Russian orthodox icons are a complex and symbolic art form, and if you’re anything like me it might be a little bit overwhelming to enter a church and be confronted with the ornate murals and icons adorning every wall. In addition, most churches -especially historically significant ones- do not allow photography within so it is important to be able to understand the artwork in the moment. Learning a bit about the structure of an Orthodox Church as well as the most popular symbols used in icons can help you to better appreciate the numerous churches, convents, and monasteries you may visit while in Russia.
While in Vladimir and Suzdal we had the opportunity to see several historic churches and monasteries and to learn more about the symbolism behind many of their features. For example, churches named in honor of the Virgin Mary will often have light blue cupolas decorated with gold stars. Mary is often depicted in icons wearing robes of this same light blue color. Another way to determine who or what the church is dedicated to is to take a look at the iconostasis. On the bottom row, the second icon to the right of the Golden Gates will show the patron saint or event of the church. Above this first row is the Deisis row, depicting Christ Pantocrator flanked by the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, as well as other saints and angels (space permitting). The twelve great feasts of the liturgical calendar are often placed in the third row, directly above the Deisis. The fourth row usually depicts Old Testament Saints and Patriarchs while the fifth row contains icons of the twelve apostles.
In addition to the iconostasis there are often several icons covering the other walls of the church. Below each icon is a candle holder, and the faithful will light candles and place them below these saints as an offering in prayer. After seeing a few icons you might think that many of the icons have the same face, but this is not exactly correct. Icons and even architectural features depicting saints, angels, Mary, or Jesus are all created with liks- a different word than the one used for the faces of mundane people. A Lik is not quite a face and not quite a mask, they are not meant to be accurate depictions of a religious figure’s face, but are rather abstractions which call to mind the figure they represent. These ‘faces’ are often painted with a dark base color with sharp contrasting highlights which create the central features. The eyes are large and round, the nose is long and narrow with a pinched bridge, and the mouth is small. The penchant for abstraction goes beyond the faces of the figures: buildings, tables, chairs, and even footstools are also subtly altered so that sides which would be hidden from the viewer in real life are actually exposed. Another popular bit of abstraction is the depiction of the trinity as a trio of Archangels. This was first done by Andrew Rublyov in 1411 and many others followed suit.
After contemplating the iconostasis and turning to leave, you may notice a rather grisly scene above the exit doors. This is a Strashny Sud, or Judgement Day. When I began looking more closely at Strashny Suds I was struck by how abstract and often hidden the devil is. I didn’t realize that the small and fuzzy red shape was meant to be the devil until my professor pointed it out to me.
This is hardly a comprehensive guide but I hope that it provides some useful information and things to look for the next time you’re in a Russian Orthodox Church.
References and Further Reading:
Dr. Diane Nemec Ignasheva