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

Page 2

A completely different history, from a different epoch, is to be found in the image of St George on a black horse (cat. no. 1). Private collectors discovered the icon in a tiny northern village called Il’inskii Pogost on the banks of the river Pinega in 1959. The northern region of Archangel has given Russian culture many wonderful works of iconography, amongst which are the unique royal gates from the village of Krivoe dating to the pre-Mongol period (Tretiakov Gallery, 12th–13th century). During the period known as ‘Khrushchev’s Thaw’, a new wave of enthusiasm arose for Old Russian art. Museums organised expeditions during which they competed with private collectors in the hunt for old icons still remaining in abandoned churches and distant villages [2]. Local inhabitants often recycled icons – the images on which were hidden beneath layers of over-painting and black oil – as table tops, doors, and for agricultural purposes, much as the stones of the Coliseum were used in the building of ordinary homes in medieval Rome. Thus, this icon of St George had been used as a window shutter in a village building.  The icon was found by the literary critic, writer and Brezhnev-era dissident Andrei Siniavsky (1925–97) and his wife Mariia Rozanova (born 1930). It was brought to Moscow where it was restored in 1960 by the famous Moscow restorer Adolf Ovchinnikov, revealing an older image beneath the later layers. This rare – in terms of artistic expression – icon became famous after it was shown in the ‘Northern Letters’ exhibition in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow (1964) where, as G. Vzdorov rightly observed, it was ‘wrongly’ identified as an icon of the Pskov school [3]. After a legal process, Andrei Siniavsky and Mariia Rozanova brought the icon to Paris in 1973, where they lived as émigrés, and subsequently sold it in 1986 to the British Museum.

The icon of St George is a genuine masterpiece of Russian painting. The delicate figure of the saint, sitting on a black horse which is, as it were, stretching the whole width of the icon panel in one leap, embodies the freedom-loving spirit of the northerners. The icon painter disregards the strict rules of the Byzantine iconographical tradition. His light, almost watercolour-like manner of painting, harmonising with the translucent colours of the northern countryside, contains the strength of that ‘authentic folk art’ which Henri Matisse observed in the Russian icon.

It is not by chance that specialists have failed to agree upon a definition of the icon’s style: one considers it to have originated in the Pskov school; others have linked it with the ‘Moscow artistic circle’ [4].In fact the iconography of the Russian North, which generally interpreted more freely the strict canons traditionally adhered to, is influenced by both Novgorod and Moscow in the first half of the 15th century. Similar traits are visible in many paintings of the Northern region. Old Novgorodian influence is overlaid with features of the ‘Moscow style’, arriving together during the active ‘monastic colonisation’ of these territories by Moscow.

The iconography of this icon is within the framework of a traditional ‘concise’ schema of Novgorodian iconography of the 14th to 15th centuries. In agreement with this schema, the figures of the princess and other witnesses of the miracle are not shown – compare to  ‘The Miracle of St George and the Dragon’ (cat. no. 51). The image relates to the opening words of the saint’s Life, where it says that ‘the Saint crossed himself and charged forwards to meet the monster, saying ‘My Lord God, destroy the fierce serpent so that these unbelievers may believe’. The treatment of the subject in early Russian icons differs from the Western, knightly version of the image, in that here divine providence is underlined. George is not just a warrior, killing the dragon with his own strength, but a saint, surmounting evil with the strength of prayer. The lofty symbolism of the icon is especially evident in comparison with another image of St George from the British Museum’s collection – an icon of the 13th century, which Robin Cormack ascribes to the pictorial art of the crusaders in the East [5].

Later, in the 15th and 16th centuries in Novgorodian iconography, the image of St George the Conqueror takes on the characteristics of a hero from a folk tale, as evidenced by an icon with the Miracle of St George and the Dragon (cat. no. 2) in the Museum’s collection dating from the first half of the 16th century. Here, the saint, astride a white horse with an elegant red harness, defeats the dragon which is crawling out from a black cave amongst multicoloured crags; but stripped of dynamics and scene, the composition has acquired the character of an everyday action.

  • ^ [2] - V.A. Soloukhin wrote about the collection of icons in these years in his tales Pis’ma iz Russkogo muzeia, 1966, and Chernye doski, 1969. See also Vzdornov 2006.
  • ^ [3] - Vzdornov 2006, n. 16, p. 266, fn. 38; Ovchinnikov and Kishilov 1971, no. 16.
  • ^ [4] - Smirnova, Laurina and Gordienko 1982, 228, fn. 11.
  • ^ [5] - Cormack and Mihalarias 1984, 132–41.