The Problem of Tradition and Novation in Contemporary Icon Painting

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Thea Intskirveli


The main challenge faced by the new iconography is renewal. Debates over the true nature of the icons unfolded in Russia since the end of 19th century, giving impetus to rethinking of the essence of the church painting of that time, while 1910s marked the period of re-discovery of the icon and the church art of Middle Ages in general. This period in Russia is regarded as the one of liberating from the norms of art dictated by the European renaissance and turning to Byzantine, i. e. spiritual art forms.

Opinion that protecting the purity of icon meant protection from the influence of Catholic art was openly expressed in Russian church back in 1900. In order to substantiate this opinion and support the latter with theological grounds, the priest Pavel Florensky thoroughly studied the principles of Italian renaissance painting and contrasted them with those of Byzantine/old Russian church art. Based on these comparative studies, Florensky developed his works about a specific system of building the icon’s space. Moreover, he argued that icon should be created by special means of expression, which should be called “canonical forms”. Hence, the contours of the theory, which later defined the canonicity of iconography, first appeared in the pre-revolution Russian church. In 1925 the Russian diaspora in Paris established a society called “Ikona”, where the Orthodox icon and its canonicity were taught. Within this society, the phenomenon of icon was in fact rediscovered and the original Russian culture started to identify itself with it. The works dedicated to iconography, written by Russian emigrants living in Europe were created here, the most remarkable of those being Leonid Ouspensky’s book Theology of the Icon. According to Ouspensky’s theory, the language of “symbolic realism” of icons, i. e. Middle Ages Byzantine-Russian means of expression are the essential aspect of canonicity of iconography.

The concept of symbolic realism regarding canonicity of icon painting was translated into Greek and published twice in Athens in 1948 by iconographer Photis Kontoglou who is considered a founder of the new Greek church art. The Greek church even divides the history of its art as before and after Kontoglou. This fundamental work of Ouspensky has likewise been translated into many languages of Western and Eastern Europe and remains a principal guidebook on canonicity in iconography.

At the beginning of the era of Modernism it has become necessary to define the specificity of Orthodox icon and the signs, which differentiates it from secular painting. At present, there is a widely recognized opinion, that contemporary icon painting experiences a deep crisis globally, being manifested in similar forms in various Orthodox churches, all associated with the need of renewal of the tradition of church painting. Christian masters of the new era failed to become the heirs of old iconographers, since the cornerstone of the tradition turned out lost. According to the latest prevailing opinion the present rules of icon painting (canon) do not offer proper guidelines and this way produce the above-mentioned results.

The crisis of modern icon painting is revealed mainly in multiplying hand-made copies of old patterns. The pieces created because of mechanical reproduction of old icons/murals are regarded as new originals. This tendency is characteristic to the new art of all Orthodox churches. At the same time, the last decades show, that the main factor contributing to mechanical reproduction of old art works is prompted by demand coming from the modern-day customers. Icon painters try to adopt their practical experience to the requirements of the theory of “symbolic realism” and thus point to the root cause of the problem. They are united in the motivation to replace the mainstream of similar lifeless copies of church paintings with impressive art works.

Murals of Didube and Sioni churches from 1980s clearly indicated a two-way approach, which later has become a trend and which, unfortunately, hinders the process of development of modern iconography in various forms. In his public lecture from 2016, Dimitry Tumanishvili stated that one group of icon painters choose the form of modern subjectivism and try to keep the church art in the mode of renaissance, while the representatives of another group try to get free from this vision and as a result bury themselves in the past. To overcome the crisis, first of foremost, we must put aside the externally imposed theory on existence of canonical mandatory means of expression. We should not be afraid of using any artistic forms, if they will help to achieve the main goal - depiction of the deified man, - a primary function of icon.

Published: Nov 13, 2022

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How to Cite
Intskirveli, T. (2022). The Problem of Tradition and Novation in Contemporary Icon Painting. Academia, 157–168. Retrieved from