Above are two Russian portraits painted on wooden panels, with the distinctive “recess” creating a raised border seen in many icons. One is painted in the 16th century and the other in the early 17th century. Both contain similar stylized depictions of the subjects features, hair and foreheads. Both have inscriptions along the top (although the painting on the left’s inscription is faded) in Cyrillic.
However, only one of these paintings is an Icon. The other was never even intended to be thought of or used as a Holy Icon.
The painting on the left is a 16th century icon of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist St. John the Theologian. The painting on the right is a portrait of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, a complicated person respected by many Russians who know their history, but who is not, and is unlikely ever to be, considered a Saint. This type of portrait is known as parsuna (Парсуна), a rough Russian transliteration of the Latin word persona, or person.
Parsuna appeared in Russia from the 17th century onward and usually depicted monarchs or other notable people. Initially, the word simply referred to any portrait of a secular person, and their similarity to icons of saints was down to nothing more than the “iconographic” method of painting being the only one widely known by artists in medieval Russia. The inscription alone would be enough to distinguish parsuna of notable people from holy icons of saints. As new artistic techniques were introduced from the west, parsuna in the late 17th century tended to be painted on canvas, rather than wooden boards as was the continued method with icons. However, they still maintained the same basic iconographic style as earlier parsuna (like the first example of Ivan the Terrible).
By the end of the reign of Emperor Peter I (1725), western European styles of painting and portraiture were widespread in Russia, and portraits done in this style were called портрет (portret; lit: portrait) to distinguish them from the more “primitive” parsuna. Now, parsuna is generally a term used to describe 17th century secular portraits in the iconographic style; a footnote in Russia’s art history.
There is no evidence that parsuna were painted in order to subtly “canonize” the subject, or that these portraits would have been venerated as icons by the people who owned them. Yet the existence of these “secular icons” do act as a window into Russia’s past (as holy icons act as windows into heaven). The stylized forms used in parsuna reveal a lack of concern with preserving the actual features of a person, but rather their overall image (i.e. icon): the tsar; the military leader; the influential boyar. The occasional presence of Christ or Saints in the borders of these parsuna intended to show the hope that these dearly departed were in Heaven, and that what was depicted was their eternal state, which was of far more importance than the remembrance of their earthly life and appearance. The painters of these portraits tended to be anonymous, just as iconographers were and tend to be, showing a humility in the artist unthinkable among the later court artists of Europe. The parsuna of 17th century Russia reveal a world where the spiritual, religious and secular worlds were one and the same. The profound heritage of Russian spirituality that was at its epoch in the medieval period is revealed in these 17th century secular icons not despite their “primitiveness”, but because of it.
It is important to remember this in our own secular times, so that we do not become confused or even scandalized at these literal icons (images) of men who are not saints.