Russian Icons:
Objects of Veneration, Objects d' Art

By James L. Jackson

Whether they are collected for their spiritual and historical significance or simply their unique beauty and charm, one fact remains certain: a flourishing collector's market in Russian icons is sweeping the country. What was once a field reserved to a few well established dealers with more customers than merchandise has blossomed into a veritable free for all, with Russian icons popping up in flea markets, auctions, antique shows, and galleries coast-to-coast.

While much has been published on ancient icons, until recently very little has been written on Russian icons of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, the period from which comes the vast majority of icons in today's market. Unfortunately, this means there is little to help the fledgling collector navigate through the maze of misinformation and shenanigans which plague today's market.

Ikona, or Russian icon, derives its name from the Greek eikon, meaning image. After the mixture of Greco-Roman and Syrian art that gave birth to icons was modified in Byzantium, that tradition was passed on to Russian when it converted to Christianity in 988 A.D.

The traditional Russian icon is a religious image painted on a prepared wooden panel. However, icons were produced in cast metal and carved relief, too. From the 18th through early 20th centuries, icons could be found literally everywhere in Russia. There were icons in churches, homes, hospitals, ships, stables, roadside shrines, and even in prisons. Icons comforted a mother giving birth, were received as gifts at marriage, accompanied armies going into battle, and were part of funeral ceremonies. There were icons to protect cattle, icons to drive away the toothache, and even icons to prevent house fires.

Every church had an icon screen containing many icons separating the congregation from the altar. Every Christian, which means nearly every Russian, had a patron saint. Anyone who could afford it had an icon of his or her patron saint. All this simply means is, a tremendous number of icons were produced, which accounts for the enormous number of icons still in existence today.

It is true that in the early days of Christianity in Russian, monks did paint most of the icons. For them it was a ritual process requiring special prayers and fasting. Later, however, the production of icons resulted in the creation of workshops manned by ordinary people with skill in painting.

In icon shops, one could purchase ready-painted icons, or one could special order. Big workshops could produce hundreds of icons per day, which were then shipped to other distribution and sales points throughout Russia. There were many small time painters scattered about Russia who did all the work themselves, without having each task assigned to a different person. Sometimes they would sign their work on the back, with the name and date, and sometimes the reason for which the icon was painted. But as a general rule, most icons are not signed.

The vast majority of the antique icons one sees in today's market were originally produced for home use. At home, icons were generally placed in the "beautiful corner" of the house, on a shelf or hung on the wall. To show the icon honor and veneration when praying, a light was often kept burning before the image.

An icon coated with the usual linseed oil-resin mixture would darken as the years went by. An icon can darken substantially within 50 to 75 years of being varnished. When an icon became so dark that the painting could no longer be easily seen, there were two main options. Either the painting could be scraped off down to the wood and a new painting created on the panel, or another new icon could simply be painted on top of the old one.

There are many myths that prevail about icons. We have already seen that they were painted, not only by monks. Other myths involve elaborate symbolic interpretations of the icon's symmetry and color usage, which is appropriate for those from the very early days of icon painting in Russia, but can be safely ignored for later works.

There are, of course, a few standard interpretations which anyone can see ­ gold for the light of heaven, white for purity, and so on. On the whole, however, the significance of color in icon painting is that each saint is assigned specific colors for his or her garments. These colors were detailed in the old painters' manuals, called podlinniki. One can say that iconography is more an art of reproduction than of originality. The manuals told the icon painter what colors to use when depicting various saints and also described what certain saints looked like, such as "... paint Saint Antipas with a long pointed beard like Saint Blaise...."

Miracle Workers
While icons were produced displaying innumerable biblical scenes and saints, icons of Mary and the Infant Christ were among the most popular. There are many icons depicting Mary holding the infant Christ Child, which are commemorated during the church year as chudotvornaya, that is, "miracle-working." Some of these, like the "Mother of God of Kazan" and the "Mother of God of Vladimir" are very famous, but others, like the "Melter of Evil Hearts," are less well known.

A miracle-working icon is one that at some point in its history is believed to have begun working miracles. It may be miraculous from the time of its discovery, like the Kazan Mother of God, or it may go many years with nothing unusual about it, and then suddenly it may begin to work miracles. It is said that the prototype or original Kazan icon was dug up in the city of Kazan in 1579 by a girl named Matrona and her mother after the Virgin appeared repeatedly in the girl's dreams, telling her of the buried icon. The girl's mother told a local cleric about her daughter's dream, but they were ignored. Finally out of frustration, the mother accompanied her daughter to the place she was told the icon would be found. In the ashes of a destroyed house beneath the stove, the icon was found wrapped in cloth.

The mother and daughter then took the icon to the local Bishop of Kazan, and together they placed it in a local church. As the story spread about the discovery, many pilgrims came to the church and were cured of many illnesses. One of the two most famous icons in Russia, it accompanied soldiers freeing Moscow from the Poles in 1612 and was with the troops fighting Napoleon in 1812.

The Kasperov icon also performed miracles. It was so old that the varnish had darkened greatly, but suddenly in the year 1840, the darkness disappeared, and the painting became fresh and bright again. After that, the icon began to work miracles of healing. When it became known that an icon had begun to "work miracles," news spread rapidly, and many people wanted a copy of the miracle-working icon. The more famous an icon became, the more people wanted a copy.

It is important to remember that the prototype, that is the first icon from which all the copies are made, is the one considered "miracle-working." Copies share in the fame of that original icon, but they are not considered "miracle-working" unless one of them begins to exhibit miraculous qualities as well.

When we think of icons, we generally think of images painted on wood, but there were other types as well. Cast metal icons were also very popular. Many sizes and types were created, some with single images, others combined into diptychs (two painted panels hinged together), triptychs, and quadriptychs. Metal icons could conveniently be taken along on a journey because they survived rigors of use that would have quickly damaged a painted icon.

Dating icons
It is fair to say that, in general, icons are more difficult to date than art of the West. That is because icon painting is by nature a conservative art based on reproduction of the original. It is far more difficult to distinguish a traditionally painted 19th century icon from the same type painted in the 18th century. The evolution of style is subtle and requires considerable experience to differentiate.

There are also differences in such elements as the construction of the panel on which the images are painted that help in dating. Earlier icon painters were generally careful to select cuts of wood that would minimize warping over time. Later painters in the 18th and 19th centuries were not quite so careful, and it is very common to find icons from that period with a convex shape due to the wood warping.
Dating icons by the panel alone can be very misleading because panels were often reused. There are certain general panel characteristics useful in dating, but they must be used with caution. For example, around the middle of the 18th century, the recessed area on the panel in which the image was painted began to give way to flat-surfaced panels. In general, one can say that a flat-surface panel should date from that time or later. However, some large icons before that time have no recessed area, generally because they were set in an icon screen, and some icons throughout the 19th century and even many in the early 20th century have the recessed area that was largely abandoned in the 18th century. So such guides are only rough, and other factors must be considered as well in dating.

In general, the more decorative the outer border seems, the later the icon is likely to be. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, borders were often highly ornamented in imitation of cloisonné. This tendency toward ornament extended also to the gold backgrounds of the icon and to the halos.

Dating is a complex subject and cannot be adequately covered in a brief period, but it is helpful to know that in general, all aspects of an icon must be considered in dating it: the nature of the panel, the style, the proportions of the figures, the type of calligraphy, the appearance of the background and border, and of course, the subject.

'Doctored' Icons
Until very recently, buyers could feel relatively safe in purchasing icons costing $3,000 and under. Sadly, that is no longer true. Because of the sudden increase of interest in icons of the 18th to early 20th century, there has also been an increase in the number of "doctored" icons and outright fakes.

A doctored icon is one which, though authentic, has suffered damage sufficient to lower its monetary value. To raise the value, lost paint is replaced, sometimes skillfully, sometimes crudely. The intent is often to deceive the buyer into thinking that the icon is relatively undamaged.

Sometimes, icons sold are more than 50 percent repainted. They may look great, but they are no longer to be considered old. The difference between restoration and doctoring is that restoration is done with honest intent to preserve an old icon. Doctoring is done to deceive for monetary gain.

Icon buyers must now not only beware of doctoring, but also of the presence of outright fakes ­ new icons, often beautifully painted, but offered as old images. Not only are new icons made to look old, but old icons are altered to make them look even older!

Ornamental metalwork added to icons (called "oklad" or "riza") is also part of this unfortunate trend. New riza are being placed over icons to disguise damage and increase value. Some are stamped with forged silver marks ­ fake dates, fake hallmarks, fake silver grade and fake makers' names. Riza are also being electroplated to add a thin layer of silver or even gold.

Old riza are sometimes added to new icons of the same size and image, a practice made possible by the standardization of patterns and size common in Old Russia. So an icon of the "Kazan Mother of God" may be a new forgery covered by an authentic old riza.

New cast metal icons are also a problem. Cast from old examples, they are very difficult to distinguish from authentic pieces. Some are created legitimately to sell at fair prices as new religious objects, but the unscrupulous will offer new casts as antiques.

Out of the hundreds of icons our firm receives each year for consignment, well over 50 percent are rejected due to the problems previously mentioned. So when it comes to buying, collectors must be very cautious about with whom they deal. An itinerant Russian immigrant with no phone or permanent address is not a good bet. Nor should a collector consider someone an expert just because he or she traveled to Russia or is displaying a large quantity of icons. The vintage icons one encounters on various online outlets such as eBay are often outright fakes.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing many dealers trading in icons today is that it is only a business. That is to say, while they may be well intentioned, they have not taken the enormous amount of time required to really learn about what they are selling. Subsequently, the sales pitch usually is a mish mash of truths and untruths, and eager and willing buyers go home thinking they've bought one thing, while in fact they've bought something completely different.

Besides continually educating yourself, the safest protection is to purchase only from dealers who offer an unconditional guarantee that the item you are purchasing is guaranteed to be as described. Of course, never buy anything from someone who tells you to "make the final call" as to the item's age, condition, etc.

Of all the things best to remember about icons is perhaps that they were considered sacred objects. They were friends of the Russians who owned them; the helpers and comforters to which they turned in all the trials of life. To most of us brought up in different traditions in the West, religious art may be inspiring, and it may be decorative. But to the Russians, it was literally holy. Since the fall of Communism, the icon saints of old Russia, long hidden in the candle-lit shadows of icon corners, can now be found silently preaching in the marketplace of today. As a consequence, the art of old Russia is now better known and recognized throughout the world than ever before in history.


The Stories Behind the Photos

“The Tikhvin Mother of God,” ca. 1660, egg tempera, gold leaf on wood panel, 35" x 25".  

According to tradition, the original Tikhvin icon was painted by the Evangelist Luke and sent by him to Antioch. From Antioch, the icon was sent to Jerusalem, and later, in the 5th century, to Constantinople where a temple was built especially for it in the Blachere District. Although the icon disappeared from Constantinople several times, the last time it left the ancient city was in 1383.

The icon first appeared in the Novgorod region of Russia during the reign of Prince Dimitry Ivanovich Donskoy. The first people to record its miraculous appearance were fishermen on Lake Lodoga, who reported seeing a bright light above them. The icon then came to rest about 25 miles from the lake at Smolnovo. The residents there built a chapel, and many were cured of ailments.

The icon is said to have mysteriously moved about from place to place, and in each place, the people erected chapels and soon temples. The icon finally came to rest at Tikhvin on the Tikhvin River in 1510. A wooden temple was built, dedicated to the feast of the Dormition, and the many who came to venerate the icon were cured of their ailments. The icon is especially revered for helping cure children’s illnesses and protect families.

Several times the wooden temple that housed the miraculous image was leveled by fire, but the icon remained unharmed. Through the efforts of Prince Basil Ivanovich (1503-1533), a stone church was built to replace the wooden temple, which had burned down. During construction, a section of arches crumbled, burying 20 workmen. Although all considered them dead, after three days the 20 men were found alive.

About 50 years later, a monastery was established at the church. The Tikhvin Monastery was believed saved from destruction by the intercession of the Tikhvin Mother of God in 1613 when the Swedish forces invaded the country and besieged the cloister.

The size of the icon pictured here suggests it was most likely a church icon placed in the local tier of the iconostasis. It is quite probable that the church or chapel which once held this icon was named “Tikhvin.” The style and color conform in almost every way to the “old” style of icon painting. It is a fine example of an icon which displays a small, but all important feature, revealing one of the first elements of Western influence to be detected in traditional icon painting of the period. In this icon, the eyes of Mary display an anatomically correct feature, which would have never been included in an icon painted only a few decades earlier—tear ducts.

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“The Vladimir Mother of God,” ca. 1680, egg tempera on wood panel, 12" x 10". 

This is a classic “Tenderness” type icon, so called because the heads of Mary and the Christ child incline in a tender cheek-to-cheek embrace. This is the most famous of the icons attributed to St. Luke. It was brought to Kiev from Constantinople in 1155, and then taken by the great Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky during his sacking of Kiev. In 1161, it was placed in the city of Vladimir, from which the name is derived.

The “Vladimir” is said to have saved Moscow from Tamerlane in 1395 and from the Poles in 1612. It is considered a great miracle worker, and consequently, multitudes of copies exist. The original icon has been repainted several times, and after restoration, only the faces of the Mother and Child remained original. The original icon is displayed at the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.

A bitter battle persists between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of Russia over this and many other famous icons. The Church demands the return of icons which were stripped from the churches during the Communist period. The government insists that they are national ethnographic art treasures belonging to the people.

This icon illustrates a more naturalistic rendering, a major deviation from the flat old or Byzantine style icons. Here, both the face of Mary and Christ are rounded and somewhat more three-dimensional. The double raised border, or “kovcheg,” was common in the 17th century, then it gave way to flat painting surfaces. The two large inscriptions on either side of Mary’s head are the Greek abbreviated title for Mary; i.e., “Meter Theotokos,” or “Mother of God.” The small inscription to the side of Christ’s head, “CXC,” is the Russian abbreviation of Isus Khristos—Jesus Christ.

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The “Image Not Made By Hands,” ca. 1790, egg tempera on wood panel, 12" x 10".

An interesting story explains the traditional origin of this icon type. In New Testament times, King Abgar of the Syrian city of Edessa fell ill and sent his court artist Ananias to sketch an image of Christ. So great were the stories of Christ’s healing power that King Abgar believed if only he could see an image of Jesus, he too could be healed.

Ananias was unable to get close enough to sketch Christ. However, knowing this, Christ sought him out in the crowd and pressed a cloth to his own face, miraculously imprinting it with his image and telling Ananias to take the cloth to Abgar. Upon seeing the cloth, Abgar was healed, but retained a slight touch of his former illness until Thaddeus, a disciple of Christ, came and baptized him.

Because the image appeared miraculously and was not painted, it is called “The Image Not Made by Hands.” It is also sometimes referred to as the “first icon.”

In this example, like many, the cloth is held by two angels. The short inscription at the top is the Greek for “Jesus Christ.” The head of Christ is surrounded by the distinctive cross-halo inscribed with the Greek words “HO ON”, meaning “Who Is,” found in Revelation 1:8 and given in Exodus 3:14 as a title of God. The inscription at the bottom of the cloth reads, “The Image of Christ Not Made by Hands.”

This image should not be confused with the Roman Catholic story of “Veronica’s Veil,” which is a later development of the Abgar legend. This sample reveals a more life-like depiction of Christ in the style which became popular after the great schism. The painter was obviously influenced by the works of Simon Ushakov, the famous Moscow Armory School icon painter of the late 17th and early 18th century.

James L. Jackson is president and CEO of Jackson's International Auctioneers of Cedar Falls, Iowa. He can be contacted at 319-277-2256 or through the website at All photos, courtesy James and Titiana Jackson and


"Angel of the Lord," ca. 1800, silver leaf on wood, 49 x 24 in. Usually positioned above church doors, this icon was viewed while exiting ­ the angel dressed as a soldier reminds one that God is always watching.

"Image Not Made By Hands," ca. 1790. After Christ pressed a cloth to his face, this image was left on it. It was sent to a sick king, and it healed him.

"Removal From The Cross," 18th c., 12.25 x 9 in. Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus take Christ down from the cross while Mary and other women look on.

"The Nativity of Christ," ca. 1800,
19 x 19 in. The nativity scenes
include Joseph (r.) listening to an old shepherd (the devil in
disguise) who is tempting
him to doubt the virgin birth.

"Saints Samon, Guriy and Avi," ca. 1886. This type was produced in the Tsar's icon workshop. Referred to as a "magnifying glass" icon because of the detail ­ each hair on their heads was individually painted.

"The Kazan Mother of God with Saints," ca. 1899-1908, an oil on metal triptych depicting St. Leo Katanskiy, the Kazan Mary and Jesus, and St. Nicholas. Only affordable to the wealthy, finely crafted triptychs were often taken on trips and referred to as "traveling" icons.

"The Apostle Simon," ca. 1660, egg tempera on wood panel,
44.25 x 21".



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