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The Icon Debate

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


Aleksandra Sulikowska

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.


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Chapter V. How Icons Were Valued: Beauty as a Category of Ruthenian Aesthetics


157 Chapter V. How Icons Were Valued: Beauty as a Category of Russian Aesthetics The closing sentences of the Letter to the Icon Painter highlight an important issue of the Russian theology of the icon, namely the language with which to describe them. This matter is essentially linked to the understanding of the concept of beau- ty by the Russian kniznhniky. This fundamental concept perhaps best illustrates the similarities and differences between the discourse on art in the Byzantine Empire and in Russia. It should be noted that the issue of their diversity is still subject to debate, including the question if Russia ever embraced the sophisticated artistic notions and aesthetic values of the Byzantines, as well as if the Russian reflection on art could be described as specifically Slavic.641 An investigation of the accounts of how beauty was perceived and described is also in order due to the fact that this aspect of experiencing icons (apart from their miracle-working potential, explored in the following chapter) was, as opposed to doctrinal issues, available not only to the elites, but also to a broad community of the faithful. The perception of beauty in the early days of Kievan Rus was, it seems, analogous to that found in Byzantine sources. An entry in the Primary Chronicle under the year 987 includes an account of Russian envoys sent to Constantinople where they were allowed to participate in a liturgical celebration at the church of Hagia Sophia: ‘Then we went to Greece, and the...

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