Icon painting schools flourished in the forests of Old Muscovy. Even today, icons are made in the old way. This is because the ideal of the icon painter has not been to innovate, but to remain true to the sacred prototype of each saint and prophet passed down by holy tradition. For every icon, there has always been an established pattern, almost like a stencil that had to be traced. But despite the inherent conservatism of the eastern icon tradition, the truth is that by the middle of the fifteenth century, it had taken on a unique form in Russia.
To see the essential Russianness of the Russian icon, there is only one place to go: the Holy Trinity Monastery in Sergiev Posad, which has been a pilgrimage site for Russia’s faithful for centuries. On the holiest day of the year, the feast of St Sergius himself, pilgrims come not only to pray to him, but also to absorb and venerate the icons made by Russia’s most celebrated iconographer, Andrey Rublev. Rublev was a monk here in the fifteenth century. It was important that the icon painter not only train himself in the traditions and artifice of iconography, but to live as much as possible as the saints he depicted. It was a spiritual effort more than a practical learning. And to experience the icons fully, it is necessary for the pilgrim to do so in a heightened atmosphere, during an actual mass.
On the great iconostasis by Rublev and his workshop, the colour is subtle, less strident than the Byzantine icon. Above all, there’s the rich, old gold that stands for the vault of heaven. The paintings are faded, smoked by time and incense. There is a wonderful simplicity in the storytelling in the scenes from the life of Christ. But as the mass unfolds, it’s as though the art is transformed by the intensity of the ritual. The icons appear to communicate with the congregation, heaven bending to earth, earth reaching to heaven.
Less than 30 years after Rublev completed his works, Byzantium fell to the Muslims, and Russians suddenly felt that their nation was the one true home of Orthodox Christianity. These days, rich Russians, unbelievers even, feel connected to their great history by acquiring large collections of icons. They experience the vibrations of centuries of faith and worship warming them today.
In the Soviet period, of course, icons were not loved. Churches were shut down, and the art was removed. The Communists feared and despised religion. But they recognised the power of the icon and cleverly appropriated it for their own ends. Public spaces, like every home, had a ‘red corner’, but of course instead of a saint, it held an image of a Party leader. Stalin, too, would seek to project his image in the form of an icon.
But the Communists were not the first to steal the icon and make it their own. In 1547, Russia’s most despotic and cruel ruler came to power. Ivan the Terrible suppressed the reactionary Muscovy nobility, united the country, and shattered the Mongol yoke. Although brought up in the Orthodox faith, he was hardly a model Christian. As a child, he tortured and killed small animals. That was just the start of his psychopathic rampage through life. By the age of 13, he was a serial rapist and murderer, and he could do whatever he liked with impunity because his power was absolute.
Ivan had a paradoxical relationship with his faith. Devilish misdeeds were followed by agonised penitence. This strange relationship was dramatically reflected in the religious art he commissioned. In the State Tretyakov Museum hangs an icon painted for Ivan’s palace, a huge narrative icon called the Church Militant. This would change the rules of icon painting forever.
The Church Militant is a large-scale co-option of the icon’s religious power for Ivan’s own political ends. It is a watershed moment in icon painting because Ivan had to convene a special church committee to commission the painting. It shows a Russian ruler, for the very first time, painted into the icon, and shown crossing the great line between heaven and earth. Ivan is shown leading the massed forces of Christendom into the New Jerusalem, the City of God. He may be behind the Archangel Michael, but he has put himself ahead of St George, St Demetrios, St Vladimir with his two sons, and even ahead of Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople. A burning city stands for Gomorrah, but in Ivan’s vision, it undoubtedly stood for Kazan, which he seized from the Mongols and set ablaze. It is evident that Russia, so long felt to be on the margins of the Christian world, is now, in the middle of the sixteenth century, at its very centre. And to confirm this centrality is the artist’s vision of the heavenly city – an idealised image of Moscow.
Ivan’s grandiose view of himself and Russian Christianity led him to ever bolder and more twisted representations. To see a disturbing expression of this, one must travel to Alexandrovskaya Sloboda, where Ivan built a monastery and spent his later years. As Ivan grew older, his fits of psychosis and paranoid rage grew more frequent. He surrounded himself with his private guard, the Oprichniki, who acted as his death squad. Ivan directed the daily murders and executions from his own private chapel, the Trinity Cathedral, which he had decorated with a great fresco sequence.
On the west wall of the chapel is a depiction of Christ’s last days. Jesus is seated in gold, surrounded by the heavenly host. On the day of Judgment, the resurrection of dead is as in the Book of Revelations, with the drowned rising from the oceans, being regurgitated after having been eaten by monsters. Meanwhile, the blessed are going off to heaven to meet St Peter. As with Western churches, when it came to the depiction of the torments of hell, the artists pulled out all the stops. There is Judas in the flames, sitting with his moneybags in the lap of the devil. Under inscriptions of the seven deadly sins are the tortures of the damned, the gnashing of teeth, the wailing of despairing souls, here freezing and there eaten by worms, boiled in pine resin and cast into eternal darkness.
Ivan did not use this chapel for contemplation and to bow before God. Instead it was the administrative nerve centre of his empire of evil where he sat and pondered his next barbarity, and signed execution orders. He used the representation of hell in his frescoes as a manual for the torture of his victims – he enacted these very tortures on those who had displeased him. His relation with his faith had truly sunk to twisted depths.