Russians inherited the tradition of icon painting from Byzantium, where it began as an offshoot of the mosaic and fresco tradition. During the 8th and 9th centuries, the iconoclastic controversy in the Orthodox Church called into question whether religious images were a legitimate practice or sacrilegious idolatry. Although the use of images was in the end permitted, a thorough distinction between profane art intended to depict reality and sacred art designed for spiritual contemplation was established. That difference is one of the reasons that the artistic style of icons can seem so invariant. Certain kinds of balance and harmony became established as reflections of divinity, and as such they invited careful reproduction and subtle refinement rather than striking novelty. Although this philosophy resulted in a comparatively slow evolution of style, icon painting evolved considerably over the centuries. Unlike the pictorial traditions of the west that aspire towards increased realism and naturalism, the essence of Russian icon painting is not about the representation of physical space or appearance. Icons are images intended to aid in contemplative prayer, and in that sense, are more concerned with conveying meditative harmony than with laying out a realistic scene. They were not painted to please the eye of the mind, but to inspire reflection and self-examination.
The central panel of the composition represents Christ’s Resurrection and Descent into Hell. The four gospel writers fill the corners while sixteen miniature scenes depicting the subjects of various church festivals border this main panel. These smaller scenes include the Nativity of the Virgin, the Presentation of the Virgin, the Holy Trinity, the Annunciation, the Nativity of Christ, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Old Testament Trinity, the Elevation of the Cross, St. George, the Dormition of the Virgin, the Entry into Jerusalem, and the Presentation of Christ, among others. Together, this spectacular icon represents the central themes of Christianity as conveyed by major church celebrations. Most impressive is how much iconography the painter managed to squeeze into such a limited space. Painted with stunning detail and minute ascents throughout, this icon is a true work of spiritual and artistic beauty.