|Description:||A Russian icon of St. Nicholas.|
|Appraised By:||Anita Bartlett-Picarella|
|History Of The Item:||General history
The use and making of icons entered Kievan Rus' (which later expanded to become the Russian Empire) followed its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988 A.D.
As a general rule, these icons strictly followed models and formulas hallowed by usage, some of which had originated in Constantinople. As time passed, the Russians widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere.
The personal, improvisatory and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Russia before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting became strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe.
In the mid-1600s changes in liturgy and practice instituted by Patriarch Nikon resulted in a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. The traditionalists, the persecuted "Old Ritualists" or "Old Believers," continued the traditional stylization of icons, while the State Church modified its practice.
From that time icons began to be painted not only in the traditional stylized and nonrealistic mode, but also in a mixture of Russian stylization and Western European realism, and in a Western European manner very much like that of Catholic religious art of the time
. Russian icons are typically paintings on wood, often small, though some in churches and monasteries may be as large as a table top. Many religious homes in Russia have icons hanging on the wall in the krasny ugol, the "red" or "beautiful" corner. There is a rich history and elaborate religious symbolism associated with icons. In Russian churches, the nave is typically separated from the sanctuary by an iconostasis (Russian ikonostás) a wall of icons.
Russians sometimes speak of an icon as having been "written," because in the Russian language (unlike English) the word pisat' means both to paint and to write. Icons are considered to be the Gospel in paint, and therefore careful attention is paid to ensure that the Gospel is faithfully and accurately conveyed.
Icons considered miraculous were said to "appear." The "appearance" (Russian: iavlenie) of an icon is its supposedly miraculous discovery. "A true icon is one that has "appeared," a gift from above, one opening the way to the Prototype and able to perform miracles" (Russian Icons, Father Vladimir Ivanov, Rizzoli Publications, 1988).
Some of the most venerated Russian icons considered miraculous are those known by the name of the town associated with them, such as the Vladimir, the Smolensk, the Kazan and the Czestochowa images. The preeminent Russian iconographer was Andrei Rublev (1360-early 15th century), who was "glorified" (officially recognized as a saint) by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1988. His most famous work is The Old Testament Trinity.
Russians often commissioned icons for private use, adding figures of specific saints for whom they or members of their family were named gathered around the icon's central figure. Icons were frequently clad in metal covers (the oklad or more traditionally, riza, meaning "robe") of gilt or silvered metal of ornate workmanship, which were sometimes enamelled, filigreed, or set with artificial, semiprecious or even precious stones and pearls. Pairs of icons of Jesus and Mary (called "The Mother of God" or "Theotokos" in Eastern Orthodoxy) were given as wedding presents to newly married couples.
There are far more varieties of icons of Mary in Russian iconography and religious use than of any other figure; Marian icons are commonly copies of images considered to be miraculous, of which there are hundreds: "The icons of Mary were always deemed miraculous, those of her son rarely so" (Mother Russia: the Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, Hubbs, Joanna, Indiana University Press, 1993). Icons of Mary most often depict her with the child Jesus in her arms; some, such as the "Kaluga," "Fiery-Faced" "Gerondissa," "Bogoliubov," "Vilna," "Melter of Hard Hearts," "Seven Swords," etc., along with icons that depict events in Mary's life before she gave birth to Jesus such as the Annunciation or Mary's own birth, omit the child.
Because icons in Orthodoxy must follow traditional standards and are essentially copies, Orthodoxy never developed the artistic reputation of Catholicism or Protestantism, and the names of even the finest icon painters are seldom recognized except by some Eastern Orthodox or art historians.
Icon painting was and is a conservative art, in many cases considered a craft, in which the painter is essentially merely a tool for replication. That is why in the 19th and early 20th century, icon painting in Russia went into a great decline with the arrival of machine lithography on paper and tin, which could produce icons in great quantity and much more cheaply than the workshops of painters.
Even today large numbers of paper icons are purchased by Orthodox rather than more expensive painted panels. Historical accounts tell us that some icon painters were depressed and frustrated by the endless repetitive work, but nonetheless others managed enough freedom within the limits of tradition to elevate their paintings to what would be considered, outside Orthodoxy, genuine art.
Because the painter was only the means of copying an image, it was not deemed necessary to sign an icon. Later icons were often the work of many hands, not of a single artisan. Nonetheless some later icons are signed with name of the painter, as well as the date and place. A peculiarity of dates written on icons is that many are dated from the "Creation of the World," which in Eastern Orthodoxy was believed to have taken place on September 1st in the year 5,508 before the birth of Jesus.
During the Soviet era in Russia, former village icon painters in Palekh, Mstera, and Kholui transferred their techniques to laquerware, which they decorated with ornate depictions of Russian fairy tales and other non-religious scenes. This transition from religious to secular subjects gave rise, in the mid-1920, to Russian lacquer art on papier-mâché. Most distinguished within this relatively new art form are the intricate Palekh miniature paintings on a black lacquer background.
Many Russian icons were destroyed by agents of the Soviet government; some were hidden to avoid destruction, or were smuggled out of the country. Since the fall of communism, numbers of icon painting studios have again opened and are painting in a variety of styles for the local and international market. Many older, hidden icons have also been retrieved from hiding, or brought back from overseas.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the market for icons expanded beyond Orthodox believers to include those collecting them as examples of Russian traditional art and culture. The same period witnessed much forgery of icons painted in the Pre-Nikonian manner. Such fakes, often beautifully done, were artificially aged through skillful techniques and sold as authentic to Old Believers and collectors. Some still turn up on the market today, along with numbers of newly-painted intentional forgeries, as well as icons sold legitimately as new but painted in earlier styles. Many icons sold today retain some characteristics of earlier painting but are nonetheless obviously contemporary.
|Appraiser Tips:||Iconography techniques and collecting
Most Russian icons are painted using egg tempera on board, often incorporating either gold or silver gilding into the surface composition. Rarely, they may utilize canvas stretched over board. Russian Icons may also incorporate elaborate tin, bronze or silver exterior facades that are usually highly embellished and often multi-dimensional. These facades are called "Rizas". A fairly regular aspect of icon preservation was to varnish over the image either immediately upon completion and drying, or later on. The majority of hand-painted Eastern icons exhibit some degree of surface varnish, although many do not. The presence of absence of varnish neither increases nor detracts from the value of the icon however poorly done, contemporary varnish jobs meant to enhance the depth of color on an aged piece can severely decrease the market value of an Icon. While precisely dating any given Eastern Icon is an undertaking that can only be accomplished by bona-fide experts in the field, the casual collector can often establish an informal date-range of an icon based on the composition, materials and construction details of the board itself. Boards that utilize what are known as "back slats"- cross members that are inletted into the wooden board for purposes of stability during the drying process and to ensure structural integrity over time- are usually older than 1880/1890. This element can be easily forged, however, and clever Icon forgers know that this is often the first thing the lay icon purchaser will look for. Subsequent to 1880/1890, advances in materials negated the need for these cross members, thus, they are rarely seen on icons painted after this time period unless the intent of the artist was to deceive by creating an "older looking" icon.
Establishing authenticity and detecting forgeries
Since the 1990s, numerous late 19th and early 20th century icons have been artificially aged, then purported to unwitting buyers and collectors as being older than they really are. Often these "semi-forgeries" are perpetrated by master-level Russian iconographers, highly skilled in their ability to not only paint extraordinary works of art, but to "create age" upon the finished Icon. While the resulting icon very well may be a fine work of art that many would be glad to own, it is still considered to be a work of deception, thus lacking value as an icon beyond its decorative qualities. With the market value of any given icon being very reliant on its age, this false "aging" is a fast-growing problem in the field. Another problem area in the field of Icon collecting is the "recomposing" of legitimately old icons with newly painted then falsely aged images that exhibit a higher degree of artistry. For example, a primitive or "folk art" Icon from the 17th or 18th century might be repainted by a modern master iconographer, then the image falsely aged to match the board in order to create an Icon that could pass as a 17th or 18th century masterwork. In reality, it is nothing more than a 20th/21st century masterwork on a 17th/18th century board. With the rise in the values and prices of authentic icons in recent decades, this is now also done with lower quality 19th century folk icons that are repainted by contemporary masters and then aged to appear period. As such, anyone considering purchasing an authentic eastern Icon should do so through a reputable auction house or art dealer/broker who will offer the buyer a lifetime warranty for authenticity and age of the piece. Additionally, if the Icon is found outside of the Eastern Bloc, the accompanying cultural certificates and documentation from the nation of origin should be present in most every circumstance.
Market Value Considerations
When purchasing an authentic example of a Pre 20th Century Eastern Ecclesiastical Icon, the primary considerations should be: Authenticity Quality Condition Age Provenance Composition Cost AUTHENTICITY OF THE ICON: Establishing authenticity of an icon is a field that involves judgement based on experience, technical knowledge of Iconography and the scientific aspects of art history. Authenticity is, of course, the paramount concern for any Icon buyer. This part of Icon collecting/buying is always best left to qualified experts. The collector who wants to ensure that he or she is buying an authentic example of an eastern Icon should, at first, stick to purchasing from reputable dealers and auction houses who have lifetime authenticity guarantees. Purchasing icons sight-unseen based solely on pictures or auction listings from overseas sellers is extremely risky, given the number of forgeries that have come on the market; forgeries that are of such quality, they often fool expert appraisers. Beginning collectors wouldn't stand a chance of detecting these forgeries, thus, wise icon buyers always suggest that beginners stick with reputable dealers. QUALITY OF THE ICON: Quality of the artwork itself is often a subjective matter, however, icons painted by formally trained artisans who exhibit a high degree of technical acumen in their iconography are usually more valuable than a similarly aged and composed icon that is considered to be "folk art". CONDITION OF THE ICON: Condition of an icon is extremely important. Restorations should be carefully documented, any surface damage and.or structural flaws noted and all dynamics that impact the general aesthetic of the icon taken into careful consideration. Unlike other aspects of collecting, condition is not the end-all rule in Icon collecting/buying, however, it is an immensely important component and should always be taken into account. AGE OF THE ICON: Establishing the age of the icon is another aspect of appraising it's overall authenticity. Like establishing authenticity, establishing age must be undertaken by qualified and experienced experts in Iconography. PROVENANCE OF THE ICON: Provenance can usually be given by the seller, however, documented provenance is always superior to oral history and should be sought out when purchasing any icon. Icons that are legally exported from Russia, Lithuania or other Eastern countries are usually accompanied by exportation documents from the parent nations Cultural Department. These documents, while not essential, can greatly impact the value of an icon. Also, any documentation regarding the icons sale history or ownership lineage (receipts, auction records, insurance certificates, etc) should be included in any sale if they are present. COMPOSITION OF THE ICON: Composition is very much a matter of individual taste when it comes to buying or collecting, however, some compositions are more desirable to the market than others. Scarce examples of highly popular but iconographically underrepresented Saints tend to be the most desirable compositions, followed by unique or unusual compositional aesthetics. COST OF THE ICON: Cost is a function of all above listed factors. While it is impossible to establish a demarcated price list for Eastern Icons, certain parameters have a direct influence on the cost or price of any given icon. A beginning collector can purchase a modest example of a documented late 19th Century icon in the $200-$300 range, while extraordinarily old, well-done or unusual icons can surge well into six figures at auction. A select handful of renowned icons are considered to be true treasures of the art world and are subject thusly to conditions that effect the overall art market.  Legalities Pursuant to Russian law, it is presently illegal to export any Russian icon that is over one hundred years in age. Any and all icons being exported from Russia must be accompanied by a certificate from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, attesting to the age of the icon. While Russian law regarding the exportation of icons is quite clear, examples of Russian icons over 100 years of age are regularly introduced into the open market by way of clandestine exportations into the neighboring Baltic countries, or, as a result of complicit Ministry of Culture officials who are willing to certify an otherwise unexportable icon as being "100 years old" in order to facilitate its transfer. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian icons have been repatriated via direct purchase by Russian museums, private Russian collectors, or as was the case of Pope John Paul II giving an 18th century copy of the famous Our Lady of Kazan icon to the Russian Orthodox Church, returned to Russia in good faith
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