Medieval Russian Art
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Medieval Russian Art

painting of old man
(Russian) Icon of Saint Nicolas,
13th - early 14th century,
tempera on wood.

Our knowledge of Russian art begins with the Scythians and other Central Asian art. But what most people think of as Russian art begins when the Russians convert to Christianity around 400 AD. At this time Russian artists begin painting in a more Roman style (that is, the Roman style of about 400 AD). A lot of what they paint is religious pictures called icons. Icons are mostly pictures of saints, or of Jesus or Mary. They are usually painted on wood.
People thought these pictures had religious power. If you touched a picture of the saint, he or she could make you better from a sickness, or curse your enemies. Because these pictures were so important and powerful, people sometimes decorated them with jewels and gold.

Many people thought it was wrong to believe that paintings had magic powers like this, and many of them thought it was wrong to make any kind of paintings at all - we call this iconoclasm.

Russian artists continued to paint in a Byzantine (Roman) style for almost a thousand years until the Mongols invaded Russia in the 1200s AD. The war kept the Russians from talking to the Byzantine artists, so they developed their own independent style at this time.

Learn by Doing - Painting an Icon
More about Byzantine art

Bibliography and further reading about Russian art:

Gothic art
More Medieval art
More Central Asia
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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