The art of iconography is more than one thousand years old in Ukraine, and the art of religious and Christian painting during that time span formed unique characteristics that reflected a national cultural identity. This is evident in the massive number of icons that survived through the centuries, withstanding the turbulence of geopolitical changes on Ukrainian territory, which, due to its location, was subject to the influences of various cultures and the world’s major religions. Most ancient icons were preserved in churches and villages farthest from the main trade routes and large cities. Although it was the custom to periodically refurbish, renew, or even replace icons and, in fact, entire iconostasis, many such artworks remained intact by being stored in church attics or bell towers.
The icons come from monastery or church-supported icon workshops and were used in church applications. Others icons were painted by non-professional village painters and were executed on wooden boards or homespun cloth. These types of icons were an integral part of village home life and had religious functions that were performed in the home and the community, thus playing a significant role in the lives of villagers. For example, a newborn would receive an icon as a gift, newlyweds were blessed with icons, and icons were placed in the coffins of the deceased. People prayed to icons before a long journey or during a difficult time in life.
In Ukrainian folk culture, religious wood sculpture was most prevalent in the Halychyna and Podillia regions of the country. This art form stems from two sources. One source consisted of folk craftsmen trained in cities or villages. For the most part, these craftsmen imitated professionals, adhering to their compositions and styles. The second source consisted of untrained folk craftsmen, whose work displays features of primitivism. It is unfortunate that very little primitive sculpture remains today; and one of the prime reasons is that, for a very long time, primitive art was not considered an accepted art form. Its preservation therefore received very little attention until modern times.
The themes and functions of folk wood sculptures were, in effect, ritualistic and carried with them the power of protection. An identifying characteristic of these sculptures is the personification of saints with features of simple people. An earthly quality was therefore projected in these works. Although some folk sculptures were displayed in churches, for the most part they were found in chapels, in cemeteries, and at roadsides.
The physical personification of saints was always a reflection of how people envisioned them. This is very clearly seen in another popular sculptural figure – that of an angel. Because there was no developed iconographic blueprint for angels (nor were angels a developed image in folk culture), artists portrayed them as boys or girls, with wings or without, and dressed in various attires. Their faces, however, presented a unified vision – they were soft and round, with clear eyes. They also had luxuriant heads of hair.