A catalogue of the Russian icons in the British Museum

By Yury Bobrov / Edited by Chris Entwistle

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The British Museum collection

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In Russian church art, in accordance with the Byzantine tradition, the image of the Virgin Mary received especial veneration. Her icon was given a theological name corresponding with the literal translation of the Greek original: ‘Mother of God’ Bogomate’ (from the Greek Theotokos or MeterTheou). Additionally, an icon of the Mother of God might receive the name of that church where its ‘master copy’ was located; its place of origin and veneration; of certain functions, for example intercession (the Greek ‘Paraklesis’), or concepts of dogma[6].

In Russian iconography certain types of image of the Mother of God received local names too, usually linked to the place where the miraculous image was found. Thus, the Byzantine type known as the Hodegetria (from the Greek Hodegetria– the One who shows the way) is famous in different variants under the names ‘Vladimirskaya’ (of Vladimir), ‘Smolenskaya’ (of Smolensk), ‘Tikhvinskaya’ (of Tikhvin), ‘Gruzinskaya’ (of Georgia), ‘Iaroslavskaya’ (of Iaroslavl’), ‘Korsunskaya’ (of Korsun) and others[7]. On later calendrical icons of the 18th and 19th centuries one may count images of around 130 miracle-working icons of the Mother of God.

The image of the Mother of God became the source of a multiplicity of diverse images, originating as illustrations of symbolic interpretative images from the Bible or as allegories of Church hymnography such as ‘In Praise of the One who bore God’ (cat. no. 23), ‘The Burning Bush’, ‘The Stone not Hewn by Man’, ‘The Life-bearing Spring’, ‘Sophia the Wisdom of God’ (cat. no. 25), ‘The Mother of God, Joy to All Who Grieve’ (cat. no. 72) and others.

In Old Rus, which contemporaries considered ‘the House of the Mother of God’, copies of several famous Byzantine icons, especially those preserved in the Church of the Theotokos in Blachernae in Constantinople, gained fame. Ancient icons such ‘The Vladimir Mother of God of Tenderness’ (pre-1130, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow), brought from Constantinople to Kiev and then moved in 1155 by Grand Prince Andrei Bogoliubskii to the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, date back to these. Amongst the ‘Blachernitissa’ type is the oldest Novgorodian icon of ‘The Mother of God of the Sign’ (from the first half of the 12th century, Novgorod Museum), the renowned 16th-century icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, and others. Russian iconographers carefully reproduced revered icons in multiple replicas over the centuries, since in Orthodox Christianity it is believed that the wonder-working power of an icon is transmitted to its exact copies.

Amongst icons of the Mother of God in the collection of the British Museum is a fine icon of ‘Sophia the Wisdom of God’ (cat. no. 25) from the late 17th century. In this icon are represented two widespread versions of the symbolic union of the image of the Mother of God with the idea of Divine Wisdom ‘building her house’, understood as the creation of the earthly church. The image of the fiery-faced winged angel in the centre, according to Novgorodian tradition, arises from the prophecies of Isaiah about an angel of Great Light and the vision of John the Apostle in the Book of Revelation: ‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire’ (10:1).

The Mother of God, supporting on her breast a disc with an image of the Christ child, Emmanuel, represents the mystery of the incarnation of the Word (cat. no. 29). On other icons of the so-called ‘Kievan’ type (cat. no. 46), the Mother of God is seated on a throne in the centre, encircled by prophets glorifying her. Here the Mother of God is depicted as a straightforward embodiment of the earthly Church – the House of Wisdom.

Against a background of later, more complicated dogmatic images of the Mother of God, her image in earlier icons, such as the mid-16th century ‘Mother of God Smolenskaya’ (cat. no. 3), is attractive in its simplicity and grandeur. The iconographic type known as the Smolensk Mother of God dates back to a Byzantine icon first brought to Rus by Princess Anna, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX, who was given in marriage to Prince Vsevolod Iaroslavich (1030-93). Their son, Grand Prince Vladimir Monomakh, brought the miracle-working icon from Chernigov to Smolensk, to the Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God (1101).

This image was an exact copy of one of the icons of the Mother of God in the Church of the Blachernae in Constantinople, and was, according to church tradition, painted by the Apostle Luke himself. The Byzantine model was the source for the dissemination in Rus of the most solemn, processional type of half-length image of the Mother of God with the Christ child in her arms. The figure of Christ, who has his hand raised in blessing towards the Theotokos, is seated in a strict frontal pose on her left hand.

The vertically elongated proportions of the figures, the fine lines of the drawing and the soft, tonally subtle modelling of the faces embodies the style of Moscow iconography of the first half to the middle of the 16th century, when the influence of the art of the early icon painter Dionysii was still in evidence.

The strict canons of iconography and the traditional skills of icon painting were carefully preserved by the Orthodox Church. In the middle of the 16th century, when there arose a danger that the Russian icon would be corrupted by new European ideas, via the medium of Cretan icons and Polish paintings, a special decree of a council of Russian hierarchs – the Stoglav Council of 1551 – rigidly regulated iconographic formulae. As models for emulation they approved the iconography of the ancient masters – Byzantine and Russian – amongst whom Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–1428/30) was specified. These decisions contributed to the preservation of special iconographical patterns for the following centuries. The subsequent split in the Russian church in the second half of the 17th century, as a result of the reforms of Patriarch Nikon (Moscow Council of 1666), on the one hand opened the way to Western influence and moved traditional iconography to the periphery of Church life, and on the other hand made her forms into a symbol of ‘Holy Rus’. Old Believers – followers of ancient Orthodoxy – not only preserved old icons in their everyday practice but, for the duration of the 18th and 19th centuries, supported the skill of icon painting with egg tempera colours on panels in accordance with ancient canons. The iconographers of Mstera, Palekh and Kholui – heirs of the ‘Suzdalian’ tradition in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – could thus paint icons in the ‘old-fashioned’ style so skilfully that contemporary researchers do not always distinguish them from the ancient models they are based upon.

Dr Yury Bobrov
Academy of Arts, St Petersburg
May 2008

Translated from the Russian by Stella Rock

  • ^ [6] - Belting 1991, n. 1, p. 45.
  • ^ [7] - Bentchev and Haustein-Bartsch 2000.