brass icons















An icon is a sacred image of the Eastern Orthodox Church that was often painted on wood tempera by monks in monasteries. The average 21st century person thinks of an icon as something that, clicked on their computer's desktop, opens a program. But the original Byzantine icons were religious paintings that, seen by those conversant with the "iconography", opened up a vast and complex world, filled with radiant joy.

The icon was detached from earthly time and place, existing rather in infinite time and boundless space. The source of light, for instance, was from the gold leaf background, in keeping with the idea of light's sacred quality. Each color in the icon symbolized a different aesthetic principle. White symbolized salvation, heavenly love and purity. Red designated the fire of faith, the divine flame and martyrdom. Green symbolized hope, vitality and youthfulness. Blue represented paradise and the celestial realm. Black corresponded to the darkness of the underworld and non-existence. The origin of these associations had parallels in Russian folk beliefs in the magic properties of color.

Imagery was also idealized. The immutability of the representations of Christ, the Virgin and the saints retained their transcendent identity. The icons' compositions were codified templates, so that different monks painting individual icons in different monasteries at different times shared a common wealth of allegory and myth. The repetition of compositions, components, types of faces and attributes made the representations easily recognizable in different lighting and at fairly large distances. Inscriptions were indispensable and carried profound sacred meaning. The proportions of the figures also corresponded to metaphysical relationships.Often different scenes and events were combined in compositions that incorporated multiple spatial planes or distorted proportions of architecture and landscape, with dynamic effect.

Although his composition choices were limited, by drawing on the vast repository of the biblical canon of saints and stories, the artist was assured that his audience would understand the narrative. Indeed, the artist was as much a crafter as opposed to the western idea of the artist as individual. Seldom were icons signed, and if they were dated, they were often from the "Creation of the World-, 5,508 BC in the Eastern Church.

In spite of these rigid parameters, exact copies of famous icons were rare. Form and content were so unified that even the subtlest variations of detail or technique expressed delicate spiritual experience. The multi-faceted yet unified and structured microcosm of the icon demanded lengthy contemplation and drew the viewer into the work itself.

In Russia icons were passed from one generation to another. They survived fire, wars and famines, and sometimes even played a part in politics. In "Tolstoy's "War and Peace, General Kutuzov has a large church icon brought to the Battle of Borodino in order to bless the troops and thereby thwart Napoleon's armies. They are central to the world view of the Russian people. It was in 988 that Prince Vladimir converted Kievan Rus (Russia)to Orthodox Christianity. By the fourteenth century the main schools of icon painting had already developed their own individual styles, but it was Theophanes the Greek from Constantinople who created the first significant landmark of Russian art, at the Church of Our Saviour-in-Ilyina-Street in Novgorod. He was the teacher and mentor of the great Andrei Rublev. He determined the traditions which were followed by several generations of artists. These traditions later acquired a new dimension in the works of Dionysius, who worked in Moscow in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Thereafter Moscow's aesthetic ideals began to predominate across Russia, although specific local features continued to exist until the end of the century.

Most Russian icons are painted on wood in egg tempera although by the end of the nineteenth century oils started to predominate. Gold leaf is often used for halos or background. Sometimes a silver or bronze rizza, a metal partial cover, is added to the icon, or a basma, a metal border. Both can also have jewels or enamel added. Horizontal slats are inserted into the back of the icon to retard warping.Because the Russian word for painting and writing is the same, icons are said to be "written".

In some cases icons are said to have "appeared"- miraculously- a gift from above- and able to perform miracles. An icon is more than a decoration. It is a portal to the supernatural. On high holidays, a sheaf of wheat might be placed in front of it, or a candle lit. You approach it deferentially, genuflecting or even kissing it, though never on the lips. And of course, you direct your prayers toward it. A corner of the house, the "beautiful corner" might be reserved for the household icons.Russians icons were often commissioned for private use, adding figures of specific saints or members of their family. A pair of icons, Jesus and Mary, were sometimes given to newlyweds on their wedding day.

The Virgin Mary is the most commonly depicted figure in Russian icons. All depictions of her are considered to be of miraculous origin. The original designs for the Kazanskaya Madonna, Smolenskaya Madonna, and Vladimirskaya Madonnas are all thought to have been of divine inspiration. The original Tikhvinskaya Madonna for instance, was said to been painted by St. Luke,as were the Kazanskaya and Vladimirskaya icons. It is not uncommon in these origin stories for icons themselves to act as human beings, so that the Tikhvinskaya Madonna is said to have left Constantinople and travelled to Russia on it's own when threatened by the imminent conquest of the Turks. Some fisherman saw it in a circle of light over Lake Onega, then on the Oyat river, then twice more as it moved ever closer to Tikhvin. The Vladimirskaya Madonna was said to have saved Moscow from Tamerlane in 1395, and from the Poles in 1612. Other Madonnas cured multitudes of the plague,cholera and other diseases. Some protected against fire, others emitted mysterious light.

St. Nicholas was immensely popular. Peasants said that when God grew too old and died, Nicholas would take over. When the Tartars attacked Mozhaisk, he appeared in the air above the attackers, sword in hand, and saved the city. He healed the blind, saved the drowned, and exorcised Demons. He is the patron saint of Russia, travelers and seafarers.He is usually depicted holding the Gospels, flanked on one side by the Mother of God and on the other by Jesus. A nobleman fallen on hard times had no dowry for his 3 daughters. Hearing of their despair, Nicholas dropped a bag of coins in one of the girl's windows at night. The next night he repeated the act in the other girl's window. The third night he found all the windows locked so he threw the money down the chimney, where it fell into the girls' stockings drying there. He is beloved by children and known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.

The Russian Orthodox faithful believe in the intercession of saints. Every person baptized was named in honor of a specific saint, and this saint is a patron for the whole life. There are patron saints of occupations and activities, patron saints of ailments, illness and dangers, and patron saints of places. Family icons were the largest treasures for family members, and icons were passed from parents to children. 500 years ago, most people were illiterate, but they knew how to read the paintings. Today, most people are literate, but we don't know how to read the paintings. Indeed, we often don't know the stories. The icons connect us to a rich and rewarding heritage of spirit and culture.