Hesychasm and Russian Icons

 

Andrei Rublev, Archangel Michael Icon
Andrei Rublev, Archangel Michael Icon

Hesychasm and Russian Icons

This article is extrapolated from the chapter, Hesychasm, the Flowering of Russian Art in Leonid Ouspensky’s Theology of the Icon, Volume II.  I’ve chosen to share this particular material because of the understanding common to most Iconographers that Andrei Rublev is one of the greatest Iconographers and his work is fruit of the Hesychast period in Russia.   Since this article points to some of the conditions present that contributed to Rublev’s ability to create Icons that spoke to his time we can discern important truths to apply to modern Icon writing.  Hesychasm and Russian Icons are a unique combination that had a powerful effect on the art of its day.

Message To An Iconographer

Next month, part two of this article will give a synopsis of the “Message to an Iconographer”. This was  a document widely circulated for and amongst Iconographers of that day. It attempts to set standards of Iconographic practice and is worth reading and understanding forts bearing on creating Icons today.

Andrei Rublev, Christ Savior Icon
Andrei Rublev, Christ Savior Icon

Thirteenth. Fourteenth and Fifteenth  Century Russia

During the thirteenth century, an original artistic language specific to Russia began to appear.  It reflected the spiritual life of the people, their holiness and their way of assimilating Christianity.  Russian sacred arts from this time are inspired by a direct, living knowledge and experience of Revelation.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the spiritual leader, Sergius of Radonezh, consecrated his church to the Holy Trinity, “so that contemplation of the Holy Trinity might conquer the fear of this world’s detestable discord”.  It was a time of feudal wars, Mongol raids, and general unrest, but Radonezh was confident of the power of the sacred image to influence his world.

Revival in Russia

Russia, through its own suffering of the Tartar invasion, experienced the Gospel intensely.  There was widespread understanding that the power of Christ was participating actively in the lives of the Russian people, helping them in time of need.  From this intensity of faith, Russia’s pictorial art reached its highest expression. Today we appreciate these examples of Iconography for their intense and joyful colors, expressive form and their freedom and spontaneity.

During this period, hesychasm and Orthodox Christianity were closely linked. St Sergius’ monastery became the spiritual center of Russia and the hesychast influence. The theology of hesychasm is reflected in the spiritual content and character of the Icons of that period.  Zealous in the life of prayer and fasting, the famous iconographers, Daniel and Andrei Rublev were able to receive divine grace and perceive the divine, immaterial light that we see in the colors of their Icons.

Virgin of Vladimir, Andrei Rublev Icon
Virgin of Vladimir, Andrei Rublev Icon

Dionysius

Master Iconographer Dionysius was also guided by hesychasm and the teaching of inner prayer. These great Iconographers were not concerned with earthly things but always prayed to raise their spirits and thoughts toward the divine, immaterial light.

As Iconographers today, may we always seek to keep prayer as the central focus of our praxis, and learn from those who went before us.

Links to Books on Russian Icons

Here are a few links to websites that have books on Russian Icons:

Kolomenskaya Versta

Natural Pigments  

Amazon

Icon Writing Classes in 2019 

Icon Retreats

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Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev, Archangel Michael Icon
Andrei Rublev, Archangel Michael Icon

Andrei Rublev

Revered amongst Iconographers as the most gifted Iconographer of all time, Andrei Rublev stands out amongst Iconographers for his ability to convey a subtle sense of spirituality with a highly expert ability to compose and paint Icons that address the issues of his time.

Saint Sergius of Radoneh
Saint Sergius of Radoneh

Born in medieval times, sometime in the 1360’s, not much is known about his life.  He is generally thought to have lived at the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow.  Rublev’s spiritual teacher, Saint Sergius of Radoneh, was the head of this Lavra until his death in 1392.

In 1405, Rublev decorated the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow with frescoes and Icons along with Theophanes the Greek, who was Rublev’s teacher.

Fresco, Seed of Abraham
Fresco, Seed of Abraham

Holy Trinity Cathedral

The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir and Holy Trinity Cathedral are thought to have been decorated by  Rublev and Daniil Cherni at about 1425.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Russia
Holy Trinity Cathedral, Russia

Rublev’s great masterpiece, The Icon of the Holy Trinity, is the only work definitely attributed to him.  It was only discovered in the early 1900’s when an art restorer in Russia began to clean away the soot and grime that had blackened the surface for centuries.

https://newchristianicons.com/icon-painting-classes/
https://newchristianicons.com/icon-painting-classes/

The power of this Icon was observed and caused crowds of people to come and see it.  I write more about this in my book, “Eyes of Fire, How Icons Saved My Life As An Artist”. 

Rublev’s art combined asceticism with the classic harmony of Byzantine mannerism. His Icons are seen today as ideals of Eastern Orthodox Iconography.

If you’d like to read more about the Byzantine approach to painting Icons with egg tempera, this is covered in the book, Eyes of Fire, in the Appendix.

"Eyes of Fire" Book by Christine Hales
“Eyes of Fire” Book by Christine Hales

In 1966 a now classic film was made by the Russian film maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, called “Andrei Rublev”.  It’s a dark Russian drama that conveys a sense of the medieval times  of Rublev and is in black and white.

Rublev died in 1430, clothed as a Russian Monk and canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1988.

 

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