Back to article index


The principle authority on Russian icons at the time was Nikodim Kondakov, who was very centrally involved in the process of restoration. According to Andrew Louth (op.cit., p.33), Julia Reitlinger studied under him while she was in Prague, before coming to Paris in 1925, the year Kondakov died. His book The Russian Icon (11) was published posthumously. It was based on the massive collection in The Russian Museum, formerly the Alexander III Museum, a collection largely put together by Kondakov and his associate, the collector, Nikolai Likhachev. In his Introduction, Kondakov says of the collection: 'Now that they have been cleaned, the decorative beauty of the big icons in the Russian Museum is so attractive that the neighbouring galleries with their general effect of grey colours, look pale and depressing. Formerly the walls of this museum and the great screen of the Uspenski (Assumption) Cathedral at Moscow had nothing to offer but what Bunin (12) calls "icons, black panels, poor symbols of God's might"' (pp.6-7).

(11) Nikodim Pavlovich Kondakov: The Russian Icon translated by Ellis Minns, Oxford University Press, 1927. Minns' shortened version in English translation appeared before the whole 4 volume Russian text.

(12) Ivan Bunin, 1870-1953, novelist and poet, close friend of Maxim Gorky prior to 1917 but fierce opponent of the Revolution: 'A bastard, a moral idiot from the birth, Lenin presented to the World at the height of his activities something monstrous, staggering, he discorded the largest country of the Earth and killed millions of people, and in the broad day-light it is being disputed: was he a benefactor of the mankind or not?' (Manifesto of the Russian Emigration 1924, quoted in Wikipedia account)

But Kondakov also argues that with the revelation of the real nature of the Russian icon it was now possible to trace its history which he sees as largely a matter of external influences. The Russian painting kept to tradition 'because it was satisfied with being a craft, but it adopted one tradition after another, following each new pattern.' The succession of borrowings was Greek, Greek-Oriental, Greek Italian, Neo-Greek. It is in other words a derivative art and it follows broadly a Western development. 'We shall see that though ancient Russia was divided from western Europe by the great gulf which looks insuperable to the eye of the political historian from the time of the Mongol invasion, we can observe in Russian icon painting essentially the same movement as that which was going on in the West.'

From the early fourteenth century 'instead of the Byzantine dogma we have religious life, man drawing nearer to God.' By the sixteenth century 'severe and correct drawing' (meaning presumably naturalistic drawing - PB) corresponds to 'the full Renaissance in Italy.' The Italian and Greek influence was 'just the path which was wanted to lead is through its terra incognita.' (p.8).

I've quoted this at some length because it may help to explain something I have found a little puzzling, which is why Julia Reitlinger, wanting to be an icon painter, should have turned to Maurice Denis' very Catholic Atelier d'Art Sacré. My puzzlement may have been due to a preconception on my part (widely shared) - an assumption that the Russian icon should be defined in opposition to Western religious art, a positive taste for 'Byzantine dogma' rather than what Kondakov calls 'religious life' - presumably the external appearance of people experiencing pious feelings. But if Reitlinger, who would have been in her early twenties when she knew Kondakov, had absorbed his ideas then it would have been very natural for her to go to the most prominent French specialist in religious art, both with regards to theory and practise, and of course an engagement with French intellectual ife was very much part of the ethos of the Institut Saint-Serge.

There were alternatives. The church of the Institute was decorated by Dimitry Stelletsky (13), a painter who had arrived in Paris in 1914, with an already established reputation as a church decorator, and as a leading figure in the 'Neo-Russian' school of painting. He painted the church of the Institut Saint Serge.


Two views of the Institut

Dmitri Stelletsky: The Feast of Orthodoxy, nd

(13) Yazykova: Hidden and Triumphant, p.69. See also Nicola Kozicharow: 'Stelletsky's murals at Saint-Serge: Orthodoxy and the Neo-Russian style in Emigration' in Louise Hardiman and Nicola Kozicharow (eds.): Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art: New Perspectives, Open Book Publishers, 2017 (, pp.195-212.

And there was Natalia Goncharova, living in Paris and working with Diaghilev, a distinguished member of the Russian avant-garde, herself deeply influenced by the icon as she understood it.

Natalia Goncharova: Virgin and child, 1911

Natalia Goncharova: Set design for Liturgy, an unrealised project for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes based on the Orthodox liturgy and the life of Christ. Stelletsky had been approached for the project but declined and recommended Goncharova.

I think though we can see in Stelletsky and Goncharova something of what Reitlinger didn't want. She didn't want to paint in what we might call a Russian folksy style. She wanted to paint icons, to engage with a divine reality, not Russian quaintness.