Light of the sacred
Texts by Daniela Parenti
Images: Roberto Palermo, Francesco Del Vecchio
Editing: Patrizia Naldini
Published on 1 January 2022
A traditional expression of the spirituality of the Orthodox Christian Church, icons spread in Russia at the same time as the Christianisation of the populations of ancient Rus’, an entity coinciding more or less with the territories today divided between Ukraine, Belarus and Western Russia. The beginning of the process of conversion to Christianity is traditionally traced back to Prince Vladimir I of Kiev, later called the Saint, who in 988 embraced the Christian faith and married Princess Anna Porphyrogenita, sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. The rapprochement of Rus’ to Constantinople encouraged the spread of Christianity in the form of the Byzantine Orthodox Church, separated from the Catholic Church of Rome following the Eastern Schism of 1054. With the fundamental elements of Orthodox Christianity, the Byzantine rite also established itself, while the liturgy in Greek was soon replaced by an indigenous form, in the Slavic language. With Christianity, many Byzantine icons arrived in Rus’, which for centuries represented the models of reference for local craftsmen, generally gravitating around monasteries. The progressive decadence of the Byzantine Empire, sanctioned by the definitive passage of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, determined the rise of Moscow, the “third Rome”, and of its Church, determined to impose itself as the bulwark of Orthodox Christianity.
From the 16th century, with the growth of the authority of the Church of Moscow, icons became an integral part of Russian homes, where, on a wall or in a corner, the temple was recreated, with a table recalling the altar and the sacred images arranged on a shelf, as was done in churches. This arrangement, often located on the eastern wall of the house, was the most precious corner, the “icon corner” (красный угол), in front of which to make the sign of the cross upon entering the house and to collect oneself silently in prayer. Icons of the Mother of God and of Christ were never lacking, while those dedicated to saints and other sacred subjects varied according to local and family devotion. The size of the icons followed the hierarchy of holiness, so that generally the Marian and Christological ones were larger than those of the saints. Light was an important element: often the sacred corner was set up near a window and in front of the icons, in the evening, candles were lit.
The icon is made for the glory of God, not of man, so they rarely bear the name of the maestros who painted them, whose identity remains, with rare exceptions, unknown. In earlier centuries, this activity was probably the prerogative of monks. The execution of the icons was entrusted to isographers - writers of icons - who traditionally approached the work purified in body and soul through penance and prayer. Prayer accompanied the making of the icon which, after completion, was subjected to the judgement of an ecclesiastical authority that examined the correspondence between the figurative content and the title, and then proceeded to its blessing. The titles of the subjects depicted and brief prayers were inscribed on the frame.
The origin of the Uffizi Gallery’s collection of Russian icons is somewhat mysterious: it is not known how these works came to Florence or even when. Some specimens already belonged to the Medici family, having been documented in the Pitti Palace, in the Chapel of the Relics, since 1639. The remaining icons, mostly made in the first decades of the 18th century, are instead documented in Florence in the Cloakroom of Pitti Palace during the Lorraine period, starting in 1761, when Francis Stephen of Lorraine sat on the Tuscan throne with Maria Theresa of Austria.
With the rearrangement of the Uffizi Gallery promoted by Pietro Leopoldo, the Russian icons, or “Greco-Mosche”, (Greek-Muscovite) to use the language of the time, were brought to the Uffizi between 1771 and 1773, where, together with early Christian glasswork, mosaics, and medieval paintings, they formed a small nucleus of Christian antiquities, which Luigi Lanzi arranged in the Cabinet of ancient paintings. The Menologium, an ecclesiastical calendar divided into two panels, mistakenly believed to be a fifteenth-century work, was particularly prized.
The fortunes of the Russian icons in the Uffizi were short-lived; with the reorganisation of the Gallery promoted by the new director Tommaso Puccini, in 1796 the paintings were moved to the Medici villa in Castello, where they were still found in 1911. The particularity of the collection and the high number of pieces (over 70) it comprises, has in the last century led to a certain difficulty in finding a suitable place for their public display, with the exception of the period between 1984 and 2013, when the works were part of the display of the Accademia Gallery.
The most significant icon of Christianity, as well as the oldest, is the image of the Saviour’s face “acheropita”, that is, “not painted by human hand”. According to a tradition already attested in the sixth century, King Abgar of Edessa, suffering from an incurable disease, sent one of his subject to Jerusalem to look for Jesus, whose miracles the king had heard about. The man was unable to bring the Messiah to Edessa, but he brought a cloth with which Jesus had washed his face, leaving his own image on it. The cloth, Mandylion in Greek, was given to Abgar who miraculously healed his own infirmities and renounced pagan idols. In the following centuries, the Mandylion, an icon and a relic at the same time, was venerated as a fundamental testimony to the incarnation of the Saviour, and its reproduction in painting, both in fresco and on panel, spread widely throughout the Christian world.
The Uffizi icon, datable to the second quarter of the eighteenth century, depicts the “face of Edessa” supported by two angels, a variant that most likely descends from the Western iconography of Veronica, where the legendary woman who allegedly wiped Christ’s face during the ascent to Golgotha is depicted holding the cloth with the image of the Saviour imprinted on it.
The iconographic theme of the Deesis also has its roots in the Byzantine world, particularly in the monumental decorations of churches, and was later widespread throughout Orthodox Christianity. The name Deesis is a term of Greek origin meaning “intercession” and identifies the representation of the Virgin and the saints interceding with Almighty God for the salvation of mankind. The subject is generally reproduced in the middle register of the iconostasis, the structure designed to hold icons that in Orthodox churches separates the presbyterial area, reserved for the celebrants of the liturgy, from the naves occupied by the laity. The icon is the means which, by favouring prayer, allows the individual to enter into communion with the divinity, therefore, in addition to sacred buildings, it also finds space in secular contexts, playing an essential role in private devotion. In ancient Rus’, the icon accompanied all the most significant moments of an individual’s life, from birth to marriage, as a manifestation of the constant presence of the divinity, to whom one would pray and ask for protection. Often the traveller brought with him a sort of small iconostasis that could have the appearance of a folding triptych and it is probable that the Deesis of the Uffizi, of very small dimensions, had a similar function.
The origin of icons depicting the Virgin can also be traced back to the beginnings of Christianity. In fact, it would be an exceptional witness, the evangelist Luke, who legend has it first portrayed the effigy of Mary. Texts from the 5th century report that an image of the Virgin painted by Saint Luke was sent from Jerusalem to Constantinople by Eudocia, consort of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II, becoming one of the most venerated images of Christianity. The icon depicted Mary according to the iconographic model of the Odigitria, that is, she who leads by showing the way. Mary is depicted holding the baby Jesus in her arms, the way to Salvation, to whom she indicates with the fingers of her hand.
The most venerated icons spread throughout Christianity by means of replicas, which gave rise to iconographic variants that nevertheless maintained the essential elements constant, differing in secondary details. For example, the icon in the Uffizi replicates the venerated image of the Mother of God Odigitria by Tichvin, distinguished by the pose of Jesus’ legs, which, crossing each other, show the sole of one foot. According to legend, the sacred image miraculously arrived from Constantinople in 1383 on the banks of the river Tichvina, north of Novgorod.
One of the oldest Byzantine icons still preserved in Russia is the Vladimir Mother of God, dating from the first half of the 12th century. It takes its name from the city where it was kept for about three centuries, before being permanently transferred to Moscow. The Uffizi icon is a small-scale replica dating from the first half of the 18th century.
The Vladimir Mother of God depicts the Virgin and Child according to the iconographic model of the Eleusas, or Madonna of Tenderness: the Mother and Son bring their faces together in an affectionate attitude, while Mary has an impulse of compassion, foreshadowing the sacrifice that Jesus is going to make. The icon of Vladimir is one of the most emblematic examples of the role attributed to icons in the political and military life of Russia. Considered responsible for prodigious defensive actions against the invaders, it is said that during the siege of Moscow in 1521, in a vision, the icon was seen coming out of the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin with the intention of abandoning the city, but was stopped by the prayers of the Russian saints, determining, with its return, the flight of the attackers. One or more days in the Russian ecclesiastical calendar are dedicated to particularly venerated icons, such as the Vladimir Mother of God itself, celebrated on 21 May, 23 June and 26 August.
The depiction of the Redeemer seated on a throne, sovereign over all of creation, is one of the oldest types of depiction of Christ in the Byzantine world. Until the 16th century, these images, often large in size, were placed almost exclusively among the sacred images that made up the iconostasis of the church, the enclosure that separates the altar from the space intended for the faithful.
The subject became popular again in the mid-sixteenth century, when smaller icons of the Redeemer on the throne became widespread, especially from the territory of Novgorod. The transfer of some important and venerated specimens to Moscow contributed to the spread of this theme in the following centuries. This depiction, which better than any other representation visually translates the idea of the Lord’s reign, reveals the predilection for the recovery of post-Byzantine models that characterises icon painting of Rus’ between the 16th and 17th centuries.
The devotion to saints, intercessors between God and the faithful, and the veneration of the relics of their bodies favoured the birth of images, in relief or painted, which had the purpose of handing down the effigy of the blessed, contributing to strengthening and spreading their adoration. From the 12th century, in the territories of the Byzantine Empire, there are many icons that show the saint flanked by scenes with the most salient episodes of his or her life, generally taken from stories that took the name of “passions” and “legends”. In this way, the saint, in addition to being an intercessor, assumed the role of example and guide in the imitation of Christ. The narrative scenes therefore had a didactic function, aimed in particular at those who did not have access to the sacred texts.
Among the oldest hagiographic icons are images of warrior saints, champions of Christ who accomplish exceptional feats. Usually of noble origins or in any case of high social extraction, they fulfilled the divine will by renouncing their own privileges. In this context is placed the devotion to John the Soldier, a 5th century martyr, whose mortal remains are conserved in Constantinople. Although venerated as early as the early Middle Ages, in Rus’ his fame spread from the middle of the 1600s, coinciding with the long wars that plagued the populations until the first decades of the 18th century.
Prodigious events, recounted through oral and written accounts, helped to spread the fame of the icons, which, by attracting large crowds of believers and pilgrims, favoured the growth of settlements around the monasteries that safeguarded these images. In order to receive the icon of the Virgin Odigitria, which was miraculously found along the Tichvina River in 1383, a church and a monastery were erected on the site of the finding, near which the town of Tichvin grew. As the scene in the centre of the Uffizi icon illustrates, a tradition tells
At the centre of this icon is the Virgin Mary, her hands raised skyward in prayer, with a medallion on her chest depicting the Blessing Christ, who has a youthful appearance. It is an ancient iconographic model called Platytera, that is, “she who is more vast than the heavens”, according to the definition inspired by a liturgical text of the Greek theologian Saint Basil (4th century) which celebrates the body of the Virgin, so large as to contain the incarnate Messiah. The icon figuratively translates the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." The image of the Platytera was kept in Constantinople, in the Church of the Blacherne, a sanctuary where the relic of the maphorion (the mantle covering Mary’s head and shoulders) was venerated. An icon with the same subject, known as the Sign (Знамение, Znamenie), was conserved from the 12th century in Rus’, in Novgorod. The numerous miracles attributed to it, including the protection of the city during bloody wars and epidemics, have made it one of the most venerated Marian images in Russia. Over the centuries, the icon has been the protagonist of miraculous discoveries and supernatural interventions even in places other than Novgorod, favouring the birth of new iconographic variants. One example is represented by the piece in the Uffizi Galleries, which has as its prototype the icon of the Mother of God, Our Lady of the Sign, which tradition has being found in 1295 among the roots of a tree near the city of Kursk.
Among the icons with the greatest identity in Russian spirituality and history, the Kazan’ Mother of God stands out, inspired by the Byzantine model of Eleusas in the attitude of the Virgin who tenderly brings her face close to that of her son Jesus. The close framing, which excludes the bust and hands of the Virgin, makes this image intimate and suitable for individual prayer, a characteristic that explains the fortune of the icon, considered the protector of the home.
Miraculously found in the 16th century among the ashes of a burnt house in Kazan’, it soon manifested thaumaturgic powers, responsible for various healings, above all from blindness, and contributing to the Christianisation of the populations of the territory of Kazan’, which in 1552 passed from the Tatar-Islamic dominion to that of the Christian Tsar Ivan the Terrible. With the transfer of the icon - or a copy of it - to Moscow, the Kazan’ Mother of God became the protector of the capital and was credited with the liberation of the city from the siege of the Polish army in 1613. The identification of the sacred image with Russia and with the reigning dynasty of the Romanovs was such that with the foundation of St. Petersburg, ordered by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, the icon was transferred from Moscow to the new capital. Tributes to the Virgin of Kazan’ were paid after the failed invasion of Russia by Napoleon’s army and, in more recent times, the icon was repeatedly carried in procession through Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during the Nazi siege.
The invasions of the territories of Rus’ by Mongols and Tatars and the adhesion of the local populations to the Christian Orthodox Church determined a substantial isolation of Russia with respect to the European countries, in medieval and early modern times. This condition is reflected in icon painting, faithful over the centuries to models imported from Constantinople. Gradually, however, especially from the 17th century, thanks to the spread of prints, figurative models and subjects characteristic of Western Christianity flowed into Rus’, which favoured the emergence of new iconographic variants. This is the case of the icon known as the Mother of God Joy of all the afflicted, which became famous after a miraculous healing occurred in Moscow on 24 October 1688. The Virgin is depicted bringing relief to the poor and suffering, shown praying around her, as in the Western iconographic model of Our Lady of Mercy. At the base of the composition, however, are some prayers dedicated to the Virgin: the correlation with sacred texts is in fact an essential characteristic of icons, where each subject depicted is accompanied by an inscription that identifies it.
Between the 15th and 16th centuries in Rus’ a typology of icons became widespread which presented in a prominent position, in the centre, groups of saints praying before Christ or the Virgin, generally positioned at the top, in heavenly glory. The choice of which saints to represent was extremely variable and followed diverse criteria. Saints similar in degree of beatitude (e.g. martyrs), or on the contrary heterogeneous (prophets, martyrs, monks) could be preferred in order to represent the Church in its entirety, saints whose commemoration fell on the same day of the calendar, or the patrons of the person commissioning the piece and his relatives. Probably the Uffizi icon belongs to this typology and gathers rather heterogeneous saints together: the prophet Elijah, Joachim and Anna, parents of Mary, the holy bishop Nicholas of Myra, the martyrs Antipas, Uar, and Juliana, the holy monks Dimitrij of Prilukij and Aleksandr Nevskij. Effigies of this kind were usually painted to be placed in domestic altars, or to be offered as gifts to churches.
The selection of saints to be represented in icons could also be determined by the geographical area in which they were created or to which the person commissioning it belonged. In the case of the Uffizi icon, for example, the saints depicted have to do with the new capital of Russia, St. Petersburg, founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703. There are several saints linked to the personal devotion of the sovereign: the homonymous apostle Peter, the blessed Isaac of Dalmatia, commemorated on the day of the Tsar’s birth, Prince Aleksandr Nevskij, whose remains were transferred to St. Petersburg in 1723 on behest of the monarch. In the icon, Aleksandr Nevskij, leader of Novgorod who lived in the 13th century and was victorious over the invaders of Rus’, is depicted wearing the monastic robe, worn only near the end of his life. After 1724, this iconographic model was supplanted, again by Peter the Great, by the depiction of the saint as “great prince”. The commission of the icon, probably due to a member of the imperial court in St. Petersburg, could be connected with some event that took place on 24 July, the day of commemoration of the martyrs Christine, Boris and Gleb, the other saints depicted in the sacred image.
The painting technique used for icon painting is egg tempera, applied in several layers, especially to the flesh tones, which were given special attention. The pigments used were ground earth, used for colours from ochre to brown, mineral pigments, such as azurite and carmine red, lacquers, and then lead in black and white. Robes could be embellished with subtle gold highlights made with the technique of oil gilding, a process that involved applying tiny segments of gold leaf over a glue. This refined technique is present in some details of the Icon with the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, such as the basin containing the head of the martyr and the vegetation in the lower right corner.
The painted surface was then covered with a linseed oil-based varnish called olifa, which over time tended to absorb the smoke of the candles, taking on an amber colouring that often alters the original colouring. Starting in the 18th century, new types of paints, based on resins, were introduced. Painted on wooden supports - not infrequently coniferous wood - the icons often have recessed sliding crossbars on the reverse side, useful for controlling the natural curvature of the panel. On the front side, the sacred image was usually circumscribed by a raised frame, obtained by hollowing out the support in the central part of the panel, according to Byzantine tradition. In many exemplars, the panel was reinforced on the front side by a canvas, on which was spread a preparation of chalk and glue called levkas.
Icons may have metal coatings attached to the wooden support that embellish the sacred image. The practice of covering icons with sheets of precious metal seems to date back to the end of the 11th century and had great development in Russia. The term for these ornaments is oklad but, according to some technical peculiarities, one can distinguish between basma and riza. Basma is the oldest type of oklad, consisting of small, finely worked metal plates that were separately attached to the surface to embellish certain details of the icon, such as the frame or the halos of the saints. By riza, a Russian word meaning “robe”, we understand it as a cover made of a single metal element, fixed to the corners of the panel, which leaves visible only some elements of the figures depicted in the icon, such as faces, hands and sometimes the body of the figures. This technique, developed from the 17th century onwards, led to a decline in the artistic quality of the icons, prompting painters to neglect painting in the parts that would remain covered by the riza. In both types of oklad, the most commonly used sheets are made of gold and silver (often gilded), which were embossed and finely chiselled to obtain the desired decorative motifs; in order to make the work even more precious, filigree, precious stones and enamels were often added. Among the icons in the Uffizi Galleries, the oldest specimens in the collection, such as the icon with the depiction of the Mother of God according to the iconography inspired by a hymn in praise of the Virgin Mary, are enriched by the gilded silver covering made in basma, while there are no specimens of riza.
In the 17th century, the icon painter of greatest renown was Simon Usakov (1626-1686), a leading figure among the maestros of the Kremlin Armoury Chamber in Moscow. This was the imperial palace that housed the workshops of the skilled craftsmen who worked for the Tsar’s court - goldsmiths, jewellers, painters - and which, producing highly refined artefacts, represented the most influential artistic centre of Rus’ in the 17th century. Under the influence of Usakov, who was open to the influence of European painting and graphics, the painters of the Armoury Chamber introduced a partial use of perspective in the construction of the architectural elements and a certain naturalism in the plastic rendering of the figures and the chiaroscuro of the flesh tones. An example of this is the Uffizi's icon with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, made at the end of the 17th century. The iconographic and stylistic models of the isographers of the Armoury Chamber also spread to the provincial workshops which, albeit late and with less refined results, began to imitate the methods and innovations introduced in Moscow.
The icon is an example of the affirmation, also in the provincial area, of the stylistic features of the school of the imperial workshops of the Kremlin’s Armoury Chamber, to which the elegant racemes motif of the bishop’s robes and, more generally, the decorative richness make reference. Other details, such as the absence of chiaroscuro in the modelling and the simplification in the construction of the flesh tones, which are almost monochrome, attest to the less courtly tone of this icon, which is the result of the reinterpretation of an isographer active in a provincial setting and in a more popular context.
Bishop of the city of Trimythous on the island of Cyprus who lived in the 4th century, Spyridon was venerated in the Rus’ territories from the beginning of the Christianisation process and is commemorated on 12 December. Traditionally depicted as a bishop, whose fundamental functions are the fulfilment of the divine liturgy and the care of the flock in the true faith, Spyridon wears the sacred vestments and holds the Gospel in his hands. Over the centuries, miracles linked to the protection of domestic animals, especially goats, were attributed to the saint, a tradition that favoured the spread of devotion to the saint between common people.
Despite the fact that the icon, reflecting the immutability of the divinity, is characterised by the reiteration of subjects and models, over the centuries local schools of painting developed near important monasteries, with the icons characterised by different stylistic and iconographic peculiarities. The icon depicting the Annunciation can be traced back to a maestro active in the area of Jaroslavl or Kostroma, ancient cities on the Volga River, and is characterised by the complex architectural articulation of the buildings, supported by elegant columns, and the use of subtle touches of white lead to outline the cornices and decorative elements. Distinctive features were also expressed in the tone of the chromatic range, here articulated on the predominance of green, brown and cinnabar red, and in the construction of the flesh tones, here obtained by a skilful modulation of ochre and white lead.
Texts by Daniela Parenti
Images: Roberto Palermo, Francesco Del Vecchio
Editing: Patrizia Naldini
Published on 1 January 2022