Russian IconsBy James Jackson, ISA
How to examine and evaluate, key features, how originals were made
Over the past three decades, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, ever increasing numbers of Russian icons have been seen in Western countries like the United States. Much research has been done on ancient icons but very little is available on Russian icons of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. This article will help the dealer, appraiser or collector sort through the misinformation, outright fakes and questionable pieces found in the market today.
Ikona or Russian icon derives its name from the Greek eikon meaning image. The icon most collectors are familiar with is a religious image painted on a wood panel which developed about the time of Christ. Russia converted to Christianity about 1000 AD and adopted the Orthodox Eastern style of painting icons. Russian icon imagery became a standard visual language everyone, including the peasants, understood.
The most frequently encountered examples in today's market are icons produced in Russia between 1700-1917 with the majority made between 1850-1917. For the remainder of this article, our focus will be on Russian pieces made during this time known as the "Late Period."
How icons were used
From the 18th through early 20th century, Russian icons could be found everywhere. There were icons in churches, homes, hospitals, shops, stables, roadside shrines, even in prisons. Icons comforted a mother giving birth, were received as marriage gifts, accompanied armies going into battle and were part of funeral ceremonies. There were icons to protect cattle, icons to drive away a toothache and icons to prevent house fires. Every Christian, which meant nearly every Russian, who could afford it also owned an icon of his or her patron saint. In other words, a tremendous amount of icons were produced and this accounts for the enormous numbers of Russian icons still in existence today.
How icons were made
The traditional Russian icon is painted on a carefully prepared wooden panel. First, a cloth is attached to the panel's face. Then many layers of a primer made of glue and powered chalk or alabaster are applied over the cloth. When the primer is thoroughly dry, an outline of the design is scratched or carved into the surface. Painting is begun using the outline as a guide.
Images were composed of tempera paints which were made from powdered colors mixed with egg yolk and a small amount of rye beer. Tempera paints were applied in graduated shades with dark colors applied first and lighter colors added on top. This resulted in a slightly three dimensional effect.
The finished icon is varnished with a boiled linseed oil mixture that brightens and protects the colors. However, within 50-75 years the varnish substantially darkens and dims the painting. When an icon became too dark to see, there were two options. Either the painting could be scraped off down to the wood and a new painting applied or a new image would simply be painted on top of the original.
The vast majority of icons in the market today were produced for home use. These generally measure about 14″ high by 10″ wide or smaller. In Russia, icons were also produced in cast metal and carved relief.
Traditional icons are painted in a nonrealistic, stylized manner intended to reveal the "spiritual" nature of the subject. Icons were never painted to accurately depict anatomical detail or be photographically precise. Backgrounds, landscapes and buildings are stylized as well.
Icons were originally purchased in shops where one could choose from ready-painted stock or place a custom order. Large factory-style workshops where each artist was assigned a specific task, could produce hundreds of icons a day. The pieces were then shipped to distribution and sales points throughout Russia. There were also many individual painters scattered around Russia who did the entire icon themselves. Sometimes they would sign their work on the back with the name and date and occasionally the reason for which the icon was painted. But as a general rule, most icons are not signed.
Subjects and themes
Images on Russian icons can generally be placed in one of five categories.
1. MOTHER OF GOD Icons depicting Mary and the infant Christ (in Russian, Bogoroditsa or Bogometer).
2. CHRIST Icons depicting Christ and scenes from His life. As Lord Almighty (Gospod Vsederzhitel), Baptism of Christ, Birth of Christ, entry into Jerusalem, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
3. BIBLICAL Images inspired by the bible which do not fall into categories 1 and 2. Examples: Old Testament Trinity, Fiery Ascension of the Prophet Elijah, the Archangel Michael, etc.
4. INDIVIDUAL SAINTS such as St. Nicholas, Vladimir or Barbara.
5. MULTIPLE SCENE or MULTIPLE IMAGE Icons which depict multiple scenes or images are called 2-part, 3-part, 4-part or 5-part icons depending on the number of separate images.
Specialized parts of an icon
Basma–Decorative pieces of metal nailed directly on the painted icon such as border trim, margins or haloes (Fig. 3). Kovcheg–Carved out central square or rectangle (Figs. 13-14). Riza–One piece sheet of decorative metal covering the entire icon except the subject's face and hands. (Figs. 6 & 8, riza removed). Slats–Wooden crosspieces used to prevent warping. Icons may have one or two slats in back, slats across the top and bottom edge, a combination of any of the above or no slats (Figs. 9-10).
In general, values are determined by the following five categories. 1. AGE: the older, the more valuable. The most valuable and rare being 17th century or earlier. 2. SIZE: the larger the better. Average size, 14″ X 12″; icons 17″ X 21″ or larger are more valuable simply due to size. 3. SUBJECT: Mary or well known saints and figures (St. George, John, etc.) are more popular than obscure less well known subjects. 4. QUALITY: beautiful, skillfully painted icons are worth more than provincial, naive icons. Icons with ornate riza are worth more. 5. CONDITION: The greater the damage or restoration, the lesser the value.
Common or average icons from the late 19th to early 20th centuries in various states of condition are readily available from $200-$700 each. The strongest market for icons of the late period is for those pieces with finely crafted silver and silver-gilt riza with enamel decoration. Riza by important well known Russian workshops such as Faberge, Ovchinnikov, Khlehnikov and Grachev are more desirable than those of lesser known makers.
Examining an icon
To properly examine an icon, you need a black light, at least a 10X loupe, needle nose pliers, a small knife and common sense. If the icon has a riza (metal covering), the riza should generally be removed to check for restoration and damage and to determine if the icon is completely painted (see Figs. 11-12). Carefully remove all the nails from the edge of the riza. It should lift off easily once all the nails are removed.
Precise dating is a complex subject and not easily covered in a brief space. Today's icon market can be divided into two main groups: Ancient Period, 12th to mid-17th century; and Late Period, 18th to early 20th century. Of the 500 icons I evaluate every year, fully 95% are of the Late Period with the majority being 19th to early 20th century. With few exceptions, most buyers will encounter pieces from that time frame.
In general, all aspects of an icon must be considered in dating: the nature of the panel, the overall style, proportion of figures, type of calligraphy (if any), borders, backgrounds and of course the subject. One cannot have, for example, a 17th century icon of St. Seraphim because he was not officially recognized as a saint until 1903.
Common fakes, frauds and misconceptions
Probably the biggest problem buyers face today is new paintings on genuinely old panels. A large supply of old panels with damaged paintings still exists. It is a simple matter to scrape off the old damaged paint, apply a new painting to the old panel and artificially distress the new paint to simulate age. Sellers then point to the genuinely old wood as "proof" that the entire icon is old.
There are a number of clues to identifying a recent painting. First, inspect the craquelure. Craquelure is the fine network of cracks (crazing) that develops in genuinely old varnish and paint as it dries over many years. It is very difficult to duplicate. Craquelure on original icons is deep and extends through the varnish down into the paint below. Newly painted images may show shallow craquelure on the very surface but rarely will it go as deep into the painted layer as old. New craquelure is often very consistent and can appear as a regular pattern. Old is more irregular and random.
Sometimes forgers try to create more authentic craquelure by painting the image on a gessoed piece of muslin. After the paint dries, the muslin is then rolled or passed over a sharp edge to create cracks in the painted surface. The cracks are then filled in with ash or other blacking in an attempt to duplicate original craquelure. The painted muslin is glued to an old panel and presented as an icon with "proper" craquelure.
Next, look for areas of paint that are lifting from the panel. After an old panel is scraped and gessoed, it is often painted too soon. The gesso is frequently not thoroughly dry. Moisture released from the gesso lifts off the new paint. This is a good indication of a new painting. Another simple test is to smell the surface of the icon. Many new paints and varnishes continue to give off a strong odor when they are offered for sale.
A black light is a must for testing paint and varnish. Sophisticated conservation techniques and ultraviolet inhibitors are not currently being used in Eastern Europe and most restoration is clearly visible under black light. Any change or differences is a clue to a possible alteration of the original surface.
Next to entirely new paintings, the next biggest problem is excessive restoration. Any piece with 50% or more restoration should be considered as a modern painting. Use your black light and loupe to determine the amount of restoration if any. Minor high quality professional restoration found only on borders or margins generally has no serious impact on value. Repainted faces and hands, however, which are not uncommon, drastically lower the value. When checking for restoration, remember to look for craquelure. Artificially created craquelure in restored areas seldom matches original craquelure.
You also need to be particularly wary of mismatched riza. Since most icons are standard sizes painted with standardized images, riza can be interchanged fairly easily. You can often take the riza off one icon of a certain subject and size and place it over another of the same subject and size and find it fits quite well with the faces and hands showing through in just the right places. Another common problem is to find genuinely old riza, often with desirable maker's marks or hallmarks, fastened over newly painted images. For this reason, you cannot rely on the dated hallmarks in a riza to be 100% accurate in dating the painting it covers.
Don't automatically assume the image you see through the riza opening is painted. In some icons, the image is simply lithographed on paper and the paper glued to the panel (Fig. 2). Although lithographs were used in some icons dating from the turn of the century, these are much less valuable and not as desirable as painted images. Some icons currently in the market have images on paper with the dot clusters of modern color printing and are present day fakes with no age.
Where you buy an icon is no guarantee of age or value. Problem icons are particularly common in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic which have large numbers of Western tourists. In many cases, written "guarantees" are freely given because sellers know chances of seeing a foreign tourist again are slight. Buying in Russia also requires care. Ironically, Russian sellers often know the least about icons. Remember, formal religion and icons were banned in Russia for 70 years so most Russians have virtually no experience in handling icons.
Lack of experience with icons is also a problem here in the United States. Right now there is a shortage of persons qualified to authenticate icons. Like most items, your best protection is to get a written money back guarantee when making a purchase. Be sure the guarantee includes a written statement of condition, approximate date of manufacture and materials.