Design Spotlight: Russian Icons

Among the variegated treasures that made Martha Hyder’s home a feast for the eyes, perhaps none is quite as fascinating as her collection of Russian icons. Spanning several centuries and depicting a myriad of holy figures and events, the trove is valuable for its importance in religion and art history alone, as icons remain a major element of Orthodox Christianity’s artistic heritage. (Above: Icon of the Virgin and Child, Interior design by Kirill Istomin, and  Archangel with Scroll Icon.)

For today’s collectors, however, their appeal may be purely aesthetic. Featuring deep colors, strong contrasts, rich patinas, and the intricate metalwork found in their gilt or silvered covers and frames (called riza and basma, respectively), Russian icons captivate with their characteristic symbolic imagery, elongated figures, flattened perspectives, and gold highlights.

As rich in craftsmanship as they are in meaning, these minutely painted and decorated wood panels instantly draw the viewer’s gaze. If the resplendent Icon of the Virgin and Child stands out with its harmonious symmetrical curves and extensive use of gilt and deep reds, the soulful eyes and serious mien of the 17th-century Icon of Saint John the Forerunner mesmerizes just as much with its striking juxtaposition of dark cloak and golden wings. Equally arresting, the embossed metal aura of the early 19th-century Icon of Saint Nicholas the Miracle Worker radiates out from the tempera-painted wood surface and onto the frame itself, a wonderfully dynamic expression of the figure’s power and glory.

While Martha showcased these works alongside many others, a more contemporary aesthetic may call for a grouping or a single piece on a wall. With its jewel- and bead-encrusted silver cover, brightly gilded cloak and auras, and abundant soft curves against a darker backdrop, this more austere Icon of the Virgin and Child would illuminate any room with its understated beauty and strong feeling of serenity and peace.

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