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Icons and iconostasis

St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea (330 - 379), asserted that “That which the word conveys through hearing, the painting shows in silence, through representation,” while Gregory the Dialogue (540 - 604) was convinced that “what is the book to the ones who can read, is the icon to those who cannot”.

The iconostasis, in its turn, is structured on five superposed registers. They are valuable works of art, these wooden carvings covered in golden and coloured stucco, thus being directly linked to the techniques of the icons. They comprise necessarily at leats forty one icons, starting with the largest ones (100 and 80 cm) - the kingly icons - placed in the lower register, representing Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, next to the patron of the church. On the register just above it, the twelve main holy days are represented according to their order in the religious calendar. The third register shows the twelve Apostles on either side of the Deisis, while on the fourth register are the portraits of the messiahnic prophets. The cross with the crucified Saviour, framed by the two arms, representing the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, crown the monumental screen of the temple which is, in the old Romanian churches, one of the most valuable ensembles of sculpture and painting. All these icons, showing biblical figures and scenes, saints and hierarchs, are wonderfully achieved with the most diverse materials and in the most varied techniques: on wood, metal, bone, ivory, cloth and parchment stands; painted in encaustic technique, in tempera or in oil; engraved, hammered, or embroidered; bound in precious metals; filigreed and set in multicoloured enamels and precious stones. The historian Nicolae Iorga remarked that in the Romanian icons, “the figures [are] rounder, healthier, merrier, with nothing of the majestic dry archaism of the older tradition of icon painting.

The hieratism is left aside in favour of more humanistic shapes. And in so far as the colour is concerned, the bright gold, the old dominant red, are replaced with duller, more delicate colours, the hues of soft silver.” Having creatively assimilated the Byzantine and the Western spirit, the Romanic, Gothic, and Renaissance ideas, and having turned these foreign influences into a new original synthesis, the Romanian schools of icons had, in their turn, an impact on the art of other peoples. At the same time, Stephen the Great kept at his court some of the Italian and Greek painters on their way to Russia. Yet, in spite of the existence, since Stephen the Great’s time, of a well-established school of icon painters at Putna, only a few valuable icons have been kept here to this day. One reason could be the fire that destroyed the monastery soon after the dedication of the church in 1484. Thus, only 2 icons may be attributed to Stephen the Great’s epoch: one is the triptych Deisis, which is exhibited in the collection of the monastery, and the other is “The Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus” in the church iconostasis.

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