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Overview

The sources of Ukrainian icon painting can be traced back to the time of Kyivan Rus' (10th-l3th century), the epoch when Christianity became the predominant religion of the State. At that time a notion unknown to pagans entered the consciousness of believers: the concept of the icon (from Greek eikon - an image), a consummate representation of a sacred image. Painted with egg tempera on panel, every icon was endowed by believers with a supernatural power which had the mysterious and inexplicable ability to link the soul of a mortal with God. Miracles were expected from icons, which were seen to be invested with divine grace; they were, in effect, worshipped and fervently prayed to. And the greater the mastery of the artist and the more inspired his brush, the deeper was the icon's aesthetic influence, and it became more venerable as a result.
Icon painting retained this exceptional peculiarity even in the complicated post- Mongol history of our country, which deprived the Ukraine of her statehood for many centuries. The Ukrainian people, politically divided but ethnically united, strengthened their national consciousness, and icon painting played a significant part in this process: it conveyed the Christian faith which consolidated the nation.
Nowadays, with most of the ancient icons gathered for display in museum collections. they are bereft of the natural environment of the church interior for which they were destined. Mural paintings, iconostases, icon-cases and flickering candles all combined to create a special atmosphere in which a man burdened with life's problems could regain mental equilibrium.
Each church usually possessed works created at different times. Artists of every generation increased the number of icons, trying to leave a trace of their own in the parish, to confirm their devotion to the faith and to atone for sins. "For the expiation of sins..." was, in fact, usually written on them. But icons of the 11th-l6th centuries, despite their differences and natural changes of manner that took place during those centuries, are related by an identical understanding of an aesthetical ideal.
They attract with their conciseness and finesse of composition, through epic deliberation and noble, restrained coloring. The idiom of icons is unrealistic in our comprehension, and masters in any case did not strive to recreate real life in their work, but followed a canon (strict fixed rules for the representation of one or another saint or subject) which was a pattern of iconography and mastership for them. In the representation everything is conventional. The artistic means were combined to express eternal dogmas and images and to convey abstract meaning: the man was depicted in a way contradicting requirements of the plastic anatomy (until the late 16th century in the Ukrainian icon painting), in a special dimension mostly with the reverse perspective. The entourage whimsically combined rocky grounds, architectural pavilions representing rather symbols than life realities. In the icon- painting as a kind of art a great importance was attached to the line, compositional rhythms and harmony of colors which all combined lent the icon its artistic perfection. Parishioners of those bygone years valued in the incorporeal figures of the saints their estrangement. They were inspired by the depth of the heavenly spirit which permeated every image. They sought in it that abstract ideal which gave the possibility of coming into contact with the incognizable and of purifying their souls.
That is why the moral demands of the artist himself were so strict. He did not think it proper even to sign his works because he ascribed his inspiration and creative achievement to grace imparted to him by God. This can explain the spreading of legends about ancient icon painters whom angels helped in their work. We know of many names of artists fixed by chroniclers and in historical documents but signed icons appeared only from the mid-l6th century when, under the influence of humanistic ideals, individualism began to evolve and the artist began to realize himself as a creative personality. And though icons representing the same subject are similar, an experienced eye will always be able to discern the creative freedom of talented artists. Along with evangelical texts they turned to illustrating apocrypha, widely disseminated in manuscripts. They were not recognized by the official church but she permitted their use in monumental painting and icons as thematic sources.
A fairly wide range of icon subjects recreate, to some extent, the world outlook of medieval man. For him, religion meant faith and hope, a notion of truth and falsehood virtue and sin. A painted representation was never comprehended simply, but had a symbolic meaning. In medieval man's consciousness, God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Ghost were united in the idea of the Trinity. He believed wholly in the miraculous powers of the icon. Gazing at the icon of the Virgin Mary and Child, a parishioner of those remote years not only felt compassion for the tragic fate of Christ and Mary, he knew of the inevitable violent death of Jesus Christ (His sacrifice for the sins of mankind), and of the predestination granted Him by God the Father. The viewer correlated this knowledge with his own being. There was also an entire pantheon of saints to whom one could appeal for help or consolation.
The Second Advent or the Last Judgment was conceived as a cosmic event, and it seemed to provide a possibility of looking into the future, of collating earthly deeds with God's Judgment. A clear and lucidly constructed composition of the subject depicted the future, served as an ethical criterion and connected man with eternity. The Passion icon was not only a narration concerning dramatic episodes in the life of Christ, it taught endurance and called the believer to sacrifices and reconciliation to suffering.
Though every epoch introduced some nuances into the comprehension of subjects evident from the style, nevertheless the icons always expressed noble morale ideals.

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The Icon Gallery pages are designed by Andrii Borovets --- M.A.K. Ltd., Lviv, Ukraine.
Last modified May 25, 1995