Monks who had founded monasteries, such as St Sergy of Radonezh, or soldiers who had given their lives for Russia and Christianity, suffering extreme tortures in the process, such as St Theodore Tyron ('the Recruit') and St Theodore Stratilates.

Icon of St Theodore Stratelates and St Theodore of Tyre, Old Russia, Novgorod, 15th century, Wood, with ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), levkas (gesso), tempera, gilding, 53.5 х 38 х 2.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Icon of the Appearance of the Mother of God to St Sergy of Radonezh, Russia, 18th century, Wood, tempera, 37 х 30.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Icon of the Appearance of the Mother of God to St Sergy of Radonezh, Russia, Trinity-Sergiev Monastery, 1621—1622, Wood, with double ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), levkas (gesso), tempera, gilding (double); 30 х 25.3 х 2.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Great feasts

Over the centuries the Russian Orthodox Church developed its own system of rites, sacraments and symbolism. Many local – pagan – customs were adopted alongside Byzantine traditions. A number of religious feasts also had pagan roots.

Orthodox doctrine holds that life is linked with ecclesiastical chronology from baptism until death. Both the personal lives of Christians and the liturgical year follow the pattern of the church calendar. High points in the ecclesiastical year are the great feasts, twelve in total, paralleling the twelve apostles. The great feasts are all associated with the most important moments in the lives of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God.

One great feast enjoys the highest status, the Glorious Resurrection of Christ, or Pascha (Easter). On this day the earth was created anew and mankind redeemed. Easter is preceded by seven weeks of Great Fasting (Lent). On the Friday before Easter, Good Friday, worshippers commemorate the Redeemer's suffering; on the following day, Great and Holy Saturday, they remember His death. The custom of exchanging decorated eggs at Easter partly derives from an apocryphal story: when Mary Magdalene met the Emperor Tiberius she declared "Christ is risen!"; Tiberius replied that just as the egg in her hand could not turn red, so could Christ not have risen from the dead; Mary Magdalene then presented him with the egg which had miraculously turned red as he was speaking.

Presentation vase for Easter Eggs, Russia, St.Petersburg, Imperial Porcelain Factory, mid-19th century, Porcelain, overglaze painting in gold; velvet; 22.5 х 36.5 х 36.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Easter service is characterized by great solemnity. The priests wear special Easter robes gleaming with gold embroidery. On the evening of Great and Holy Saturday worshippers celebrate the Midnight Office, then wait in darkness for the priest to light a candle from the unsleeping flame on the altar, paralleling the annual miracle at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Descent of the Holy Fire from the Tomb of the Lord. This flame is then used to light all the icon lamps and red Easter candles. At the end of the service worshippers take home the flame in icon lamps, which they keep burning throughout the year.

Fragment of Royal Gates: St John Chrysostom, Nothern Russia, Novgorod, 16th century, Wood, with ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), levkas (gesso), tempera, gilding; 103.5 х 35.7 х 3 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The iconostasis

A typically Russian element in the church is the iconostasis, introduced in the thirteenth century in Novgorod, now some 300 kilometres to the southeast of St Petersburg. A wall of icons separating the altar from the nave, and thereby from worshippers, the iconostasis quickly became a canonical, or official, part of the Russian Orthodox church interior. The area of the church around the altar, known as the sanctuary, is considered the most sacred part of the building and may only be entered by the clergy. In the Byzantine church, chancel and nave were separated by a templon, or sanctuary rail. Its evolution in Russia into a closed wall of icons prevented worshippers from even looking at the altar. The iconostasis comprises rows of icons, arranged according to a set theological order, and a number of openings or sets of doors; the central set, known as the Holy Gates, Beautiful Doors or Royal Gates or Doos, are opened during the liturgy, allowing the faithful a glimpse of 'heaven' and 'eternity'. These doors are often decorated with the four Evangelists, transmitters of Christ the Saviour's message. The exhibition will feature a reconstruction of an iconostasis. Also on display will be the splendid travelling iconostasis which accompanied Tsar Alexander I on his campaigns, including his triumphal entry into Paris in 1814.

Iconostasis of Alexander I's campaign church, Russia, St Petersburg, Vasily Shebuyev, 1800—1825, Painting on canvas, affixed to wooden frames; 310 х 496 х 20 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg


One of the most important elements in Orthodox Christianity is the veneration of icons, in which images of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God play a central role. Every great feast also has its own icon without which the celebration of this feast would not be complete. As the visual expression of the Gospel, icons are more than simply a representation or illustration: they are a 'sacred part of the divine substance', a definition established by a number of church councils. Icons are sometimes called windows on eternity, because they reveal a portion of heaven, of God's Kingdom, as it were. An icon brings worshippers in direct contact with its subject.

The oldest known icons on wooden panels date from the sixth century and come from St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Desert (Egypt). These early icons display the unmistakeable influence of late-classical painting, and also of the Fayyum mummy portraits from Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st century BC–4th century AD), in which the features of the deceased were painted on a panel placed on the mummy. Life forces were ascribed to these portraits which were believed to facilitate communication with the deceased.

The eighth and ninth centuries were dominated by a prolonged conflict about the role of icons in church and society. Many old icons were destroyed during this period on the grounds that they were idols. This iconoclasm was brought to an end in 843 by the Victory of the Holy Images; the argument in favour of icons held that it was not the image being revered but the subject of the image. From this point onwards icons spread enormously and rapidly. Places of honour for icons were established both in churches and in private homes. Protective icons were placed on city gates and borne as banners during campaigns; travellers carried special folding icons on their journeys. Icons were regarded as indispensable to prayer, and therefore in life.

In Russia the role played by icons was even more important than in other Orthodox countries. One, practical reason was that many Russian churches were built of wood and could not accommodate frescoes. However, a greater and more fundamental significance was also attached to the contemplation of icons in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Painting an icon

Painting of these 'holy images' is no easy task. Choice of panel, attachment of cross battens, preparation of the wood – all are governed by set rules. The act of affixing a cloth to the panel using warm glue embodies a theological reference, to the event which created the first icon, the 'Holy Face Not Painted by Human Hands', an imprint of Jesus' face on linen which Jesus is believed to have sent to King Abgar of Edessa, to cure him of leprosy. Every icon has its origins in this image which also forms the model for one of the three types of Christ icon, the Jesus Mandylion, or the Saviour Not Made by Hands.

Icon of the Saviour, face only, Russia, Moscow, late 16th century, Wood, with ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), levkas (gesso), tempera; 31 х 25 х 2.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The act of painting an icon is accompanied by prayer and meditation. Icon painters only use natural pigments which are mixed with tempera. Once an image is complete, artists inscribe the work with the name of the holy figure or feast depicted in the painting. This inscription seals the image, as it were: what the viewer sees is also present in reality. However, a painting only attains icon status when it has been blessed in church.

Until the seventeenth century icons were unsigned. Icon painters received little credit for their work, as it was believed that they had only lent their hands to God so He could manifest Himself. Icon painting was not about individual artistic expression but 'the truth of God'. And He only has one face.

Development of the Russian icon

Despite the set rules associated with icon painting, stylistic developments can be observed. Every period and every region has put its own imprint on icons.

Medieval Russia

Early Christian Russian icons are entirely Byzantine in character. Many Byzantine and Greek icon painters worked in Russia in this period, teaching Russian artists, while many Byzantine icons were imported and endlessly copied. However, few icons have survived from this time. In 1237 the Mongols – commonly known in Russia as the Tatars – invaded large areas of Russia, destroying most centres of power and culture.

The north of Russia, however, escaped this devastation. Novgorod became the new centre where the art of icon painting further developed, assimilating a range of elements from local folk art. Compositions became flatter, incorporating large areas of colour, colours were brighter and facial features more realistic and individual.

Another important centre was Pskov, Russia's north-western outpost which grew into one of the most important cities in medieval Europe. Here too a specific school of painting emerged. Icons from Pskov are conspicuous for their original variations on traditional iconography.

The Moscow period

In 1325 Metropolitan Peter – the highest authority in the Russian Church – moved his seat from the devastated and depopulated city of Kiev to Moscow, where he received the protection of the Prince of Moscow. Many icon painters moved to Moscow with Peter and the city gradually became the most important centre for icon painting. Andrei Rublyov (c. 1360–1428/30), one of these Moscow artists, is regarded as the greatest Russian icon painter in history. He spent some time working in the Kremlin.

During the fifteenth century Moscow managed to subject the other Russian states and gain international recognition. When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, in 1453, Moscow also became the new religious heart of the Orthodox world. The idea arose that the Russian Empire was the only, true defender of the Orthodox faith and that Moscow was 'the third Rome'. Churches were built throughout the city to reinforce this new status. The most important painter of the period was Dionysius (1440/50–after 1504), who had close connections with the court and the upper echelons of the clergy. Although he worked in the tradition of Rublyov, his works are more exalted and spiritual in character: his elongated figures are gracious with aristocratic features, while movements are fluid and colour contrasts restrained. Dionysius' style reflected the standing of an international court.

Icon of the Archangel Michael from a Deesis row, Russia, Novgorod, 16th century, Tempera on wood; 88.5 х 37 х 3.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Now that Moscow, and therefore Russia, had become the centre of Orthodox worship, interest grew in native Russian saints. Metropolitan Macarius, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1534–1584), summoned two church councils at which various Russian saints, 34 in total, were canonised. These were mainly monastic figures, such as the holy monks Zosima and Savvaty, who had founded a monastery in 1429 on the Solovetsky islands in the White Sea, which would grow into one of the cornerstones of Russian monasticism. Zosima and Savvaty were also granted their own icon.

Icon of SS.Zosima and Savvaty, Miracle-Workers of Solovetsky Islands, and their Lives, Northern Russia, late 17th—early 18th century, Wood, with ark; pavoloka (linen canvas), levkas (gesso), tempera; 89.6 х 70.7 х 3.4 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

During the late sixteenth century a new direction in painting emerged. This became known as the Stroganov school, after the renowned Stroganov family whose members commissioned many icons from painters at the imperial court, thereby displaying clear stylistic preferences. Icons of this school are generally small and painted with extreme precision; they are often decorated with costly silver and gold mounts and precious stones. Such works were also commissioned by the court and aristocracy for daily private use. In the nineteenth century in particular many icons continued to display the influence of the Stroganov school.

The Romanov period

The early seventeenth century was a period of great unrest, known as the Time of Troubles. Areas of conflict included ecclesiastic disputes associated with Patriarch Nikon's proposed reforms, which eventually led to a schism. Opponents of these reforms, known as the Old Believers, regarded such changes as an attack on the foundations of the Russian Orthodox faith. The Old Believers still exist today, as a separate movement within the Russian Orthodox Church.

Western influences were increasingly seeping into Russian icon painting. Trade and contacts with the west grew significantly in this period and various foreign artists and craftsmen were active in Moscow. Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (ruled 1645–1676) actively encouraged them to move to Russia. Icon studios were established in the Kremlin Armouries where the best painters worked, assimilating the influences of an emerging realism. Inspired by foreign models they endeavoured to represent the divine as realistically and tangibly as possible. A sense of depth was introduced into icons while figures acquired volume; attention was even paid to the architectural and landscape background. Such works appealed greatly to the new mercantile class developing in Russia during this period. However, the Church continued to strictly monitor iconography, insisting that painters adhered to the canons of Orthodoxy.

Under Peter the Great (ruled 1682–1725) western influences strengthened considerably. Icon painting gradually lost its original character, while the canons of iconography were abandoned and works were even produced in oils. Paintings of secular subjects, almost non-existent in Russia before this time, also emerged and exerted a substantial influence on icon art. Renaissance, baroque and classicist themes and styles all made an appearance.

Icon of the Assembly of the Most Holy Mother of God, Russia, St Petersburg, Mikhail Funtusov, 1755, Tempera on wood, 49.5 х 21 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Icon of St Andrew the First-Called, Russia, mid-18th century, Tempera on woord, 34 х 24 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Francesco Fontebasso (1709—1769), The Last Supper, 1762, Oil on canvas, 132 х 193 cm (oval)
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

However, one group remained faithful to tradition, the Old Believers, who had not only been excommunicated but often also banished to villages on the fringes of the Russian Empire.

From the second half of the nineteenth century icon painting increasingly ceded ground to the machine-made colour print. Many painters lost their means of support. Only a small group of artists continued to work, painting icons in a highly refined technique and style reminiscent of the Stroganov school. Icon painting was dealt its final blow by the Bolsheviks, who closed and destroyed churches, exterminated the clergy, seized church property and sold ecclesiastical antiques. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, revealed that the Orthodox Church had not completely disappeared. On the contrary: interest in the Church and church art quickly revived. Today Russian painters are producing new icons and church art is once more a speciality of many artists.

Icon of St Maxim the Greek, Russia, Mstyora, 19th century, Wood, with ark; tempera; 31.5 х 26.5 х 2.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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