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Four short links: Russian icons

The Vladimir Mother of God (12th century)

Continuing the theme of traditional Russian culture, icons, even though they are part of other cultures too, are among the most recognizably Russian art works (although they’re not works of art at all…). They’re also possibly the most mysterious. For me the mystery lies in the idea that they access the spiritual world whilst being entirely impersonal. There’s nothing of the inspiration of the individual artist here – very few ancient icon painters are known by name. Rather than improvization and innovation, it’s the creators’ adherence to a very strict set of rules governing form that endows icons with a level of abstraction that gives access to their sublime meaning. It’s in icons that I can really see how the concept of sobornost’ (free spiritual communality) works in Russian culture, that absorbing one’s individuality into the collective enables participation in the divine. It’s perhaps the area of Russian tradition that is furthest from Western European thinking.

There don’t appear to be that many good websites devoted to Russian icons out there (even Russian sites, though the Moscow Icon Painting Centre has some good stuff, including some interesting icons of St George, and icons featuring Moscow), and a lot of gallery sites are basically on-line shops, which I didn’t want to include. But these four are worth exploring, despite some minor quibbles:

1. Old Russian Icons. This is a fairly small site, part of a larger on-line Russian art gallery, and the typo on the homepage is not particularly encouraging, but its contents are well chosen. The first section presents the Vladimir Mother of God (pictured here), the most venerated Russian icon, the second features Andrei Rublev, the most famous icon painter (and if you haven’t seen Tarkovsky’s film, you really should), and the final section includes a selection of the most typical and well known icons. The quality of the images is very good.

2. Windows into Heaven. This is a really interesting, if slightly incomplete, site, that has not only information on the history of icons and a gallery, but also a quite detailed section on the creation of icons – it’s written by a contemporary American icon painter, Bob Atchison, and it gives a very clear and comprehensible account of an ancient process that can otherwise seem quite mysterious to the non-spiritually inclined. The ‘Ikon Finder’ section is obviously still under construction.

3. Icon Painting. A fairly extensive site that is again part of a larger Russian painting site, this includes good outlines of the history and interpretation of icons, as well as sections on painters, schools and subjects. The main problem with this one is that the thumbnails are really low quality – when you click on them to see the large images, they’re okay, so I don’t really understand why the versions presented alongside the text are so bad.

4. Russian Icons: Index. Not the best presentation I’ve ever seen on a website, there isn’t a great deal of information about most of the pictures, and you either have to know what you’re looking for or take pot luck. Nevertheless, there is a good selection here, and the image quality is pretty decent.

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