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 scene represents the first moments of Mary’s life. Anna, the Virgin’s mother, reclines in a bed as her handmaidens bring her offerings of bread and water or oil after her labor. In the far right corner, father Joachim is seated calmly watching. This moment is frequently referred to as the Immaculate Conception, the church doctrine that states Mary was born into the world free from sin. At the bottom center, two maids prepare to wash the newborn baby girl. Who might suspect that this meager infant would grow to become the Mother of God? Although a small halo around her head prefigures her divinity. Both Anna and Joachim are haloed as well, revealing their holy nature. This scene, otherwise a seemingly normal nativity, is to the faithful the beginning of the redemption of mankind.