Saintly Shapes: The Evolution of Iconography to the Avant-Garde


The color red has a long and important history in Russian art. Here are two examples of how isolated patches of red can alter the meaning of a piece of non-representational art. In icons of the birth of Christ, the Virgin Mary is often depicted within a circle of red. This represents birth, life, and renewal. Red, revered in Russian culture as the most beautiful color, was quickly repurposed by the Bolsheviks who sought to revamp all aspects of Russian life (religion, class, labor) under the Soviet cause. The most ubiquitous government, it seems, felt that it deserved the country’s most cherished color. In El Lissitsky’s picture book about the advent of the new Soviet government, a red Bolshevik square intercepts and overtakes a black square representing the old way of Russian life.

El Lissitzky, Study for Scene from “Of Two Squares,” Drawing, c. 1920, Harvard Art Museums, 1985.199, The Fredric Wertham Collection, Gift of his wife Hesketh

The Nativity of Christ, Egg tempera on wood, c. 1500, Museum of Russian Icons, R2014.5.3