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-
The legend of St. George and the dragon is one
of the most enduring tales of a saint’s life.
Today, wholly accepted as a non-factual
allegory, the tale speaks of a small town in
modern Libya terrorized by a vicious,
bloodthirsty dragon. The citizens survived by
placating the dragon with sheep; however, the
monster’s appetite increased and soon the
village resorted to sacrificing its own citizenry.
Eventually, it was decided that a virgin princess
had to be fed to the great beast. Fortunately for
the princess, after the town had abandoned her
to this most cruel fate, the hero St. George
arrived on horseback and slew the dragon,
setting the princess free. Modern scholars
regard this legend as a metaphor for the triumph
of the church and Christianity over the evils of
the world and paganism. This icon is a touching
memorial to the patron saint of soldiers. He is
depicted at the moment when he is just to deliver
the final blow. The painter has captured the
collected and calm gaze of the saint as he deliver
the village, hinted at by the architecture in the
background, from evil. As he holds his spear, St.
George gazes up toward the heavens as if this
final blow was guided by the hands of God.