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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Painting Saintly Icons on a Wing and a Prayer

It has been just five years, but already the work of St. Tikhon's art students is much in demand, be it icons, frescoes, mosaics or embroideries.


"Our department's job is to train artists to revive the best traditions of Byzantine and Old Russian art within the framework of the church," said Archpriest Alexander Saltykov, dean of the department of church arts at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Institute.


According to Saltykov, a prominent iconologist and church historian, before the 1917 Revolution there were small icon-painting workshops where boys were sent to learn from a master. But in Soviet times, "there was nothing of the kind." Those few who secretly painted icons risked arrest and exile for spreading religious propaganda as did the restorers and female believers who quietly made embroideries for their parish churches thus keeping intact what Saltykov called the "the thin thread."


So, when the institute opened in 1991 near metro Paveletskaya, there was a paucity of professionals to draw on. Luckily, St. Tikhon's got some of the best. Two renowned restorers, Irina Vatagina and Adolf Ovchinnikov, were among the first teachers of icon painting in a department that now boasts some 200 students and 50 teachers. Other prominent early faculty members included mosaics teacher Alexander Kornoukhov, a member of the Ravenna Academy of Mosaicists, and Irina Kornienko, one of the first people to revive, in the early 1980s, the mosaics technique of the 10th-century Kiev cathedrals.


Aside from their expertise in different fields of church art, the faculty members are united by their belief in Russian Orthodoxy. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, dozens of icon-painting schools have sprung up in Russia, but St. Tikhon's is unique because it is the only place where future church artists, architects, iconologists and restorers are required also to study theology and art.


The Russian Orthodox Church deems this important because ecclesiastical art is based on strict religious canons. To merely understand an icon, much less to paint one, a deep knowledge of the subject is required.


Saltykov stressed that the church arts faculty teaches only "the traditional, canonical art," with "no modernism, no strange interpretations." Only believers are admitted to this faculty, as is the case with the five other faculties of St. Tikhon's: theological-pastoral, catechetical, pedagogical, historical-philological and church singing. According to the students, very few of them come from families with religious traditions, and most turned to religion on their own, now viewing art and church as equally necessary.


Within the faculty, the most popular specialty is icon painting, with the number of applicants for this fall's class outnumbering vacancies by 5-to-1.


Taking a pause during class, first-year student Nastya Savchuk, 23, said, "Nothing is higher than icon painting. An icon features not a man but God, or people who attained sanctity and abide in eternity."


Savchuk came from Kiev to study because, she explained, the traditions of icon painting are still preserved only in Russia. The institute has no dormitory, and Savchuk lives with the family of another female student.


In the same class, Nastya Varnavskaya, 24, a first-year student who formerly worked as a graphic artist, said, "The rules of icon painting do not hinder an artist to create, as the notes do not hinder a composer to compose music."


Not much older than the students is their teacher, 28-year-old Maria Glebova, who has just painted, by order of church authorities, an icon of the 16th-century martyr Nikifor for his expected canonization. A deputy of the Constantinople patriarch, Nikifor defended Orthodoxy against Polish Roman Catholics and died from hunger in a Polish prison. Glebova's icon, in all its details, seems an authentic work of a medieval Russian icon painter -- and it is staggeringly powerful and graceful.


Glebova came to icon painting only after getting a higher education in the arts and having her watercolors and sculptures repeatedly exhibited. Last year, she graduated from the renowned icon-painting school in Sergiev-Posad. Explaining why she completely abandoned secular arts, Glebova said, "I tried to find some purest, most spiritual art forms. When I come to faith, I felt that I could express myself only in icon."


In the present Russian situation, however, even the generally hailed revival of church arts may run into unexpected difficulties. Copying old Russian icons is a necessary part of the academic program. But the Andrei Rublyov Museum does not permit students to copy its exhibits. And the Tretyakov Gallery made a decision in September to charge 50,000 rubles ($9.17) per day of copying.


At St. Tikhon's, where tuition is free, administrators cannot afford these fees. With 1,000 full-time students, another 500 part-time students and some 200 teachers, St. Tikhon's has to keep within a monthly budget amounting to only 100 million rubles, said the assistant to the rector.


Among some 10 higher religious educational establishments now in Russia, there are only two with a state license, including St. Tikhon's, which was founded by the Moscow Patriarchy. But it does not get financial support from the patriarchy, nor from the state. Its only permanent donor is a shop of religious literature, jointly owned by several parishes.


The students cannot pay, either. They have no stipends. They give their works to their parishes for free, even though a top quality imitation of a church treasure can now fetch up to several thousand dollars.


And, with classes at the institute's workshops in the daytime and lectures in different parts of the city in the evening -- as the institute has no auditoriums of its own and rents them wherever possible -- the students have very few opportunities to earn anything.


So, "now we make copies only from reproductions," Glebova said bitterly.