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.
The majority of this composition is covered in a gilded brass oklad, an adornment often reserved for only the most sacred icons that have been proved to have the ability to heal. The pentagonal shape of the icon is unusual and serves to center the Virgin and child in the middle of the work. The oklad has been magnificently incised to represent the floral
patterns and folds of the figures’ drapery, as well as an abstract and floral design that decorates the border. Incised lines radiate from the figures’ halos radiating a heavenly light. A separate, perforated piece of metal has been attached to represent the halos, protruding slightly from the flat contours of the painting. All that remains of the original painting are the figure’s heads and hands. This effect serves to heighten the softness and warmth of their painted flesh when contrasted to the glowing luminance of the oklad. This icon represents a touching moment between mother and child. Although both the figures are holy and divine, that artist also manages to convey a sence of their humanity and compassion. Thus the worshipper can approach the humanity of this icon while simultaneously venerating the divinity, thereby carrying the individual that much closer to God.