The icon-painting of the 17th century combines strictly observed Russian Orthodox traditions and foreign art influence that have led to innovation of artistic techniques. A willingness to emphasize the beauty and splendor of the terrestrial world as reflection of the beauty of the divine world has manifested in decorative richness, worked-out details, wealth of shapes, development of architectural backgrounds and the grown role of ornamental decoration of icons. The increased emotionality of icon-painting of that time is achieved not so much by expressive faces and postures, as rich compositions and flexible forms.
The largest customer of church-building and icon-painting of that time was the Russian royal court. In the 1660s Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich decreed the foundation of the royal school of iconographers, with zhalovannye (salaried) masters getting paid in money and food, and kormovye (literally “fed” or contract) icon-painters being paid in food for the amount of work performed. Apart from Moscow’s icon-painters, the school invited many provincial masters thus gathering the best artists of that time at the royal court. Simon Fedorovich Ushakov, the future director of the court school, began his artistic career as its student. Ushakov’s innovative works were far ahead of his time; the school of royal masters is often called the Ushakov school of icon-painters.
The artwork of the royal masters can be classified into four movements. The first movement comprises the features of the Stroganov and Moscow schools of icon-painters that first appeared during the reign of Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich. The use of gold and rich details in the painting is the obvious influence of the Stroganov school, while the passion for narrative manner and text illustration is clearly the legacy of the Moscow school. The examples of this combined style painting – though bearing the traces of the local art features - can be often encountered in provincial art schools as well, especially in Yaroslavl and Kostroma.
The second art movement is distinguished for its orientation for the early Moscow icons and its artistic style was dictated by the customers’ demands. Very interesting in this regard is the icon of the winged John the Baptist in the Church of Alexis the Metropolitan in Glinishchi, painted ca. 1690 by Tikhon Ivanovich Filatyev. Judging from the icon “hills” that look more like trees or flowers, and sharp, tin-like wrinkles of the clothes - given the entirely archaic image - one can suggest that the icon was painted in the second quarter of the 17th century. This movement is also represented by Nikita Ivanovich Pavlovets and Kirill Ivanovich Ivanov.
The third group of Ushakov’s disciples largely cultivated the “living art” – the art representing the realities of life. Among the masters of this group is Fedor Yevtikhievich Zubov, the father of famous painters and engravers of Peter the Great’s reign.
Bogdan Saltanov, Ivan Bezmin and Vasily Poznansky represent the last of the four movements of the royal art school. A native of the Armenian colony in Persia, Saltanov created the so-called tafta icons (icons painted on silk), whose artistic techniques obviously descend from the Orient traditions. Saltanov worked in close partnership with Ivan Bezmin. Vasily Poznansly, who would subsequently join them, had been originally an apprentice of Ivan Bezmin. More of his artworks survived than Saltanov and Bezmin combined; it also appears that Vasily was more skillful an artist than his teachers.
The icons produced by the royal masters are distinguished for realistic details of life. They went far away from austerity, symbolism and laconism of the ancient Russian art, while their landscape details and three-dimensional space anticipated the appearance of the secular art.