Collecting Russian Icons
In old Russia nearly every phase of life was colored by religion. Every day in the calendar was dedicated to the observation of some saint. Every individual and every trade had their patron saints. A distinctly Russian form of representing saints and religious themes is the icon. Painted on wood, icons are known to the Russians as "obraz", but we know them better by the term icon, which comes from the Greek word for picture or likeness, "eikon". The painting of icons is the most distinctive art form of old Russia, and Russian icons are the most varied and beautiful of all.|
Until recently, there was not much interest in icons. Even in Russia, where they were common, icons were taken for granted. But today old Russian icons are recognized as works of art by art historians and collectors alike.
The icon has returned to the Russian home, too. Many Russians lately have become avid collectors of old icons. As a matter of fact, icons are in great demand the world over, not necessarily as religious objects but for their intrinsic artistic and historical value.
Collectors of icons should remember that the best and most valuable icons are to be found in Soviet and European museums. A great many, of course, have found their way to America and private collectors. From time to time, early and rare icons are offered for sale by prestigious auction galleries and normally bring very high prices. Also, icons a century or two old are still found occasionally in some better known antique shops. But the majority of icons offered today are often of inferior quality. The collector must be careful because a number of known fakes turn up in the market now and then. When purchasing an icon it is best to enlist help from a reputable expert.
In buying an icon there are a few basic points one must always keep in mind. The value of an icon depends only partially on age. Of undeniable importance, however, is the material of which an icon is made, the quality of workmanship, and its overall condition. One must take into consideration the design, color range and aesthetic effect of the icon. The most valuable icons are without exception those painted on wood panels following traditional, aesthetic and proscribed requirements. Mechanically produced icons are generally of inferior quality, regardless of their sometimes valuable metallic coverings. Icon collecting is both challenging and rewarding, but the search for a bargain in this field demands caution and at least a basic knowledge of icon art and its value.
Icon painting in Russia, as elsewhere, has followed traditional canons. As a consequence, icons can be so like one another that at times it is scarcely possible to distinguish between them. This is why icons representing the same subject, although they were painted centuries apart, can be so similar. One must keep in mind that the forms of the Russian icon remain unchanged through the centuries.
Icons are naturally divided according to subject into two main groups; painted icons which simply depict holy personages and icons which depict scenes from the Scriptures or events from the lives of the saints. Icons from the latter category serve a didactic purpose. They have served, so to say, as an attractive and effective teaching tool. On the other hand, icons which represent individual saints have been the object of veneration.
In Russian iconography, literally hundreds of themes have been represented. Images of Christ are numerous, with the type known as 'The Saviour Not Made by Hands' being perhaps the most popular of the Christ representations in old Russia. There are also other representations of Christ including depictions of the events of his life.
The enormous and varied iconography of the Virgin is even more impressive. There are no less than three hundred types, all different. Some better known icons of the Virgin are: 'The Virgin of Vladimir', sometimes referred to as 'the most ancient hymn to motherhood', 'The Virgin of Tykvin', 'The Virgin of Kazan' and 'The Virgin of Shuja'. This profusion of types if also evident in the depiction of the most popular saint of old Russia, St. Nicholas of Myra.
The Festivals of the Church was another theme popular with icon painters. Icons of this type were used in sets consisting of twelve or sixteen scenes from the Scriptures. Furthermore, old native Russian saints and numerous icons have preserved their images, including events from their lives.
Quote from the article from LORE magazine by Lazar Brkich, 1996