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This photo essay was created by Munir Atalla, a student in the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice at Tufts University, which took 11 students to St. Petersburg, Russia to explore the country up-close. The stories and photographs they brought home focused on the cultural, the social, and the sense of place. The workshop was led by award-winning photographer Samuel James.
Inside Russian Orthodox churches, the walls are lined with portraits of somber saints that believers flock to for guidance, blessings, and strength. Poised and pristine, the icons provide believers with “a window to another world,” in the words of Dimitry Mironenko, one of Saint Petersburg’s most famous iconographers. These intricate works of art — hung in taxi cabs, sold in street stalls, commissioned for weddings and baptisms — are a ubiquitous part of the lives of the pious. But not long ago, hanging an icon was a sign of defiance worthy of imprisonment.
“A room without icons is like a face without eyes,” says Victor Benderov, a gentle old iconographer with gold molars who works from a messy studio on the top floor of a creaky chapel on the English Embankment of the Neva River.
Painting icons is silent, solitary work, done by the quiet, dexterous disciples of an ancient art dating back centuries. For most iconographers, their craft is profoundly spiritual. Many speak of their work as having two components. First is the skill it takes to create a precise painting. The second and more important element is the inner work of prayer and union with God that it takes to summon a truly beautiful icon.
Observing the iconographers at work, one would never imagine that this used to be one of the most controversial art forms in Russia only a half century ago. In 1917, the Soviet Union became the first state to pursue the elimination of organized religion as one of its objectives. Although most religions were never formally banned, thousands of believers were punished for their faith.
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church has regained significant power and influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin undertook the large project of restoring 23,000 churches. In the years since Putin’s rise to power and the resurgence of the Orthodox Church, iconography has taken on a new importance, and the iconographers hope that Russia is headed toward a new golden age—not one of political and economic might, but of spiritual awakening. Only then will the icons produced in Saint Petersburg rival their Byzantine predecessors. “Without spirituality,” one of the iconographers says, “an icon is just another painting.”