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Russian Icon Workshop Feature: Kovcheg Icon Painting Workshop

Russian Icon Workshop Feature

Kovcheg Icon-Painting Workshop

Visited on the Tour of Russian Icons

On the Tour of Russian Icons we will an ancient center of icon painting: Yaroslavl. As a city of central Russia, Yaroslavl was an important center of cultural and spiritual development in early Russia situated on the Volga. Among the many places the tour will visit in Yaroslavl, we will stop at the Kovcheg Icon Painting Artel (Russian for workshop). We will meet the husband and wife team of Anton and Julia Belov, and have the exciting opportunity to discuss the work of the artists of this studio. They will discuss with us their techniques and work on icon painting in the Yaroslavl school tradition.

The Kovcheg Icon Painting Artel was established in 1995 in Yaroslavl, Russia. The goal of the workshop is the revival and development of Russian Orthodox icon painting. Some of Yaroslavl&##39;s most skilled contemporary painters -- Anton Belov, Julia Belova, Eugenia Rizhova, Stas Toropov along with other icon painters -- united to establish Kovcheg to revive the traditions of the Yaroslavl icon school. Anton and Julia Belov are the leaders of the workshop.

Kovcheg Workshop artists
Artists of the Kovcheg Icon-Painting Wrokshop. Seated from left to right is Julia Belova, Eugenia Rizhova, Stas Toropov and Anton Belov.

The Kovcheg Artel is among the artistic workshops of the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Their icons were exhibited in the Kremlin Museum in Moscow, at exhibitions in the Bolshoi Theatre, "The Days of Russian Culture" in Germany, and other exhibitions in France and Italy. Collectively, they have produced more than a thousand icons. Among their most significant works is the icon Seventy Apostles presented in honor of the seventeenth anniversary of the Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russia, Alexy II.

Recently the icon painters of the artel completed the icon St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia with scenes from his life. (It may be noted that between the years 1898 and 1907, Saint Tikhon was the bishop of Alaska and America.) The icon was a gift of His Holiness Alexy II, the Patriarch of Moscow and of All Russia to the city of Arkhangelsk.

Kovcheg Icon-Painting Workshop

By N. Mukhina

In 1994, Anton and Julia Belov, graduates of the Yaroslavl Art School, members of the Artists Union and Icon-Painters Union of Russia, founded the icon-painting workshop "Kovcheg" in Yaroslavl, Russia. It was their native ancient merchant town on the Volga, home to thousands of frescoes and icons, domes and belfries of numerous churches, and exquisite designs of precious stones and metals in works of applied art that became the inspiration for the young artists.

The churches and museums of the Yaroslavl are the inexhaustible source of heritage of Russian art for them. Yaroslavl icons of the 17th?8th centuries became their actual school for gaining insight into the skills of old masters. Learning from restoration experts the skills of gilding, applying chalk grounds (Russian levkas) and varnish (Russian olipha), the artists made copies of museum icons and studied the peculiarities of various schools of icon painting. From the very beginning, they were fascinated by the delicate minute details and the complex compositions of the icons at the Moscow Armory Museum with their symbolism, allegories and everyday details, the works of artists from Yaroslavl, Palekh and Mstiora.

Anton and Julia understood very well that to follow Yaroslavl icon-painting traditions they could do so without specialization and division of labor. To create an icon one needs to employ the art of different kinds of artists: the znamenshik works out the general composition, the dolichnik paints the intricate pictorial scenery, architectural forms and other details, while the lichnik masters the faces. Thus, the Belovs revived the traditional co-operative approach to work of the ancient Russian icon-painters. Today, after ten years of selection, teaching and managing, there are about two dozen icon painters at "Kovcheg." The lead artists, S. Toropov, E. Ryzhova, Y. Chizhova, S. Kulikova, E. Varganova, E. Obodova and A. Mukhanov, are divided into dolichniks and lichniks. Despite the division of labor, "Kovcheg" is the kind of workshop where the authority of its leaders, in this case Anton and Julia, is the determining factor; they have the final word in all matters. They dictate the style, the program, and the nature of the work, bringing to light the individual traits of each artist.

The professional level of icon painting at "Kovcheg" attracted the attention of Moscow specialists from the very beginning. In 1999, the artists made the icon "The Council of Seventy Apostles" for the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexy II. Afterwards, "Kovcheg" was included into the association of the Patriarch&##39;s Workshops. It gave them the opportunity to receive commissions from the Patriarchy, participate in exhibitions of modern Orthodox art, and become acquainted with and learn from the experience of icon-painters in Moscow.

An important milestone for "Kovcheg" was the creation of such works as "The Council of Newly-Canonized Saints of the Russian Orthodox Church" and "Saint Patriarch Tikhon with Scenes of His Life" in 2000?001.

Prior to creating these icons, the artists had to do exceedingly thorough research work in order to collect the necessary historic documents. In 2000, with the blessing from the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexy II, the artists of "Kovcheg" started working on the huge (200§ç100 cm) icon. After the completion in 2001, it was consecrated by the Patriarch in the Donskoy Monastery and presented to the Archangelsk eparchy.

From the history of icon painting, we know that two types of icons with scenes of the life of saints originated in Yaroslavl in the 17th century. One of them shows episodes of a saint&##39;s life as border scenes on the margins. This traditional approach was used while painting the icon of Saint Patriarch Tikhon. A half-length portrait of the Patriarch was placed in the center of the icon, while twenty border scenes illustrated the main events of his life, from his birth to the moment his holy relics were obtained by the Donskoy Monastery. The icon of "Saint Dmitry Prilutsky" from the collection of the Yaroslavl Art Gallery was taken as a model, which is evident from compositional similarities of certain border scenes, position of text on the margins, and the way some elements of the architectural ensemble are depicted.

In 2003, the Belovs received another commission from the Patriarch&##39;s Workshops. The icon of "Our Savior," which is presently hanging above the Patriarch&##39;s throne in the reception hall of Saint Daniel&##39;s Monastery, has been done in accordance with the best icon-painting traditions of artists of the Moscow Armory Museum and the Yaroslavl school of the 17th century. At the same time, this icon is a fine example of the high-quality religious painting of the 21st century.

In 2004, a full-length Deisis tier (180 §ç 72 cm, 160 §ç 56 cm) was made to hang on the opposite wall with fine colors and delicate tracery of gold lines assisting in the visualization of the material shapes.

Cooperation with a prominent collector of ancient Russian art, V. P. Bondarenko, which began in 1995 and has been going on ever since, gave the Belovs a opportunity to prove their great proficiency at restoration and sensitivity of the distinctiveness of ancient Russian painting. This is clearly seen from both the restored 17th century Yaroslavl icon of "Land of Our Fathers" (collection of V. P. Bondarenko), and the wonderful copy of an icon with a very rare iconographic subject, "Savior Over the Kremlin" (2003).

It is in the process of restoration that artists completely absorb the canons of icon painting, while this knowledge of ancient Russian classics helps them to avoid direct archaeological copying of superficial tricks while creating &##39;new&##39; icons. The best works of "Kovcheg" follow ancient Russian painting traditions that sprout from within the soul. While keeping within the ancient set of rules, the old canons set deep within the artist&##39;s heart help him to give a unique modern sense to every new image. Being artists of the 21st century who know the history of art very well, they seek new compositions and coloring approaches; make use of delicate nuances of light and shape, still keeping within the limits of the Orthodox theology.

Another project initiated by the administration of the Yaroslavl region and supervised by experts from the Yaroslavl Art Museum, was the icon of "Our Lady of the Tolga" with border scenes for the chapel in the cedar wood of the Tolga Convent. It required possession of not only the skill of copying, but also the art of composition and painting. According to the iconography worked out by the curator of ancient Russian art of the Yaroslavl Art Museum, keeper of the icon "Our Lady of the Tolga," V. V. Gorshkova, and the assistant professor of the department of museology and local lore at the Yaroslavl State University, O. I. Dobryakova, M.A., the middle part of the icon is an exact copy of the miraculous icon of "Our Lady of the Tolga" of the 14th century, which is now kept at the convent. All around it on the margins are eighteen border scenes illustrating the most important moments of the convent&##39;s history, with pictures based on the border scenes of those from the icon of "Our Lady of the Tolga with scenes" of the 17th century (from the collection of the Yaroslavl Art Museum). The important feature of the new icon is a number of scenes illustrating the miracles about the icon of "Our Lady of the Tolga" that happened during the 20th century, including the devastation of the convent, salvation of the icon in the museum, revival of the convent and the return of the icon (scenes 15, 16, 17 and 18). The importance of these pages in the history of the convent and its relic is stressed by the position of these particular scenes—they are placed in the lowest row, which is nearest to viewers.

This icon made by "Kovcheg" is undoubtedly a unique work, in which the Belovs managed to naturally merge the traditions of icon painting of the 14th and 17th centuries, while keeping their own style worked out at the workshop.

Almost all the icons made at "Kovcheg" carry on an atmosphere of happiness and jubilation. If there is one phrase to characterize their creative concept, it is this—icon as festivity. Divine revelation seems to be present in the works of the artists praising His unearthly beauty: abundance of color, decoration and details that bring to us the associative image of Heavenly Jerusalem with its shining radiance. This dominance of divine beauty in one of the latest works of "Kovcheg" ("Saint George", artist S. Toropov) brings an icon painter to the boundary, after which the biblical story transforms into a beautiful tale, a dream of the lost paradise.

The works of "Kovcheg" artists differ from those of other modern workshops by the exquisite approach and sophisticated style, characteristic fine details, bright colors, intensive use of gold and decorative images. In addition, the faces of images are done quite minutely and thoroughly, for the artists who work here are not atheists, and their spirituality fills the visual shape with content and meaning.

Anton and Julia often incorporate gilding and silvering in their intricate icons. Cooperation with jeweler&##39;s workshops, like "Almaz Holding" in Moscow and Nikolay Balmasov&##39;s workshop in Yaroslavl, gives the Belovs a chance to complete their exquisite icons with a precious setting. Together with the latter, the workshop of N. Balmasov, "Kovcheg" represented Russia at the festival of "St. Petersburg&##39;s Days" in Dijon, France.

The high level of professionalism of the icon painters of "Kovcheg" keeps attracting not only the Church, but also private customers. The artistic level of the icons made for the latter is as high as of those done for churches.

The "Kovcheg" workshop regularly participates in regional and national exhibitions. In 2004, it received the medal of the Second Church Exhibition "Orthodox Russia."

The artists work in close contact with the Yaroslavl Art Museum, participate in exhibitions of the Creative Union of Icon Painters, maintain good contacts with artists associations in Moscow, Palekh, Kostroma and the Yaroslavl Region.

Cooperation with the Yaroslavl Art Museum has resulted in such interesting projects as the exhibition of "Yaroslavl Icon Painting: Nine Centuries of Russian Icon Painting" held in 2003 in Ekaterinburg, which together with the exhibit of paintings of the 13th?9th centuries from the collection of the Yaroslavl Art Museum, included modern icons created by the artists of "Kovcheg." In 2004, which was rich with events for "Kovcheg," Anton and Julia held master-classes on icon painting in the United States in cooperation with Iconofile, a public-benefit educational organization directed by George O&##39;Hanlon and Tatiana Zaytseva. Their collaboration began in 2002 when Iconofile and "Kovcheg," together with the Center for New Information Technologies at the Yaroslavl State University headed by D. K. Morozov, prepared a multimedia compact disc on the religious painting of Yaroslavl.

?lt;i>N. Mukhina, art critic

Icons (2000-2002)


St. George and the Dragon
St. George and the Dragon, 45x33 cm, 2001, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf. St. George is slaying the Dragon and an angel is placing a crown on his head.

St. Tikhon with scenes from his life, Kovcheg Workshop
St. Tikhon the Patriarch of Moscow and of Holy Russia with scenes from his life, 200x155 cm, 2001, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf.

Nativity of Christ
, 42x34 cm, 2000, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf.


Archangel Michael
, 34x29 cm, 2002, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf. The Archistrategius Michael is the commander of the heavenly host. He was venerated as the patron saint of princes and warriors.


Burning Bush icon of the Mother of God, 37x32 cm, 2000, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf. The name of the icon is based on Moses&##39; vision of God at the burning bush on Mount Sinai. In the sphere is the Mother of God in cloudy garments with the Child Christ. In the rays of light are angels and symbols of the Evangelists. In Russia this icon was venerated as a protection from fires.


Christ on his Throne
Christ on His Throne, 37x32 cm, 2001, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf.

St. Demetrius of Thesalonica
St. Demetrius of Thesalonica
, 32x27 cm, 2000, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf.


Korsun icon of the Mother of God, wood, pavoloka, levkas, tempera and gold leaf.