• Marc Melich-Mautner

How do you date Russian icons

Updated: Sep 16

In an old painter's handbook there is the following warning to the icon painters: "My son, when you paint, stick to the tradition as you learned it old, because only the heretic dares to deviate from the archetype of looking at your icons thought you alone, yes, you would have done your sacred mission badly." If the monk did not stick to the model, if he deviated too much from the outline drawings for the types of pictures collected in the painter's handbook, it could be that. And since the icon painter saw his art as a service to God, the icons are generally not included with his signature, still dated (mainly Russian icons).

The dogmatic treatment of a topic over centuries and the anonymity of the painter or the school often result in difficulties in narrowing down. Certain types of icons can be said with certainty that they only appear from a certain point in time. This means that there is a minimum time limit. The dates of life of the saints depicted also allow a certain time limit. Although these are only rough aids for determining the time, they can, together with other features, serve to clarify the situation. Conclusions can also be drawn from the appearance of new iconographic features, as well as from the labeling, for example, whether it belongs to the standard language or Church Slavonic, or whether it has dialectical peculiarities through which one can outline the region of origin and perhaps also the time.

Overpainting can also provide clues, but above all stylistic changes. Such new conceptions of a subject, conditioned by the trends of the times, generally run through all painting schools. Western influences, for example, became apparent quite early on in Greek and Cretan icons. Since the 16th century, we have often come across signed icons in this area. But even if one assumes that styles of time have found their way into icon painting, these features only permit an exact chronological classification to a limited extent. It was not uncommon to ignore new trends and reflect on tradition, painting again in the style of the 15th or 16th century in the 18th or 19th century. Since the individual painting schools rarely have a pure style, but mostly mixed styles, it is often quite difficult to determine the origin. Since the peculiarities of the individual schools have not yet been researched enough and can no longer be precisely reconstructed, one can only determine or assume the origin of an icon according to certain general and also some special traits that we believe we know. It also helps to take a closer look at the wood to draw conclusions about the time it was created.

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