Russians inherited the tradition of icon painting from Byzantium, where it began as an offshoot of the mosaic and fresco tradition. During the 8th and 9th centuries, the iconoclastic controversy in the Orthodox Church called into question whether religious images were a legitimate practice or sacrilegious idolatry. Although the use of images was in the end permitted, a thorough distinction between profane art intended to depict reality and sacred art designed for spiritual contemplation was established. That difference is one of the reasons that the artistic style of icons can seem so invariant. Certain kinds of balance and harmony became established as reflections of divinity, and as such they invited careful reproduction and subtle refinement rather than striking novelty. Although this philosophy resulted in a comparatively slow evolution of style, icon painting evolved considerably over the centuries. Unlike the pictorial traditions of the west that aspire towards increased realism and naturalism, the essence of Russian icon painting is not about the representation of physical space or appearance. Icons are images intended to aid in contemplative prayer, and in that sense, are more concerned with conveying meditative harmony than with laying out a realistic scene. They were not painted to please the eye of the mind, but to inspire reflection and self-examination.
This icon has been segmented into four partitions, divided by a central image of the crucifixion. The scenes filling the corners are as follows clockwise starting from the upper left: the Adoration of the Magi; St. John the Baptist; a saint (possibly St. Thomas); and St. Nicholas Miracle Worker. In the central crucifixion, Christ is flanked by Mary on his left and St. John the Evangelist on his right. God the father and the Holy Spirit represented by a dove look down from above while the bones of Adam rest at the feet of the cross. This powerful icon unites several traditional scenes all in one carefully constructed composition that glows with the luminous gold leaf as if illuminated by the light of heaven.