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Icons and icon painting in Ukraine


In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition the icon has played a much more important and conspicuous role than it did in Western Christianity. The reasons for this are partly explained by the different mentalities and the different artistic and spiritual backgrounds of the people who made and worshiped them.


Icons came to Ukraine, or rather to Kyivan Rus, from Byzantium with the adoption of Christianity in 988, and though originally the icon and its models and canons were borrowed, with the passage of time it became to acquire national features and we can speak of the icons of later centuries as a Ukrainian religious and artistic phenomenon.

An icon is a painted image of a religious figure or event, especially a painted panel. The term icon is derived from Greek and refers to an image believed to be sacred, which can aid in contacting the represented figure.

During the early Christian period, after the 4th century, the term was applied to all religious art, including mosaics, reliefs and paintings. Few early painted icons survive, but a small group of 6th and 7th century encaustic (wax) paintings on wooden panels, from the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, show realistic, lifelike faces animated by large eyes and intense expressions. Four such icons are in the possession of the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv. Icons were made for private devotion and public worship.

Orthodox Christians usually say their prayers in front of an Eastern-facing wall covered with icons, or an icon corner. For many centuries, no Ukrainian household was without icons.

Christianity teaches that the immaterial God became flesh in the form of Jesus Christ, making it possible to depict the Son of God in human form. It is on this basis that Old Testament prescriptions against creating images were overturned for early Christians through their belief in the Incarnation. The concept of the archetype was redefined by the early Church fathers to explain that when a person shows veneration toward an image, the intention is to honor the person depicted rather than the substance of the icon. As St. Basil the Great said, The honor shown to the image passes to the archetype.

In the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy, and of the Early Medieval West, there is very little room for artistic license. Almost everything within the image has a symbolic aspect. Christ, the saints and angels all have halos. Angels (and often John the Baptist) have wings because they are messengers. Figures have consistent facial appearances, hold attributes personal to them, and use a few conventional poses.

Color too plays an important role. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red, divine life. Blue is the color of human life, while white is the uncreated essence of God, only used for the resurrection and transfiguration of Christ. If you look at icons of Jesus and Mary, youll discover that Jesus usually wears a red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God became human) and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red over-garment (human became Godlike); thus, the doctrine of deification is conveyed by icons.

Letters are symbols too. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or event depicted. Even this is often presented in a stylized manner (in later Western depictions, much of the symbolism survives, though there is far less consistency).

The Eastern Church formulated the doctrinal basis for the veneration of icons. Since God had assumed material form in the person of Jesus Christ, he could also be represented in pictures. Icons are considered an essential part of the church and given special liturgical veneration. They also serve as mediums of instruction for the uneducated faithful through the iconostasis. An iconostasis is a large screen that separates the altar from the rest of the church. It is on the iconostasis that painted images of Christ, the Virgin and various saints are grouped. Icons were created with a formalized, deliberately stylized aspect that emphasized otherworldliness rather than human feeling or sentimentality. Gold-leaf backgrounds were common with strongly geometric designs, emphasizing either angularity or long, sinuous curves, being favored.

Although icon painters usually remained anonymous, some exceptions are known. The best icons represent the supreme achievement in icon painting, and their work combines spiritual grace and technical excellence in a synthesis that was never again equaled.

The Eastern Orthodox view of the origin of icons is quite different from that of secular scholars and some in contemporary Roman Catholic circles. The Orthodox Church maintains and teaches that the sacred image has existed from the beginning of Christianity, Leonid Ouspensky, a Russian theologian, has written.

Accounts that some non-Orthodox writers consider legendary are accepted as history within Eastern Orthodoxy, because they are a part of Church tradition. Thus, accounts such as of the miraculous Image Not Made by Hands, and the weeping and moving Mother of God are accepted as fact.

Eastern Orthodoxy further teaches that a clear understanding of the importance of icons was part of the Church from its very beginning, and has never changed, although explanations of their importance may have developed over time. This is because iconography is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation (Christ being the eikon of God), which didnt change, though its subsequent clarification within the Church occurred over the period of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Also, icons served as tools of edification for the illiterate faithful during most of the history of Christendom.

Eastern Orthodox believers find the first instance of an image or icon in the Bible when God made man in His own image (eikona in Greek) in Genesis 1:26-27.

Thus, when speaking of icons, it should be borne in mind that icon painting has always primarily been an object of worship, while its artistic merits have always been of secondary importance, though the more beautiful the icon is, the greater impact it has.


Icons in Ukraine before the Mongol Invasion

Icon painting in Kyivan Rus in the 11th century was inspired by Byzantine icons. However, in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery monks painted icons following Byzantine samples and developed their own style as early as the same century.

As a general rule, these icons followed models and formulas hallowed by usage, some of which had originated in Constantinople. As time passed, Ukrainian icon painters widened the vocabulary of iconic types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere.

Some icons have histories, but most remain anonymous works. One such icon with a history is known as Kholmska Bohorodytsya, the Icon of the Mother of God of Kholm (now Chelm, Poland). It was believed to have been painted by St Luke himself. Later it was brought to the Slavic lands by Grand Prince Volodymyr, the ruler of Kyiv. The icon had a reputation of working miracles.

Present-day art historians and specialists, when assessing the age of icons with the help of advanced scientific methods and equipment, believe the icon in question was painted in the 11th or 12th centuries in Constantinople. The ruler of the Halytsko-Volynsky Principality (Galicia-Volynia, one of the principalities into which the state of Kyivan Rus broke up in the course of the 11th and 12th centuries) Danylo (12021264), brought the icon to his capital of Kholm, but it is not known from where.

Many rulers vied for possession of the icon, and for stretches of time it had to be kept hidden in unfavorable conditions. The icon was also moved from place to place and suffered considerable damage. In 1917, the year of revolutions, the icon made its way to Kyiv, first to the Florovsky Monastery, and later, when the militantly atheistic Bolsheviks came to power, it was in safekeeping with successive families of the faithful. In 1943, Metropolitan Ivan Ohienko had the icon brought back to Kholm. At the end of the Second World War, Ukrainians from Kholm were resettled in Lutsk and took the icon with them. It then turned up in a museum in Ivano-Frankivsk, and later was given to the Local History and Lore Museum in Lutsk.


Icons in Ukraine after the Mongol Invasion

During the Mongol Invasion of the 13th century, many churches, and consequently the icons in them, were destroyed, explaining, in part, why there are so few icons left from pre-Mongol times.

The political and cultural center of Kyivan Rus moved to the Halytsko-Volyn Principality, and it is the regions of Halychyna and Volyn, in the 1416th centuries, that Ukrainian icons acquired their Ukrainian features.

There was very little pressure on icon painters from Church authorities and they were free to follow their own artistic intuition rather than rigid canons in creating icons. Instead of the gold background, they often introduced red or green backgrounds. Some icon painters could have been exposed to, and influenced by, the new late Gothic and Renaissance trends that were observed in Western Europe. The changes became particularly noticeable in the 16th century, when icon imagery shifted from Byzantine patterns to new principles of painting. New types of iconostases were developed. Centers of icon painting in Lviv, Zhovkva and Kyiv flourished.

Most of the icons preserved from the 16th century were painted in western Ukraine, but starting from the 17th century, the number of preserved icons from eastern Ukraine grew. It is estimated that there are about 1,500 icons of the 16 17th centuries to be found in museums in Lviv, Kyiv, Lutsk, Rivne, Drohobych, Poland and Slovakia.

Surprisingly, neither the religious tensions of the end of the 16th century (connected with the Lublin Union after which Poland and Lithuania united into one state, and a considerable part of Orthodox Ukraine found itself under Polish Catholic domination), nor the War of Independence of the 17th century, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, affected icon painting to any great extent. Churches continued to be built, iconostases were erected, and icons were painted.

In the 17th century, Kyiv gradually developed into a major cultural center, with old churches restored, new ones built, and schools founded. At the end of the 17th century, Ukraine found itself split in two, with the western lands under Poland and the eastern lands in the Russian sphere. Despite these divisions, the Ukrainian spirit and mentality remained undivided, and the icons of that time bear witness to that.

At the end of the 17th century, icon painters in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery created what later came to be called icons in the Ukrainian Baroque style, in which typical features of Ukrainian national painting were amply reflected. Portraits of donors and clergymen began to appear in some icons (similarly, such personages appeared in religious paintings in the Western tradition). The images of saints in the icons also began acquiring features of individual portraits.

Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine from 1687 to 1709, initiated the construction of many churches that needed a lot of icons. Iconostases in the churches of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Novhorod-Siversky deserve separate mention. Some of their iconostases were 17 meters high. Unfortunately, most of churches, as well as the icons, were destroyed by the Soviet regime.

Despite the growing pressure Russia exercised in all spheres of Ukrainians lives, Ukrainian icon painting continued its unchecked development through the 18th century, acquiring new features. In the regions of Livoberezhzhya (Left Bank) and Slobozhanshchyna new wooden churches were built with large iconostases that played a special role during liturgy.

At the end of the 18th century, icon painting centers emerged in Poltava, Myrhorod, Novhorod-Siversky and Nizhyn. Volodymyr Borovykovsky (1757 1825), an icon painter from Myrhorod, was particularly well known, not only for his icons but for his portraits as well. In fact, he opened a new stage in the development of Ukrainian icon painting.


An art book on icons

The album, Ukrayinska ikona 1118 stolit  Ukrainian Icons of the 1118th Centuries, recently presented in Kyiv, was compiled and prefaced by Academician Lyudmyla Milyayeva, a prominent Ukrainian art historian. But she was not the only one responsible for publication. A philosopher, Oleksiy Danylov, a photographer, Mykhaylo Andreyev, and other art historians were involved too.

Lyudmyla Milyayeva was one of the few art historians in Soviet times who studied the art and spiritual significance of the icon, and now she is arguably the best icon specialist in Ukraine. After the Second World War, thanks to her efforts, many icons and church items used in religious services were saved from destruction. Only one small episode, from among so many other similar episodes, will be mentioned here. During an ethnographic and art history expedition to the Ukrainian countryside, she discovered a bas-relief with the image of St George discarded in someones backyard. The object turned out to be from the 11th century.

Dedicating this album to Ukrainian icons of the 1118th centuries, we [the authors] fully realize that such a long stretch of time includes several different historical periods within which changes in world outlook took place, different lifestyles and everyday realities developed, and various stylistic tendencies in art were observed. However, despite all these various changes, reflected in the language of art and imagery, we have done our best to show the Ukrainian icon as a national phenomenon which, from medieval times to the 19th century, thanks to its religious function, contributed to the unity of the Ukrainian ethnos, Milyayeva wrote in her essay published in the album.

It took Milyayeva four years to get the book published (it was printed in Germany), and for the first time in Milyayevas career as an art historian she was given help and support from local museums; something they had been reluctant to do in the past. During these four years, some of the people who had begun the project died. At one point, when slides got lost in the mail only to be recovered several anxious weeks later, it seemed it would be impossible to get the book published. But in the end, it was published, despite all the obstacles.

The main point that the books authors wanted to make is: Despite regional differences, changing styles, political turmoil and divisions in Ukraine, including serious church divisions, the Ukrainian icon has preserved continuity in its general style.

Recent restorations and new methods of analysis with the use of sophisticated equipment changed some attributions and revealed new aspects, but most importantly, icons, relieved of the grime and overprinting they were covered with, have revealed their beauty in its original form.

The book, rather unusual for a publication of this kind, includes not only illustrations of icons themselves, but of the church interiors where these icons could once have been seen and venerated. This helps the reader feel the spirit in which icons were created.

Apart from the purely artistic enjoyment that the icons featured in the album provide, the album contains a spiritual message concentrated in the icons illustrated.


Based on L. Milyayevas essay in the album

Ukrayinska ikona 1118 stolit and other sources

Photos by Mykhaylo ANDREYEV


Archangel Michael. From the Church of Paraskeva

Pyatnytsya in the village of Dalyova, Land of

Lemkivshchyna, end of the 14th century.


Diesis. From the Church of Pokrova Bohorodytsi

in the village of Richytsya, Rivne Oblast.

Late 15th-early 16th century.



From the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnytsya

in the village of Dalyova, Land of Lemkivshchyna,

second half of the 16th century.


St Basil the Great.

From the village of Turye, Lviv Oblast. 15th century.


St John the Baptist with Gospels.

From the Church of Archangel Michael in the village

of Yasenytsya Zamkova, Lviv Oblast.

Second half of the 16th century.


St Boris and St Hleb.

From the Church of the Holy Spirit in the village of

Potelych, Lviv Oblast. Second half of the 16th century.


Crucifixion. From the Church of Archangel Michael

in the village of Hrabiv, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.

Second half of the 16th century.


The Old Testament Trinity. 1650.

Virgin Mary from the Diesis (detail), by icon painter

Yovkond Zelevych. 1698-1705. From the iconostasis

of the Church of the Erection of the Most Holy

Cross, the Manyavsky Monastery; in Lviv since 1924.


Pokrova Bohorodytsi (Protecting Veil of the Mother

of God). From the Assumption Cathedral

in the town of Novhorod-Siversky, Chernihiv Oblast.



Ukrayinska ikona 1118 stolit albom is the second

volume in a series State Collections of Ukraine,

which has been launched by Oleksiy Danylov and

Mykhaylo Andreyev.

St Anastasiya and St Ulyana the Martyrs.

From the Church of St Mykola in the town

of Konotop (the original provenance is not known).

Bohorodytsya Yeletska (Mother of God of Yelets).

The Assumption Cathedral of the Yeletsky

Monastery. 18th century.


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