The Icon Debate

Religious Images in Russia in the 15th and 16th Centuries

by Aleksandra Sulikowska (Author)
Monographs 428 Pages


The book explores the subject of Russian icons and their changes as well as the discussion on art that unfolded in Russia in the 15th and 16th centuries. Taking the representation of the Old Testament Trinity, attributed to Andrei Rublev, as its point of departure, it discusses and analyses the key issues of the iconography of the Holy Trinity and the process of the emergence and the dissemination of the imagery of God the Father and the New Testament Trinity in Russia. These issues are framed in the context of the debate that took place at the time within the Muscovite Orthodoxy, which concerned heresy, the relations with other denominations, the identity of the Russian Orthodox Church and the place of the icons in the existing canon.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction. The Scope of Research and Methodology
  • Chapter I. The Muscovite Orthodox Church in the Face of Heresy: the 15th and the 16th Centuries
  • Chapter II. The Origins of Russian Theological Reflection
  • Chapter III. The Notions and Problems of the Theology of the Icon in Russia
  • Chapter IV. Theological Discourse and Religious Practice: Icons of the Old Testament Trinity and Their Significance in the Culture of Russia
  • Chapter V. How Icons Were Valued: Beauty as a Category of Russian Aesthetics
  • Chapter VI. How Icons Were Valued: the Miraculous as a Criterion of Assessment
  • Chapter VII. How Icons Were Valued in Religious Practice
  • Chapter VIII. Symbolic Representations of the Trinity in Russian Iconography of the 16th Century
  • Conclusion. Russian Theological Reflection After the Fall of Constantinople
  • Selected Bibliography
  • List of Illustrations
  • Illustrations
  • Index of Names

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Introduction. The Scope of Research and Methodology

The art and the theological reflection in 16th-century Russia received relatively little attention from 20th-century scholars whose primary interests included the history of Russian art from the Kiev period up until the paintings from the ‘Rublev era’ or, at best, the time of ‘Dionysius and his circle.’ In consequence, even though the 16th century has attracted scholars ever since the 19th century, such as Fedor Buslayev1 and Nikolai Pokrovsky,2 the study of this period in Soviet history of art was largely marginalised.3 This situation has only changed in the recent years, owing to papers published in Russia (notably by Alexei Lidov4) and beyond (e.g. Eva Haustein-Bartsch and Karl Christian Felmy5 in Germany, and Barbara Dąb-Kalinowska and Hieronim Grala in Poland6). Nonetheless, in spite ← 7 | 8 → of the growing research in the field, when speaking of the art of that period one can still quote the term used by Sigurd Schmidt: ‘the mysterious 16th century.’7

The concept of the 16th-century culture as a ‘mysterious’ phenomenon is, however, deeply rooted in its very character and the social-political conditions in which it developed. The 16th century and, to a certain extent, the century that preceded it seem a particularly obscure period to contemporary scholars – one which poses numerous, often impossible to solve problems. It was a time of changes, many of which are not obvious and easy to grasp from the perspective of today, and, at any rate, changes which were not revolutionary. The important factors included not only the fact the Soviet scholars were practically deprived of methodological tools with which to address the issues of 16th-century art, but also that, compared to the earlier periods, its output might have seemed somewhat less ‘grand’ than the paintings from the first half of the 15th century – notably the works of the ‘Rublev era’ – and less ‘innovative’ than the iconography of the 17th century. It was thus seen as a period of decline, in which the skills of the old masters had already begun to deteriorate, while the ‘early modern’ concept of art was yet to emerge. Such a view was an inevitable consequence of applying the periodisation developed for West European art to the art of Russia.8

Another issue is related to the circumstance that the research on Russian culture at the time of Ivan IV has been (and continues to be) influenced by his controversial personality, or, one should perhaps say, a stereotypical view of this ruler.9 Russia under his power is often perceived as a ‘kingdom of darkness’ – isolated from the outside world with which it had little contact. The primary causes of such judgment include insufficient research and publications concerning the Orthodox relations with the exterior, i.e. contacts between Russia and the Balkans, and Russia and Athos, from the 15th century onwards.10 However, ← 8 | 9 → the most important issue is certainly that of Ivan the Great whose dominant personality cast a shadow on the whole century and whose image has greatly distorted the picture of Russia. This apparent association between the rule of Ivan the Terrible in the Tsardom of Muscovy and the Soviet Union under Stalin was used mainly by Russian émigrés in the 20th century, as well as a number of Polish authors in the 1990s.11 While this might not be the best place to engage in such a dispute, it should be noted that the above views have significantly biased the assessment of the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church of the time: perceived as those who either paved the way for or actively shaped the ‘age of Ivan.’ Similar opinions are not uncommon in popular literature discussing the key figures of the theology of the icon in Russia, notably Joseph of Volokolamsk,12 frequently portrayed as the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ or a ‘copy of Ignatius of Loyola.’13

Paul Evdokimov, and many émigré authors who followed him in the 20th century, emphasised the ‘tragic conflict’ between Nil Sorsky and Joseph of Volokolamsk, which he portrayed as a debate between ‘social organised Christianity’, ‘external ritualism’, and the ‘charismatic tradition of poverty and mystical contemplation.’14 At the same time Evdokimov refused to acknowledge that around the mid-16th century it were the adherents of this former tradition, with Metropolitan Macarius at their helm, who had the greatest impact on the development and collecting of the accounts of the lives of the saints, among them a large group of monks allegedly connected with the latter ‘charismatic tradition of poverty.’ The negative assessment of the Muscovite legacy of the 16th century can also be observed in the writing of George P. Fedotov who wrote this when comparing the subsequent stages of Russian history: ‘In Muscovy both moral strength and aesthetics become a burden. This burden is neutral in itself – ethically and aesthetically (…). Kiev was light, Moscow was heavy. But in Moscow the moral burden took on anti-Christian features: no mercy for the defeated and the crushed, cruelty to the weak and the blamed. Moscow does not believe in ← 9 | 10 → tears.’15 Today, the history of Russia is still being used for ideological purposes – it is enough to note the recent revival of the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome.16 On the other hand, Polish public discourse has seen the return of the ‘old demons’ (quite likely resulting from Russophobia), evidenced by the fact that the Russian president Vladimir Putin is often compared to Ivan the Terrible.17

While resolving the above issues and, most importantly, breaking the stereotypes about the Tsardom of Muscovy is now largely the task of historians, as a scholar exploring the Russian culture – icons and the debate around them – I felt compelled to address them, especially since both the emperor as well as the dignitaries of the state and the hierarchs of the Muscovite Orthodox Church were engaged in the debates examine here, and took an active part in them, attempting to exert a genuine influence on the issues related to icons. Regardless of its political assessment, the age of Ivan the Terrible certainly brought about a new artistic language, typical only to Russia and closely connected to the its cultural situation. After the fall of Constantinople, Moscow was mentioned by many authors as its legal successor, while shortly after Ivan adopted the title of tsar, the young ruler and his circle understood (for the first time so strongly) the need for art that could also be used as a means of propaganda. These processes were not altogether unambiguous. Russia’s adoption of isolationism as a cultural norm did not put an end to the influx and transformation of the Byzantine patterns. Moreover, after 1453, it reached for a set of myths about the ‘heart of Orthodoxy’ reinforced by the still living tradition of Mt. Athos.

The subject of icons in the 16th century (as was already noted by 19th-century scholars as well as those working at the beginning of the past century) is important for gaining an insight into the mechanisms of change in Old Rus’ art and, even more importantly, the processes informing the iconography from the ← 10 | 11 → 16th century up until the end of the 19th century18. Research into this matter is essential not only due to the large number of iconographic types which emerged in this century, but also due to the fact that while Russian painting saw almost no departures from the canon at the turn of the 15th and the 16th century, such departures and differences were almost the norm in some circles at the end of the century. It seems that between the appearance of the icon of the Old Testament Trinity from the workshop of Andrei Rublev (currently considered the greatest Russian artwork, fig. I), and the end of the 16th century, the Russian icon painting witnessed a great many changes. One should also note the words of Sergei Averintsev, who aptly characterised the unique development of the Orthodox culture: ‘If we were to look at the Byzantine millennium as a whole, as one grand epoch in the history of culture, we would be surprised by the absolute lack of anything which would at least remotely resemble a clear path from the birth of a style, through its flourishing, to decline.’19 As far as Russia is concerned, these words are valid only to an extent, yet speaking of icon painting, one should also mention the argument made by Yuri Lotman and Boris Uspensky, who claimed that the notion of the ‘new’ in Russia, was ‘regarded not as a continuation but as an eschatological replacement of everything.’20 Once again, it would be relevant to quote Averintsev, who argued that the Byzantine culture ‘faced a perspective of refining the existing models and pursuing a wide range of pre-defined possibilities, it did not, however, had the chance to choose its own identity.’21

This book aims at presenting the changes in the Russian icon painting and theological reflection in the 15th and the 16th centuries. As the title suggests, it addresses the issues which preoccupied the artists and authors of the period active in Russia, and which generated vigorous responses and debates. At the same time, however, the ubiquitous presence of icons in Russia – both in the lives of individuals as well as whole communities – extended the scope of the issues in question far beyond the eponymous debates. Necessarily, then, this publication not only addresses the issues which were the subject of reflection of the people of Russia, but also those which they failed to notice. The latter include such ← 11 | 12 → matters as the sacredness of the icons and that of the existence of certain beliefs which, while not discussed openly, were the sites in which the foundations of the cult of icons made themselves manifest.

In an attempt to create as comprehensive an overview of the reflection on the icons in Russia I have drawn on a wide variety of texts, among them the resolutions of the councils of 1551 and of 1553–1554, as well as the theological treatises from the turn of the 15th and the 16th centuries (among them The Letter to the Icon Painter by Joseph of Volokolamsk, writings about icons by Maximus the Greek, Testimony of Truth by Zinovyi of Otynia, and the writings of the monk Artemyi. A distinct group of texts includes historical sources, i.e. annals and legends of miracles related to icons. While bringing together this diverse body of texts, I considered not only their different origins, but also their underlying intentions which were reflected in the particularities of these writings. Whereas the resolutions of the councils and the theological treatises could be described as normative acts, or statements which did not necessarily translate into practice, the texts speaking of the history of icons – often consisting of descriptions of specific events which echo the popular beliefs concerning these images – could be seen as, to an extent, more objective accounts. Therefore, all of the above sources testify to the approach to icons in Russia, framing it, as it were, from two different perspectives. Speaking in a very simplified manner, the former would be the point of view of a narrow social group: the Orthodox clergy and the intellectual elites, whereas the latter would mirror the perspective of the majority of the faithful.

The sources used in this book, for the most part, originated in Russia, however, many of the questions addressed here also concern issues relevant to the Orthodox culture in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And while the particularities of the icon worship in this region were treated here somewhat marginally, it was largely due to the fact that the Orthodox Church in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania have long been silent about icons and did not take a stance on dogmatic issues.22 The first text which mentions the necessity of worshipping the icons was The Book of the Only Orthodox Faith (published in Ostroh in 1588), which noted a decline in the understanding of icons.23 Even though there was a discussion concerning the ← 12 | 13 → images which began in the 17th century, it failed to attain the theological depth known from the Muscovite state. The silence of the members of the Orthodox Church with respect to theology, and icon painting in particular – which lasted one hundred years longer in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as compared to Grand Rus – was perhaps related to the situation which the faithful had faced already in the late 14th-century. ‘The establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian State and the rule of Jogalia’ – wrote Aleksander Naumow – ‘came as a powerful blow to Eastern Orthodoxy. Being the dominant religion of a fierce enemy, the emerging state of Muscovy, the object of the controversial appetite of the West of which Jogalia became a faithful servant, Eastern Orthodoxy was forced into submission.’24 This led to an intellectual marginalisation of Orthodoxy which continued until the reign of Konstanty Ostrogski yet the exchange between the Orthodox Church in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Grand Rus lasted up until the Union of Brest of 1596.

In portraying the cultural landscape of Russia in the 15th and the 16th centuries – and, above all, in describing the Eastern Orthodox reflection on icons as well as the popular beliefs and ideas of that period – I was compelled to adopt a number of different, at times even conflicting, methodological approaches. My initial conviction was that a suitable point of departure for such a work would be the theology of the icon – the only method employed by the contemporary history of art which makes it possible to discuss the significance of the different images at length, as well as to avoid the pitfall of desacralisation, that is stripping the analysis of the icons off their inherent cultural context. Nonetheless, a confrontation of the amassed material with the tenets of the 20th-century theology of the icon immediately exposed the shortcomings of the latter: these result from the fact that, among other things, the scholars employing this method25 adopt a criteria based solely on religion, disregarding the political and social circumstances surrounding the production of particular works.

The fundamental obstacle faced, as I believe, by every scholar of the Orthodox art, is the issue of language in which to speak of the art that not only belongs to ← 13 | 14 → a different sphere of spiritual beliefs, but also to an utterly different sphere of cultural sensibility – one that, for instance, obviously ignores the aesthetic beauty of icons. This seems all the more relevant in the face of the current ‘revival of the icons’ which, on the one hand, leads to a return to the canon in icon-making and, on the other, often results in a deterioration of the language with which to describe them, an abuse of the notion of the icon as such, or its misuse, which removes it from the culture in which it is embedded. This language is, at best, lofty and replete with banal phrases such as: ‘the icon serves as a window onto the spiritual world’ which, while being a quote from the theology of the icon, has been removed from its context, introduced into the popular thinking, and deprived of its original meaning.

The methods of history of art too, as well as the language it uses to explain the essence of the phenomena in question, seem, for the most part, helpless. But far more promising is the approach advanced in the present-day Byzantine studies: based on a broad examination in which the reception of art is seen in the context of culture as a whole.26 I believe it is pertinent that the icons are not treated as autonomous works of art. Instead, it should be noted that, being an expression of religious beliefs, they played an essential social role in shaping the popular imaginary of the supernatural realm.27 In pursuing this ‘broad examination’, I set out to combine the academic approaches typical of the art historical studies of the Christian Orthodox art with the perspectives offered by cultural anthropology. This is not only due to the fact that Russia essentially knew no distinction between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, but also because its folk culture has largely overlapped with the culture of the Orthodox Church.28 This is one of the reasons the theology of the icon alone is unable to provide a comprehensive answer to how icons operate in popular culture. It is so because it neither anticipates the possibility of a ‘positive’ transformation of the canon nor that of a ‘positive’ cross-contamination between the religious and non-religious motifs – or of assessing such issues as, for example, ‘dual faith.’ As far as those issues are concerned, semiotics appears to offer answers to many pertinent questions. Despite the passage of time, many developments of the Tartu School, notably the reflection on the coexistence of popular and elite culture, remain relevant.

Reading the Russian literature of the 16th century, one can have the impression that its authors felt no distance between themselves and the theologians ← 14 | 15 → who came some one thousand years before them. Such an approach appears to be a norm in the Russian worldview, the knowledge of the world and of its past. It is also for this reason that an attempt at outlining an intellectual system of this kind eludes the classical methods of historical study. To the contrary, an analysis of the Russian reflection on the icons of the 16th century must address the principles of the theology of the icon, which is essentially ahistorical and which sees the Orthodox tradition as a holistic system, and at the same time acknowledges the ‘long term’29 values and representations. This is why a linear chronology of events can be abandoned for the sake of focusing on selected phenomena and statements. At the same time, as I mentioned before, when confronting the 20th-century language of the theology of the icon with the 16th-century sources, one has the distinct impression of an inconsistency between the two. Therefore, the references to the Byzantine reflection made in this book are connected with an attempt to trace the origins of specific beliefs and expressions (or to place them within the context of meanings ascribed by the Orthodox tradition), and their presence serves to highlight the differences between the Byzantine and the Russian theology of the icon.

Some of the notions used here can therefore seem debatable, among them, possibly, the phrases which today ring anachronistic, such as the ‘Russian theology of the icon’, the ‘popular culture’, or the ‘Apocrypha-making’ (used to describe the dynamic process of popular transformation of the canonical models of the Orthodox culture). Whilst employing these notions, however, I was aware of their somewhat arbitrary nature. Similarly, when writing about the Judaisers, or representatives of other heretical sects, I was not always able to reconstruct the original character or intentions of these groups based on historical sources, ← 15 | 16 → due to which I was compelled to adopt the terms used by the Orthodox authors, whose attitude to said groups was essentially hostile.

The logical structure of this work, and the hierarchy of the issues addressed, follow from my reading of Russian sources – for this reason, the chapter discussing the 16th-century theology of the icon is accompanied by an exploration of the concepts of beauty, supernatural phenomena, and the cult of icons; whereas the representations of the Old Testament Trinity and the New Testament Trinity serve as the ‘pillars’ of the transformation of the iconography. The decision to focus on the representations of the Holy Trinity was dictated by a number of factors. The Old Testament Trinity can be seen as one of the first typically Russian representations, actively disseminated in the region; other Trinitarian interpretations emerged in time, and co-existed with the former for a considerable time. The analysis of the above made it possible to highlight the many changes that took place in the Russian theology of the icon with respect to its Byzantine prototypes. Especially since a considerable number of theoretical statements concerning theology and icons were written in relation to the representations of the Holy Trinity.

1 The results of his research were published in F. Buslaev, Историческіе очерки народной словесности и искусства, vol. 1–2, Saint Petersburg, 1861.

2 A general survey of the history of Orthodox art discussing the 16th-century painting in detail was first published in 1894. N. Pokrovsky, Очерки памятников христианской иконографии и искусства, Saint Petersburg, 1900.

3 Among the few notable exceptions is the work of Olga Podobedova on Muscovite painting in the time of Ivan IV. O.I. Podobedova, Московская школа живописи при Иване IV. Работы в Московском Кремле 40-х – 70-х годов XVI в., Moscow, 1972.

4 Notably: Восточнохристианский храм: литургия и искусство, Sankt Petersburg, 1994; Чудотворная икона в Византии и Древней Руси, Moscow, 1996; Иконостас: происхождение — развитие — символика, Moscow, 2000.

5 Notably the collective volume: Die Weisheit Baute Ihr Haus. Untersuchungen zu hymnischen und didaktischen Ikonen, K.Ch. Felmy, E. Haustein-Bartsch (eds.), Munich, 1999.

6 The majority of which were published in B. Dąb-Kalinowska, Ikony i obrazy, Warsaw, 2000. H. Grala, Иван Михаилов Висковатый. Карьера государственного деятеля в России XVI в., Moscow, 1994. The current research of Polish history of art on Orthodox art and the perspective of Byzantine Studies were recently published in the following papers: W. Ceran, ‘Główne osiągnięcia polskich badań nad historią sztuki bizantyńskiej (do roku 1998)’, Sztuka średniowiecznego Wschodu i Zachodu. Osiągnięcia i perspektywy poznawcze u progu XXI wieku, M. Smorąg-Różycka (ed.), Kraków, 2002, pp. 9–39; M. Smorąg-Różycka, ‘Problematyka badań nad sztuką bizantyńską: główne kierunki i perspektywy badawcze’, Sztuka średniowiecznego Wschodu i Zachodu…, pp. 53–78.

7 This is the title of an article by Sigurd Schmidt, published in 1969. S.O. Schmidt, ‘Таинственный XVI век’, in Россия Ивана Грозного, Moscow, 1999, pp. 190–200.

8 Such a periodisation was applied by, among others, Georgy Vagner. G.K. Vagner, Проблема жанров в древнерусском искусстве, Москва, 1974; Idem, Канон и стиль в древнерусском искусстве, Moscow, 1987.

9 L.A. Chernaya, ‘От идеи «Угождения Богу» к идее «Постижения Бога» через мир: Антропоцентризм русской культуры второй половины XVII в. — нач. XVIII в.’, Филевские чтения, 1994, 6, p. 51.

10 Despite the fact that the recent years saw the publication of a number of works researching the hitherto unexplored aspects in the history of such links (such as the collective volume Древнерусское искусство. Балканы. Русь published in Saint Petersburg in 1995), most of them still call for further research.

11 See A. Andrusiewicz, Mit Rosji. Studia z dziejów i filozofii rosyjskich elit, vol. I, Rzeszów, 1994, p. 113n; K. Pietrzycka, ‘Komunizm jako quasi-religia: Wyznawcy i heretycy’, in Dar Polski Białorusinom, Rosjanom i Ukraińcom na Tysiąclecie ich Chrztu Świętego, London, 1989, pp. 175–83.

12 In most cases, the spelling of historical Russian names and surnames appearing in this book follows that found in the literature of the subject.

13 Cf. T. Špídlik, Les grands mystiques russes, 1995, translated from the Polish Wielcy mistycy rosyjscy, trans. J. Dembska, Kraków, 1996, p. 101.

14 P. Evdokimov, Orthodoxy, trans. O. Clement, London, 2011, p. 44.

15 G. Fedotov, ‘Rosja a wolność’, Znak, XLII, 1990, no. 2–3, p. 84.

16 A. Lazari, ‘Prawosławie i nacjonalizm (Szkic problemu)’, Zeszyty Naukowe UJ. Studia Religiologica, 1996, vol. 29, pp. 149–56; cf. W. Pawluczuk, Ukraina. Polityka i mistyka, Kraków, 1998, pp. 18–26.

17 Such a comparison is not uncommon in the media; cf. T.P. Terlikowski, ‘Car Władimir’, Nowe Państwo, 2004, no. 3. The author seems particularly indignant with the fact that (as he claims) for Russians ‘the figures equally deserving commemoration in the pantheon are the Tsar Nicholas II, murdered by the communists, as well as Lenin, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin.’ See J.M. Nowakowski, ‘Iwan Groźny w garniturze’, Przewodnik Katolicki, 2004, no. 10.

18 Cf. O. Tarasov, Icon and Devotion. Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia, trans., R. Milner-Gulland (ed.), London, 2002.

19 S. Averintsev, translated from the Polish ‘Na skrzyżowaniu tradycji literackich (literatura bizantyjska: twórcze źródła i kanony)’, in Na skrzyżowaniu tradycji (szkice o literaturze i kulturze wczesnobizantyjskiej), trans. D. Ulicka, Warsaw, 1988, p. 105.

20 Yu. Lotman, B. Uspensky, ‘The Role of Dual Models in the Dynamics of Russian Culture’, in Lotman, Uspensky, The Semiotics of Russian Culture, Ann Arbor, 1984, p. 5.

21 Averintsev, Na skrzyżowaniu tradycji literackich…, p. 105.

22 See B. Gudziak, ‘Unia florencka a metropolia kijowska’, in Polska – Ukraina. 1000 lat sąsiedztwa, II. Studia z dziejów chrześcijaństwa na pograniczu kulturowym i etnicznym, S. Stępień (ed.), Przemyśl, 1994, pp. 22–3.

23 ‘О единой вeрe. Сочинение острожскаго священника Василиа 1588 года’, in Русская Историческая Библиотека, vol. VII, Saint Petersburg, 1882, columns 601–938 (later as: ‘О единой вeрe…’). V.V. Bychkov, Русская средневековая эстетика XI–XVII века, Moscow, 1992, p. 431.

24 A. Naumow, ‘Władysław II Jagiełło wobec prawosławia’, in Kaplica Trójcy Świętej na zamku Lubelskim. Historia, teologia, sztuka, konserwacja. Papers from a session held at the Lublin Museum, April 24th–26th, 1997, Lublin 1999, p. 18; cf. A. Mironowicz, Kościół prawosławny w dziejach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, Białystok, 2001, pp. 26–7.

25 Notably the works of Pavel Florensky, Paul Evdokimov, Leonid Ouspensky (see bibliography for a detailed listing).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 428 pp., 30 b/w ill., 26 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Aleksandra Sulikowska (Author)

Aleksandra Sulikowska works at the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw. Her field of expertise includes Byzantine Art, Russian icons, and her research interests concern icon worship as well as the iconography and origins of Orthodox Art.


Title: The Icon Debate