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 or the mind, but to inspire reflection and self-examination.
St. George is traditionally one of the most popular saints. Celebrated for his fighting prowess, he is best known for his most courageous act: slaying a vicious dragon. The legend speaks of a kingdom in modern Libya besieged by a flesh-eating dragon. Although human offerings appeased its hunger, eventually his appetite grew so great that the king prepared to sacrifice his own daughter. Fortunately, St. George came to her rescue and valiantly slew the dragon. Today this legend is interpreted as an allegory of the churches triumph over pagan traditions. This icon depicts the heroic warrior saint battling against a mere mortal enemy. St. George has again clearly triumphed over his adversary who has fallen over on his side. An angel appears in the background above two figures holding an icon of Christ revealing his saintly nature.