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This essay examines Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov’s search for a new kind of prayer icon in the closing decades of the nineteenth century: a hybrid of icon and painting that would reconcile Russia’s historic contradictions and launch a renaissance of national culture and faith. Beginning with his icons for the Church of the “Savior Not Made by Hands” at Abramtsevo in 1880–81, for two decades Vasnetsov was hailed as an innovator, the four icons he sent to the Paris “Exposition Universelle” of 1900 marking the culmination of his vision. After 1900, his religious painting polarized elite Russian society and was bitterly attacked in advanced art circles. Yet Vasnetsov’s new icons were increasingly linked with popular culture and the many copies made of them in the late Imperial period suggest that his hybrid image spoke to a generation seeking a resolution to the dilemma of how modern Orthodox worshippers should pray.


This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Experiment, volume 25, number 1, in 2019 following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version is available online at

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Brill Academic Publishers



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