Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Late Icons as Symbols of Holy Russia:

Icons in the Everyday Life of the Russian Royal Family.[See footnote 1]

Yuri Bobrov

Russian realism of the 19th century, represented by the work of famous artists like Repin, Surikov and Vasnetsov, seems to have pushed traditional icon painting to the peripheries of Russian life where it continued to exist only in the spiritual life of the Old Believers. Nevertheless, late icons reflected the new spiritual atmosphere at the turn of the century, most particularly in the social role they came to play in the everyday life of Russian people.

Realism as an art form, as well as, indeed, the realities of life itself, no longer satisfied the tastes of late 19th century Russian society. In many regards, the realistic style that had developed since the early 18th century was felt to be artistically and spiritually inadequate. The abstract paintings of Vassily Kandinsky and Orthodox icons may well stand in polar opposition, but relative to each other, they simultaneously became symbols of the age. The former were directed toward the future, the latter looked back to the past, thus reflecting the eternal duality of the Russian culture.[See footnote 2]

The period at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th brought a feeling of spiritual disappointment and pessimism, which gave rise to the idea of 'Holy Russia'. According to the thinking of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, this idea expresses the hope of a new Christianity and the coming of God's Kingdom on Earth. These notions were based on the so called "Russian idea", according to which there are two Russias: one consisting of visual reality (not satisfying) and the other 'reality' which was conceptualised as 'Holy Russia' or 'Mother Russia' (dreamed of, messianic). The Russian religious philosopher Vassily Rozanov (1856-1919) pointed out that its laws were uncodified, its forms were uncertain and its faith was unbroken.

The beginning of the revival of both the Orthodox faith and icon painting in official and private life can be observed in this period. The idea of 'Holy Russia' was strongly influenced by thoughts of the messianic and charismatic role of Russia. The creation of 'Holy Russia' here on Earth was based on the Slavophil myth which inspired the idealised image of 17th century Russia[See footnote 3] at the time of the first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty. The special role in the meeting of two eras and of the two realms of Heaven and Earth belonged to icons.

The Russian elite discovered the world of sanctity which had been previously unknown to them. Religious mysticism came to be the dominant principle of the period near the end of the 19th century. Perhaps it was most evident in the everyday life of the Russian royal family due to the personality of the last Empress, Alexandra Fyodorovna, who was born the fourth child of Duke Ludwig of Hessen and Alice, the daughter of Queen Victoria. Upon her marriage to Nicholas II in 1894, the German Princess Alice Victoria Helen Luisa Beatrice converted to the Orthodox faith and became a devout believer. She combined German mysticism with the religious traditions of the Romanov family.

Nicholas and Alexandra made pilgrimages to monasteries and prayed daily - not only in the church, but also at home in their palaces, where they were surrounded by icons and religious paintings.

No authentic Romanov interiors have been preserved. However, the most recent historical studies have thrown some light on the atmosphere in which they spent their lives. Nicholas' rooms at the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow were full of icons, just as a merchant's home might typically be adorned with icons in a demonstration of his sympathy for the simple-heartedness of folk religion. That, in turn, was linked with the tradition of the Romanov family. It was also in the accordance with Nicholas' conception of the times of Alexei Michailovich (1645-1676), who was his great ancestor on the Russian throne, and whose reign Nicholas thought of as a 'Golden Age'. There were 130 icons closely hung on the walls of Nicholas' room like tapestry. This collection contained no ancient icons, revered by both scholars and collectors, but only contemporary ones made by expert icon painters such as Osip Chirikov, Vasili Gurianov, Mikhail Dikaryov (fig. 1) and Alexander Cepkov. All were examples of the Mstera style where family workshops produced many thousands of icons firmly rooted in the stylistic traditions of the 17th century.

Fig. 1. Mikhail Dikaryov: The Reverend Saint Nikon. 1900. 31 x 25.3 cm. (signed and dated). State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. (See also no. 54 in this catalogue).

It is now possible to identify a few of the icons from the family's personal collection some of which can been found in the collections of various Russian museums. For example, 'Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker and Saint Queen Alexandra' by the Mstera icon painter Alexander Cepkov (1898, now in the Hermitage, Saint-Petersburg), (fig. 2) 'The Raising of the Holy Cross' and 'Saint Nikon' (fig. 3) - both from the Marble Palace in Saint Petersburg - by Osip Chirikov (now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg) and 'Seraphim of Sarov' by an unknown icon painter (Hermitage, Saint Petersburg).[See footnote 4]

Fig. 2. Alexander Cepkov: Saint Nicholas the Wonder
Worker and Saint Queen Alexandra. 1898.
31.3 x 26.8 cm. (signed and dated).
State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Fig. 3. Osip Chirikov: The Raising of the
Holy Cross. Late 19th - early 20th century.
31.2 x 26.2 cm. (signed). State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.


A few subjects were treated in many variations: mainly the sainted Russian kings Vladimir and Alexander Nevsky, the Moscow Metropolitans Peter and Alexei and the monks Sergei Radonezhski, Cyrill Belozerski, Sabba Storozevski, Seraphim of Sarov and other highly venerated saints. The majority of the walls in the private rooms of Nicholas and Alexandra were dedicated to the images of the Mother of God: Smolenskaya, Iverskaya, Fyodorovskaya, Ierusalimskaya and Vladimirskaya. The royal family, in particular Nicholas and Alexandra, revered the icons as a principle of faith and did not judge their merit on the basis of artistic quality.

According to archival documents, both the style and the iconography of the icons in the Moscow Kremlin apartments had been selected with special attention being paid to symbols associated with 17th century Russia - 'Holy Russia' - and the decoration of the apartments also reflected this historical influence.

The Romanov family spent most of their lives in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, about 20 kilometres from Saint Petersburg. The palace was both the official summer residence of the Russian Court and a welcoming family home. It was designed by Quarenghi during the 1790s for Alexander I, a grandson of Catherine the Great. Nicholas and Alexandra lived there from 1894 until their arrest in the palace rooms in 1917.

Fig. 4. Bedroom of Nicholas and Alexandra in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Photograph, 1931, Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

When we examine what remains of their apartments we get a clear sense of the atmosphere of their lives and the important role which icons played in it. Alexandra always hoped for evidence of a miracle (fig. 4). She surrounded herself with objects and portents of divine revelation. A devout believer in Orthodoxy she was desperate for a sign of the favour granted to her family by God. In a letter to her husband she wrote that he ought 'to follow the advice of our friend (Rasputin) because a country which is ruled by a man of God will never be lost'. She cherished the charismatic destiny of Nicholas, who would overcome evil and establish 'Holy Russia' in reality.

Fig. 5. Bedroom of Nicholas and Alexandra in the Alexander Palace. Modern reconstruction.

Their bedroom was full of icons representing new Russian saints who had been canonised during the reign of her husband Nicholas. Those years constituted the second wave (the 17th century being the first) of canonisation that was intended to strengthen Russian piety (fig. 5).

In the bedroom it is known that there were more then 600 icons hanging on the wall above the two beds. It resembled a small chapel and every night Nicholas and Alexandra retired to this spiritual atmosphere where they prayed to God to save Russia. As there was no space for some of the icons, many were kept in special cases. A few of them were quite old. One, which had been made a few years previously from the Mamre Oak, was probably a souvenir from the Holy Land. Another, representing Christ had an inscription stating that the icon had been found miraculously near an Oak tree in the grounds of Alexander Palace on June 17th 1905.

Also in the Imperial home were specially chosen icons, commissioned by the family and representing new saints who had been canonised against the views of the Orthodox Synod, but according to the instructions of the Empress. There were icons of Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833, canonised in 1903), Saint Joasaph of Belgorod (1705-1754, canonised in 1911) (fig. 6), Saint Anna of Kashin (1278-1338, canonised in 1909), Saint Theodosi of Chernigov (d. 1696, canonised in 1896) and even Saint John of Tobolsk (d. 1716, canonised in 1916). Their images bore witness to the belief that piety and miracles existed not only in history but could also occur in the present day - that 'Holy Russia' was an actual reality.

Fig. 6. K. Emelianov: Joasaph of Belgorod. 1911, 31 x 26.6. (signed and dated ). Silver revetment by I.P. Hlebnikov. State Hermitage, St. Petersburg (from Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo).

In the inventory books of the Alexander Palace is an extensive list of the icons hanging in private rooms: the Resurrection of Christ surrounded by twelve Great Feasts, several icons of Saint Alexander Nevsky and Saint Andrew of Crete signed by N. Tronin and with a dedication which reads to 'the memory of the miraculous rescue in 17 October 1888'.[See footnote 5] Also mentioned are icons of Christ painted by I. Morozov, the so called "Malorechensky Saviour" and several icons of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. One of the more remarkable icons was the coronation icon depicting Saint Nicholas (Nicholas I), Saint George (brother), Maria Magdalena (mother Maria Fyodorovna), Saint Olga (sister) and Alexander (Alexander III).[See footnote 6]

According to the 17th century pre-schism tradition, icons covered the walls like tapestry and this practice was continued by the Old Believers. In addition to the icons, crosses, portable iconostases, medallions and Fabergé Easter eggs, the Empress Alexandra also kept "holy" items like wooden spoons from monastic pilgrimages, dried flowers and even dried fish. Everything had a sacred meaning. Almost every day the palaces, where the family had stayed, were visited by holy women, 'God's fools' and 'Wonder Workers', as had been the tradition at the Moscow Kremlin palaces in the 'good old times' of 'Holy Russia'.

The family lived in surroundings which reflected various religious influences. Their rooms were a sort of stylistic crossroad where Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox images met, bringing to life a mixture of 'arte sacra' and icon painting (figs. 7, 8).

Fig. 7 A. Yar-Kravchenko: Bedroom of Alexei in Alexander Palace. 1931, watercolour. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

Fig. 8. Yuri Neprincev: Bedroom of younger Grand Princesses in Alexander Palace. 1931, watercolour. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

The drawing room in Alexandra's half of the palace was decorated with sentimental religious paintings of Russian and European artists. In her memoirs, Anna Vyrubova wrote of the strong impression a picture by the Italian artist Popiono, entitled 'The Night dream of the Virgin', made on her 'I was looking at the sleeping Virgin surrounded by angels, listening to the stories told by my Empress and my friend has opened her soul to me'. There were also two paintings depicting the Annunciation. This subject was of personal importance to Alexandra, who was desperate to conceive a son. One was painted by the famous Russian artist Michael Nesterov and the other by P. Hekker.

Another building that was much loved by Nicholas and Alexandra was the Fyodorovsky Cathedral. Built between 1909 and 1914 after the design by V. Pokrovsky and V. Pomerantcev and under the supervision of Nicholas II, its stylised forms expressed the architectural image of 'Holy Russia' (fig. 9).[See footnote 7] The church

Fig. 9. L. Syrnev: Fyodorovsky Cathedral. Interior of the Main Church. 1913, oil on canvas. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

Fig. 10. The Mother of God Fyodorovskaya. 1910, egg tempera on wood. Fyodorovsky Cathedral, Tsarskoe Selo.

was dedicated to the icon of the Mother of God Fyodorovskaya, which was first recorded in 1164. The first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty, Michael Romanov, was crowned before this icon in 1613 at the Ipatiev monastery in Kostroma. Nicholas II ordered a copy of this miracle working icon to be made especially for the new cathedral in 1910 (fig. 10). The cathedral contains two churches: the upper church and the catacomb church in the basement, dedicated to Saint Seraphim of Sarov. The main iconostasis was painted by Nicholas Emelianov and Mikhail Dikaryov in the 17th century icon painting style. The catacomb church was a particular favourite of the royal couple. The Fyodorovskaya icon was originally on show there and it has recently been re-installed. There is a small private chapel for Alexandra Fyodorovna. The catacomb church was designed by architect V. Maximov and decorated with icons painted by Vasili Gurianov. Downstairs was a small, private chapel solely for the use of the royal family (fig. 11). They visited the chapel every day and the Empress spent many hours there. Each member of the family had a personal chair, decorated with carved monograms. Here surrounded by icons they felt themselves transported 300 years back to the age of 'Holy Russia' and could reconnect with the pure and simple faith of early Christians. The cathedral was closed in 1928 and some of the icons were taken to the Russian museum in Saint Petersburg, thus preserving what would otherwise have been lost.

Fig. 11. L. Syrnev: Chapel of Alexandra Fyodorovna in the catacomb church of the Fyodorovsky Cathedral. 1914, oil on canvas. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

Icons which were created for everyday family devotion were simple in style and often produced by artists of limited ability, nevertheless they were revered as pious objects rather than judged on their artistic merits. As one might imagine luxurious Fabergé or Ovchinnikov icons were usually ordered only for special events and as gifts. There can be no doubt that the major portion of icons for home use were mass-produced wares of the sort made in Mstera, Palekh or in other lesser known workshops. The fact that some of them were donated to the royal family gave them special value. For example, in the bedroom of the heir Alexei was the icon 'Saint Vera, Nadezhda, Lubov and their Mother Sophia' (Saints Faith, Hope, Love and Their Mother Sophia) given in 1904 to Alexei by Nadezda Shestakova, a peasant woman from a far Northern village (fig. 12).[See footnote 8]> 'Faith, Hope, Love - are all that have any meaning' - was a favourite saying of the Empress, as we read in the memoirs of her friend Lili Dehn.[See footnote 9] Only some of the icons collected by the royal family were painted by famous icon painters like Chirikov, Gurianov, Dikaryov or Briagin who had been made Official Supplier to the Imperial Court. The creation of this position was again a reference to the times of early Romanovs, when icon painters from the Armory Chamber were granted a special privilege to decorate court churches and palace apartments.

Fig. 12. Saint Vera, Nadezhda, Lubov and their Mother Sophia. 1904, oil on wood. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

From all this we may conclude that so-called late icons (19th to early 20th century) were not merely mass-produced items designed to meet the religious needs of simple people, but served also as a symbol of the mystical unity of 'Holy Russia', linking the beliefs and traditions of the first Romanovs with the religious piety of the last Romanovs.


This paper could not be made without help and information provided by the Head Curator of the Tsarskoe Selo museum Larisa Bardovsky and kind revision of my English text by Richard Temple and Jo Elford.

List of illustrations.

(photographer Stanislav Lutfirakhmanov)

  1. St. Reverend Nikon. 1900. 31 x 25.3. Icon painter Michael Dikarev (signed and dated). State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

  2. St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker and St. Queen Alexandra. 1898. 31.3 x 26.8. Icon painter A. Cepkov (signed and dated). State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

  3. The Raising of Holy Cross. Late 19th -early 20th century, 31.2 x 26.2. Icon painter Osip Chirikov (signed). State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

  4. Bedroom of Nicholas and Alexandra in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Photograph, 1931. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

  5. Bedroom of Nicholas and Alexandra in the Alexander Palace. Modern reconstruction.

  6. Icon painter K. Emelianov (signed and dated). Joasaph of Belgorod. 1911. 31 x 26.6. Silver revetment by I.P. Hlebnikov. State Hermitage, St. Petersburg ( from Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo).

  7. A. Yar-Kravchenko. Bedroom of Alexei in Alexander Palace. 1931, watercolor. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

  8. Yuri Neprincev. Bedroom of younger Grand Princesses in Alexander Palace. 1931, watercolor. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

  9. L. Syrnev. Fyodorovsky Cathedral. Interior of the main church. 1913, oil on canvas. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

  10. The Mother of God Fyodorovskaya. 1910, egg tempera on wood. Fyodorovsky Cathedral, Tsarskoe Selo.

  11. L. Syrnev. Chapel of Alexandra Fyodorovna in the catacomb church of the Fyodorovsky Cathedral. 1914, oil on canvas. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

  12. Vera, Nadezda, Lubov and their Mother Sophia. 1904, oil on wood. Tsarskoye Selo Museum.

Icon painters mentioned in the text.

Gurianov (Гурьянов Василий Павлович), Vasili Pavlovich, 1866-1920

Icon painter and restorer, owner of an icon workshop in Moscow, privileged as Official Supplier of the Imperial Court. Gurianov restored the famous icon of the Trinty by Andrei Rublyov in 1905.

Dikaryov (Дикарев Михаил Иванович), Mikhail Ivanovich, 1870 - beginning of 20th century

Born in village Mstera, icon painter and restorer, owner of an icon workshop in Moscow.

Cepkov (Цепков Александр Игнатьевич), Alexander Ignatievich, late 19th - early 20th century

Icon painter and restorer in Mstera, active in Moscow.

Cepkov Pavel(?) Ivanovich (Цепков Павел Иванович), 1860 -?

Owner of an icon painting workshop in Mstera.

Chirikov (Чириков Осип[Иосиф] Семенович), Osip [Joseph) Semenovich, d. 1903

Icon painter and restorer in Mstera, owner of an icon painting workshop in Moscow, privileged as Official Supplier of the Imperial Court,

Father of Michael Chirikov (d. 1917) and Grigori Chirikov (1882-1936).

Chirikov Michael Osipovich, icon restorer and historian

Chirikov Grigori Osipovich, icon restorer, head restorer of the State Committee on preservation and restoration of paintings and Central State Restoration Workshop (1918-1931).

1 Revised version of the first publication: Yuri Bobrov. Late Icons as Symbols of Holy Russia: Icons in the Everyday Life of the Russian Royal Family, Icon Conservation in Europe, Frankfurt am Main, 24-28 February 1999. The Valamo Art Conservation Institute. 1999

2 V. Bychkov. Russkaya Srednevekovaya Estetika XI-XVII veka. (Medieval Russian Aesthetics in the XI-XVII century) Moskva: Mysl, 1992.

3 O. Tarasov. Ikona I blagochestie. Ocherki ikonnogo dela v imperatorskoy Rossii (Icons and Piety. Essays on Icon Painting in Imperial Russia). Moskva: Progress-Kultura-Traditsia, 1995.

4 Nikolai i Alexandra. Dvor poslednih russkih imperatorov. Konetc XIX - nachalo XX veka. (Nicholas and Alexandra. Court of the Last Russian Emperors. End of XIX - beginning XX century). Sankt-Peterburg: Slavia-Interbuk.1994, cat. 43 - 45, 47.

5 On October 17th, 1888 there was an accident with the Tsar Alexander III train at the Borki station, when Alexander III himself lifted up a train car and saved his family.

6 Inventory books of the Alexander Palace. 1938, Tsarskoye Selo Museum, St. Petersburg.

7 L. Bardovskaya, G. Khodosevitch. Fyodorovskij Gosudarev Sobor. (Fyodorovsky Royal Cathedral). Sankt-Petersburg: Izdatelstvo Zimina, 2002.

8 Now in Tsarskoye Selo museum. L. Bardovskaya. Tsarskoye Selo. Letnyaya Imperatorskaya Rezidentcia (Tsarskoye Selo. Summer Imperial Residence). Alifa-Color: St. Petersburg, 2005, p. 195.

9 Dehn Lili. The Real Tsaritsa. Boston: Little, Brown, 1922. Russian edition: Julia Den. Podlinnaya tsatitsa. Sankt-Peterburg: Tsarskoye Delo, 1999, p.56.