Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that the first icon was a depiction of the Virgin Mary painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. However, true production of icons actually began in the 6th century. Unlike Roman Catholic religious paintings, Russian icons were not intended as sumptuous decoration for churches and the homes of the devout. Instead, each icon was regarded as a prayer in tangible form, and was revered as a holy and sacred object.
By the 7th century, we see a highly developed system of church decoration (especially in the Eastern Church) with a hierarchy where the all-powerful Christ (Christ Pantocrator) was physically given the highest point in the church – usually the dome, if there was one. The Virgin Mary (as the Theotokos literally meaning “God bearer” or Hodegetria, translating as pointing the way to Christ) was assigned the second highest space – the apse or space behind the altar. Similarly, the angels and saints were placed in proper descending order down the walls terminating at the eye level of the worshipers. This descending hierarchy connected the ordinary Christian with heaven in a visible and tangible way.
In Russian homes, the red corner, or the corner of beauty, was reserved for the display of the family’s icons. That corner was always located in the inner right corner of the room. The home of every faithful Russian Orthodox Christian featured such a corner, with the result that the creation and display of icons ranged from the humble to the lavish depending on the socio-economic status of the household. However, the sanctity of the Russian icons never changed. Their primary purpose was to keep the spirit of the Orthodox faith alive and renewed daily in the hearts of the owners and the observers.
At the end of the 16th century, it became a Muscovite fashion to place an embossed or chased metal cover or riza over the icon, leaving only such primary elements as the face, hands and feet of a figure exposed. Such covers protected the holy image from dust, candle and votive lamp soot, and the touches and kisses of the faithful. The metal rizi were crafted of gilt and silvered brass, sterling silver, and occasionally of gold. The most elaborate rizi were set with genuine or paste gems to enhance the heavenly, other-worldly effect, of the underlying icon. As time passed, it became a later tradition to place the riza-covered icons in beautiful shadowbox-like frames called kiots, crafted of finely carved and parcel-gilt wood with a protective glass panel or glazed door.
Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery is pleased to be offering an esteemed private collection of Russian icons (most dating back to the 19th century), religious art, and liturgical items in our three-day Winter Auction to be held February 8, 9 and 10, 2019.
Many of the icons and liturgical items offered for bidding were exhibited in the late 1990s at the New Orleans Museum of Art and, more recently, at the Bible Museum in Monroe Louisiana.