If you come to the Kyiv Museum of Ukrainian Fine Arts or to the museums of local lore in Ostroh or Rivne, among the items of the art collections you can find “resilient” icons with bright coloring. The kind, smiling faces of saints painted on them are unique precursors in 18th century iconographic tradition. Nowadays, some 40 similar icons are known. They are mainly found on the territory between Ostroh, Brody and Kremenets. This iconographic tradition in Ukraine was discovered by the art historian Pavlo Zholtovsky. He named it the Ostroh iconographic school, as all the icons were painted in Ostroh by one and the same artist (or under his direction), whose name remains unknown to this day.
“In 18th century Ostroh there was a potent iconographic production, with its bright peculiar traits which neatly differentiate it form any other school,” says Yaroslava Bondarchuk, Ph.D. in Art History. “The icons painted here differ by the psycho-emotional features of their characters. Such smiling, cheerful, benevolent faces of saints were an unseen innovation in Ukrainian iconography – according to the Byzantine iconography that spread on Ukrainian territory, saints were portrayed as being thin, exhausted, and ascetic.”
Paintings of the Ostroh iconographic school are easily recognized by voluminous, rounded faces, pointing eyebrows, and thin upper lips and full lower lips. Almost all the icons have one and the same background – silvered with acanthus leaves carved on it (this plant used to be a symbol of firmness and inviolability of faith). In later paintings the silvering is transferred onto the clothing as well.
Ostroh iconographic production functioned at least during the first half of the 18th century. Its paintings symbolize the arrival of a new Renaissance tradition to Ukraine, which later manifested itself in iconography as well. At the same time the Ostroh iconographic school couldn’t have appeared out of nothing.
In Ostroh, during the rule of Vasyl-Kostiantyn Ostrozky, at the end of the 16th century, there was an iconographic community that was second in Ukraine only to Lviv in terms of its potency. According to the Ostroh artisans’ register of 1576, six artists worked in the community then. Many icons created by their hands have survived until now. Most of them are exhibited in the art department of the Ostroh state historical and cultural reserve. The most important shrine of that period is the family icon of the Ostroh princes, which is now kept in the Mezhyrich Monastery of the Holy Trinity.
The Ostroh Slavo-Greco-Roman academy, which functioned nearby and which is related to the Ukrainian cultural Renaissance of the 16th century, assured the “inclusion” of Ostroh into the European cultural context of that time. Though Byzantine influence still dominated and protected the icons from the penetration of real life elements, the Ostroh icons of that period differ by their vivid colors. These features were inherited by the Ostroh iconographic school.
By the way, the introduction of realistic elements into the plot was characteristic for the Ostroh icons both in the 16th and 18th centuries; it was also unusual for the iconographic tradition of that time. Thus, you can see architectural monuments on the icons, and the Icon of the Protection of 1738 features members of the Mohyliany village community, who had donated money for this work of art. “The fact that icons came closer to real life, [that they became] an object of admiration and not only of prayer, is evidence of the spread of Renaissance culture to Ukraine,” claims Bondarchuk. “Thus Ostroh iconographic traditions started in the era of the Academy, were transferred throughout the 17th century, and fully manifested themselves in the Ostroh iconographic school.”