Palekh icon-painting traditions

Palekh, being a worldly renowned center of lacquer miniature painting, is deeply rooted into the medieval religious painting traditions. The old painting techniques, the technological and stylistic know-hows of various icon-painting styles have been kept here for centuries.

At the beginning of XVII century icon painting in Palekh was purely occasional and was mostly provoked and inspired by the influence of neighboring Kholui and Shuya. XVIII century gives a completely different image of almost every family in Palekh and its surrounding being in some or other way involved into producing icons. Palekh, unlike, for instance, Kholui, did not produce cheap ‘stock’ icons at such a wide scope, being at the same time not so much focused on very elaborate and delicate Mstyora-type icons. Palekh painters were always considered to be top professionals in large iconostases and, since XIX century, mural painting.

Local painters have always been known as experts in ancient iconographic canons while never trying to pedantically imitate the original images. Keeping the major idea, they found space for expressing themselves in details, emotionally enriching the original image. Such creative initiative allowed them to create exceptionally poetic, but at the same time strict and solid images.

The compositions of Palekh icons are basically very balanced and symmetrical. The images of people are slightly stretched upwards and their postures are not restrained. Despite their lightness and gracefulness, they are purely materialistic and substantial. The holy faces are expressive and emotional. But the passion they possess is not the one of the heroes of some baroque paintings, but with a touch of a heavenly thought. One of the main peculiarities and, at the same time, an advantage of Palekh icons is a certain technique of applying thin transparent layers of paint while depicting a saint’s face. The shade strokes on the faces and the naked parts of the bodies were carried out in white pigment and were shaped in a spot gradually diffusing into a shade. In modelling figures Palekh painters used color strokes, preferring cold, light azure shades. The color scheme of Palekh icons has always been moderate, lacking certain tendency to affectation.


With great inspiration Palekh masters have painted steep, terraced hills with many rock-mound ledges and down-leaning tops, imaginative herbs and trees, fanciful towers and steeples. Their outlines do not show any rigidity, the volumes are vague: the line changes from being elastic and vivid to completely vanishing into the lightness of the background. This airiness and picturesqueness is the characteristic trait of the best masterpieces of Palekh iconography. The same lightness and precision you can see in how Palekh painters dealt with ornamentation details and shade strokes. Such virtuosity and artistry allowed Palekh masters to avoid that touch of looking drawback and provincial, which was so much peculiar of some other similar craft centers. Palekh icons were completely deprived of those innocence and simplicity and, at the same time, of certain desire to decorativeness.

The interior of the local Church of Exaltation of the Holy Cross played an important role in shaping the so-called Palekh iconographic style. The first mentioning of the church dates back to 1696 when a wooden church building in Palekh first appeared in state documents. The wooden church building started to be replaced with a stone one in 1762. The re-building took over 12 years and was mainly funded by the local community. In the church’s inventory there was found a record saying that most of the church’s icons had been brought ‘from the lands of Novgorod, Vologda and Arkhangelsk, where Palekh painters used to work in XVIII century…’
The evolution of Palekh style in XVIII-XIX centuries was mainly conditioned by the influence of the secular painting styles over the provincial icon-painting practices. First baroque and rococo, later classicism and academism painting styles brought about their stylistic features into Palekh icon-painting. Frequently Palekh masters imitated the features of West-European models following the demands of customers, who were mainly aristocrats and reformed clergymen.

Local traveler traders spread Palekh icons all over the country, as well as abroad, to Serbia and Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria. It is difficult to overestimate the contribution of traveler tradesmanship to the development of Palekh art. It also acquainted Palekh masters with iconographic traditions of Moscow, Volga Region, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Bulgaria.

Palekh masters were not considered only the best icon painters but also very skilled mural painters. The frescoes of the local church of Exaltation of the Holy Cross, carried out in 1807, was their first experience in the sphere of monumental painting. A famous art critic, the best expert in Palekh art Anatoly Bakushinsky called these frescoes ‘the last great monumental painting, closing the cycle of development of the ancient Russian religious painting tradition’. Another very remarkable work by Palekh masters was the decoration of Hall of Facets in Moscow Kremlin, carried out by Belousov family. There was also a lot of mural restoration work in the temples of the city of Vladimir: the Cathedral of the Assumption and St Dimitry Cathedral, in the church of St Sophia of Novgorod, in the cathedrals of Moscow Kremlin etc. Also Palekh painters decorated some minor provincial churches in the neighbouring towns and villages, such as Kineshma, Vichuga, Yarlykov, Mugreevskoye.

Rich traditions of the ancient icon-painting craft have survived till nowadays. For almost twenty years Palekh masters have been taking part in renovation of Russian icon-painting. And the special role in this process belongs to Palekh as one of the most consecutive keeper of the stylistic features of old Russian painting. Considering the amount of painters involved into the icon painting industry nowadays, Palekh has every right to be the largest center of Orthodox religious art.

A very important role in developing modern iconography belongs to the State Museum of Palekh Art which contains and keeps the best examples of local icon painting, as well as to Palekh Art College that brings up the future generations of Palekh painters. Since the very foundation of this institution, copying artworks of old masters has been the main educational principle.


Every icon and mural painter, working in Palekh style nowadays, has graduated from Palekh Art College. The remarkable results are shown by those who, being young students, have defined themselves as followers of a certain technique and did their apprenticeship in some icon- and mural-painting brigades. Historically, singe icon painters are a rare case in Palekh. Palekh masters preferred to form various types of co-operative societies. Thus the experience of effective collaboration is the essential condition of mastering the trade.

Alexander Kuzmenko and Leo Lopatin, the co-founders of the icon-painting workshop, have been regarded as such established professionals.

Their collaboration starts in 2002 when they decorated the interior of the Church of the Holy Trinity in town Mosrentgen. The single images of the saints prevail in the interior composition. The most prominent image of this mural composition is the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, which occupies the top ceiling of the altar hall. As a rule, Palekh painting is rich in ornamental decorations giving the composition of the whole interior of the church a touch of completion and solidity. This tradition has been followed in the decoration of the church of Holy Trinity. One of the exterior walls of the church contains two whole-length compositions – the images of St Seraphim of Sarov and the Great Martyr Panteleimon. The exterior work poses certain problems even for the experienced masters, and first of all, it is a problem of preservation. The previous experience does not show any significant results, that’s why nowadays icon painters feel free to experiment with new synthetic materials and mural painting technologies. But at the same time they carefully keep the traditions of dealing with leaf and dissolved gold and egg-yolk paints.

In 2004 the young painters co-founded the icon-painting workshop. Besides the co-founders themselves the workshop does not have a permanent team and every new order is carried out by a newly organized team of professionals in the required technique of mural painting. One of the latest murals of the workshop is the decoration of the dome and the dome drum of the cemetery church of All the Saints in Sormovo district of Nizhny Novgorod. The top of the dome represents the image of Christ Pantokrator with sixteen whole-length images of Greek and Russian saints at its basement.

Also the young artists have accumulated solid experience in painting iconostases and large icons. Usually, the painters participate in every stage of producing the icon. The first stage is preparing the wooden panel. It may be produced from a one-piece wooden board or from several ones glued together and fixed with several in-carved wooden splines. The most appropriate material for this purpose is linden tree wood. The larger size panels are sometimes produced from coniferous woods. The following stage is applying multi-layered primal gypsum coating which is prepared on gelatin base. If the background of the icon is supposed to be gilded, then some leaf gold is applied with the use of special liquid composition. The incused gilded background is reaching its popularity among the customers nowadays. But not every icon painter can incuse professionally, that is why, as it used to be centuries ago, we have now got some professional incusing masters in Palekh. Incusing imitates more ancient techniques of filigree, gold stamping and decorating an icon with a forged metal setting. The incusing ornament is traditionally a fine and delicate floral pattern.

The technology that workshop applies hasn’t changed for centuries: the icon is painted with egg-yolk tempera paints with some shade strokes and ornamental elements painted with dissolved gold. Their authors show great respect to ancient canons and desire to preserve and develop every best tradition of local icon painting.

It is not common among icon painters to sign their own works but it doesn’t mean the complete absence of genuine and creative artwork in the industry. Even following every rule and demand of the icon-painting canon closely, a master has a certain amount of creative freedom, which sometimes may be conditioned by the customer, for instance, in selecting an iconographic model that is supposed to be lately followed. The painter has every right to bring in any alterations that do not contradict the main canon. Among the professional requirements to a skilled icon painter there is also an ability to draw and paint ‘faces’ and ‘buildings’, which basically means a skill of depicting both animated and inanimate objects. It also includes the ability to outline a draft or a whole composition without actually rendering the original image. The minor-size icons, usually meant for personal use, completely meet these criteria. That is why many artworks of Alexander Kuzmenko and Leo Lopatin can be found in various private collections both in Russia and abroad. The images that Palekh painters usually deal with impress by their diversity: these may be half- or full-length images of saints, various religious holidays, holy images of the Christ and the Virgin. As a rule, the choice of the image is up to the customer, who can also determine the stylistic features of the future artwork, which may deviate a lot from strictly Palekh tradition. Palekh painters, as it used to be centuries ago, must be well aware of various stylistic features of numerous iconographic styles, such as Novgorod, Moscow, Stroganov and Volga Region iconographic styles. But nevertheless the most amazing artworks tend to be the result of following local traditions.

At the present moment, the interest to academic style in icon painting seems to be rapidly growing. At certain times there used to be many lovers and followers of the so-called friaz (which means ‘European’) in Palekh. The friaz style tended to render images in a more realistic way, especially if it concerned depicting the space, landscape and architecture. In painting their landscapes, Palekh painters intended to paint vague, fading out shapes, lacking those rock ledges, peculiar to ancient painting techniques. The abundancy of vivid blue with slight shade nuances was not any longer perceived as a background, but rather as the space all the objects of the composition were placed into. The bodies and faces of the saints were more three-dimensional thanks to the light and shade modelling. The reserved color-scheme, noble and strict facial expressions, modesty in expressing emotions and feelings, the absence of any excessive detail were the highlights of the best artworks of this kind. The present Palekh painters have always managed to catch up with the high standards of the past.

When it comes to producing larger size temple icons and iconostases which in themselves are very hard work for a single painter, the recently criticized principle of dividing the painters into ‘pre-facial’ and ‘facial’ masters has once more gained its popularity. Whether a conventional painter tends to prefer doing either portraits or landscapes, he has to face the problem of selecting a genre, so the same kind of choice we have to make in icon painting: whether either to concentrate on depicting palaces, or clothing folds and shade strokes, or painting holy faces. So if it concerns the team work over a current order, this way of distributing the responsibilities has proved its consistency.

Iconographic workshop The Temple has successfully carried out numerous iconostasis cycles for both various local village churches and major cathedrals. The art works of the workshop reside in the Church of St Demetrius of Solun and the Church of Holy Virgin of Smolensk in Moscow region, in the Church of Archangel Michael and the Church of St Xenia of St Petersburg in Udmurtia, in the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Rostov, in Novodevichy Convent.

Every new year we see even more amazing artworks by the most outstanding Palekh painters while also they deepen their understanding of the religious traditions that serve the basis for their trade. The art and work of the newly formed workshop team, which apparently aims at preserving the religious traditions, seeking for new professional horizons, upgrading the technologies that lay behind their masterpieces, raising their personal professional standards, undoubtedly contributes to maintaining Palekh as the leading center of Russian iconography.

In the present day Russia, when the sense of national identity is only starting to claim for its place in the human hearts, when the deeds of the ancestors are thoughtlessly criticized, Palekh proves to maintain the link between generations, confirming the words by Nikolay Berdyaev that ‘the life of a nation is an indissoluble bond to the ancestors and their testaments’.

Olga Kolesova

State Museum of Palekh Art