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  • Marc Melich-Mautner

How are Russian icons painted?

Icons are not painted, but “written”! Icons are sacred images. They are subject to fixed rules that are derived from their purpose and goal. Icon painting is prayer. During the work, the painter is in a spiritual dialogue with the person depicted. Not everyone is allowed to paint or write icons. At the holy councils the following was established: The painter should be peace-loving, humble and pious. He shouldn't be easy to talk or joke about, or contentious or hateful. For his own salvation he should preserve the purity of soul and body, and -if he cannot remain unmarried, he should at least be ecclesiastically and legally married. He should seek advice from his confessor and, according to his instruction, fasting and praying, abstaining and humble, living without indecency and shame, with great zeal and devotion, the images of our Lord Jesus Christ and his purest mother, the holy prophets, apostles, martyrs , blessed women, the high priests and blessed fathers paint.

The master steps back behind his work, remains anonymous. His work is service to God, another form of worship. We know only a few icon painters by name, the earliest from the 11th century. In general, icons were created in painting schools in monasteries. They already existed in Justinian times in many places in the Eastern Roman Empire, in the Balkans and on Crete as well as in Syria, called Podlinniks, which were created by individual painters or the painting schools. Only a few have survived and only some from the more recent times. But they contain the traditional views on the design of themes and motifs as well as painting instructions. The largest of its kind is the 18th century Hermeneia. It was written by monks on Mount Athos, where there is still a famous icon painting school today. From the Russian Stroganov School, which existed from around 1580 to 1620, painter's books come with outline drawings.

Despite all the regulations, no icon is painted like the other. The stronger and finer differences and nuances give the icons their special charm. They reveal the handwriting of the painter or the conception of the painting school. In later times they show - albeit less appealingly - the influences of art-historical currents in Western Europe. The way an icon was made has hardly changed at all over the centuries. At the beginning of the 8th century, shortly before the outbreak of iconoclasm, a new technique emerged that has been retained to this day: painting with egg tempera paints. Until then, encaustic was used as with the mummy portraits, a painting process in which heated, wax-bound mineral paints were applied with a spatula. Since you had to work quickly - cooled colors could no longer be smeared - icons painted in encaustic often appear improvised and impressionistic. The spatula line is usually clearly visible. Boards made from non-resinous tree species, for example beech, birch, alder, poplar, cedar and cypress, are used as a base for the icons, in Byzantine schools mainly pine, walnut and olive. The size of the icons that are hung in the icon corners of the apartments is generally around 30 x 35 cm; they are all in portrait format, only in exceptional cases in landscape format.

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