The stock of icons started to emerge as a full-fledged collection alongside the expansion of the Historical Museum’s Russian antiquities holdings. In certain years the Museum received antiques as a gift from prominent antiquaries and collectors such as S.T. Bolshakov, I.L. and D.I. Silin, A.P. Bakhrushin. Collections of Russian antiquities, with icons being a huge part of them, were donated to the Museum by P.I. Shchukin and A.S. Uvarov. For years, collectors F.M. Chelyshkin and I.A. Golyshev were permanent icon donors to the Museum. Icons were also presented to the Museum as a gift by individuals: the Governor General of Moscow, the Honourary Chairman of the Russian Historical Museum (RHM), Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich, icon painter and collector O.S. Chirikov, antiquary P.M. Ivanov, A.S. Bakhrushina and many others. Contributions to the icon collection were made by various museum workers like as the RHM Director from 1909 to 1921 prince N.S. Shcherbatov, first curator A.V. Oreshnikov, his assistant V.N. Shchepkin, and Academic Secretary of the Museum I.M. Tarabrin. Toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the Historical Museum’s collection comprised approximately 1200 icons. At the time it ranked among the top largest state museum collections of Russian icon painting.
Since 1918 the State Historical Museum has accumulated a huge number of Old Russian works of art. In the 1920’s the Historical Museum acquired masterpieces of Old Russian art from the nationalised collections theretofore privately owned by E.E. Egorov, N.M. Postnikov, S.P. Ryabushinsky, P.P. Shibanov, L.K. and L.L. Zubalov, G.K. Rakhmanov and many other famous collectors. Icons came in abundance from the many churches and convents that had been shut down, monasteries and cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin, the Armoury Chamber, the Patriarchal Vestry, the Myrrh-producing Chamber and the Synod, from museums such as Rumyantsev and Stroganov Museums, the First Proletarian Museum, the MSU Department of Archeology, the Museum of the Religion History and many others.
Consequently, in the 20s of the 20th century the Museum could boast one of the largest church art collections, comprised of nearly 34 thousand pieces. All kinds of church antiquities could be found here: icons, Old Russian embroidery, casting works, utensils, wood-, stone- and bone- carvings. The bulk of Old Russian icons featured such world-famous masterpieces as “Vladimir Mother of God” of the 12th century (State Tretyakov Gallery), “Annunciation of Ustyug” of the 12th century (State Tretyakov Gallery), “Angel with the Golden Hair” of the 12th century (State Tretyakov Gallery), “Mother of God of the Don” of the 14th century created by the famous icon-painter Theophanes the Greek (State Tretyakov Gallery), “Holy Trinity” by renowned Andrew Rublev (State Tretyakov Gallery) and his “Deesis” from Zvenigorod (State Tretyakov Gallery).
In 1921 the museum divisions underwent reorganisation. The science departments of the Museum were merged into 6 categories. The “3d Special historical category” used for storage and display of material artefacts classified by fields of activity, from that moment onward incorporated the “Religious Life Department”, which did not cease to exist until 1929. From 1921 to 1929, the SHM’s “Religious Life Department” was headed by Alexander Ivanovich Anisimov (1877-1937), a prominent scientist who launched and saw through the drive for protection and restoration of Old Russian monuments of art. At the time the Department staff included general consultant E.I. Silin (1872-1928), assistant curator of the Department O.N. Bubnova who dealt with casting works, E.P. Muratova responsible for Old Russian embroidery, M.V. Budylina-Kafka who was in charge of the holy vessels, T.A. Sidorova responsible for the wood-, stone- and bone- carving and E.I. Bryagin working as a restorer of tempera painting. In 1929 the Religious Life Department was closed down. Manager of the Department A. I. Anisimov and all of the staff, save for O.N. Bubnova, were fired. In 1937 A. I. Anisimov was killed in Solovki. The Old Russian antiquities were distributed among other museum divisions, and, with the utensils handed over to the State Culture Department, the carvings were moved over to the Domestic Life Department, and the embroidery works and vestments migrated to the Fabric Department. The icons were carried over to the Iconography Department (pictorial material), eventually titled the “Department of Household Illustrations”.
In 1930, following the destruction of the Religious Life Department, over 400 first-rate antiquities of the 12th-17th centuries made their way to the State Tretyakov Gallery to serve as the backbone for the wonderful collection of Old Russian fine arts. A lot of icons were transferred to Antique Store, Gostorg (State Trading), Gokhran (State Depositary for Precious Metals) and Torgsin (Foreign Trading) to be sold abroad.
Since 1940 the curator of the Old Russian Painting collection in the Department of Household Illustrations was Ekaterina Sergeevna Ovchinnikova whose contribution into Old Russian art studies was immense. In 1956, the group of icons from the stock in the Museum’s holdings morphed into the separate “Old Russian Painting Department” headed by E.S. Ovchinnikova till 1976. As a result of the museum’s reorganization in 1978, the Old Russian Painting Department became a collection group of the Pictorial materials Department, for the division to regain its independence only as late as 1999.
Currently, the SHM has a unique Old Russian Painting collection comprised of over five thousand pieces. This is one of the largest Russian icon-painting collections. Russia’s major icon-painting centers such as Novgorod, Pskov, Moscow and Russian North are represented by first-rate antiques dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, essential for comprehensive research of Russian icon-painting. Given the scope and artistic level of the icon-painting collection of the 17th-early 20th Centuries, it rightly deserves to be categorised as unique. The museum’s holdings feature the largest and most complete collection of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine icon-painting (the 13th-19th centuries) in Russia.