Russian Art & Architecture
From icons and onion domes to suprematism and the Stalin baroque, Russian art and architecture seems to many visitors to Russia to be a rather baffling array of exotic forms and alien sensibilities. Without any sense of the rich tradition of Russian culture, an appreciation of the country's enormous artistic wealth becomes a game of historical anecdote--"the church where so-and-so took refuge from what's-his-name"--or a meaningless collection of aesthetic baubles--"I like the blue domes the best." In fact, Russian art and architecture are not nearly so difficult to understand as many people think, and knowing even a little bit about why they look the way they do and what they mean brings to life the culture and personality of the entire country.
The tradition of icon painting was inherited by the Russians from Byzantium, where it began as an offshoot of the mosaic and fresco tradition of early Byzantine churches.
During the 8th and 9th centuries, the iconoclasm controversy in the Orthodox church called into question whether religious images were a legitimate practice or sacrilegious idolatry. Although the use of images wasn't banned, it did prompt a thorough appreciation of the difference between art intended to depict reality and art designed for spiritual contemplation. That difference is one of the reasons that the artistic style of icons can seem so invariant. Certain kinds of balance and harmony became established as reflections of divinity, and as such they invited careful reproduction and subtle refinement rather than striking novelty. Although this philosophy resulted in a comparatively slow evolution of style, icon painting evolved considerably over the centuries. During the 14th century in particular, icon painting in Russia took on a much greater degree of subjectivity and personal expression. The most notable figure in this change was Andrey...