Currently in Russia there has been a renewed interest in the Orthodox Church, and along with that, a rejuvenation in the interest of Russian icons and Russian saints. The Russian generation of today looks to religion as part of its "search for truth," according to Oskar Gruenwald.
The icon (from the Greek word eikon, meaning image) is a piece of religious art in the tradition of the Byzantine icons. They are symbolic in that they represent a sacred subject, in addition to being an expression of spirituality. The icons are appreciated for their aesthetic qualities, while they are also a "means for the faithful to participate in divine life" (Gruenwald), that is, a bringing together of art, religion, and the masses.
Russian saints figure prominently in Russian iconography, for they are the personification of the ideal Russian citizen. There are about 385 official canonized Russian saints, and most members of the religious population have a patron saint. If someone is given an icon as a gift, it is habitual for their patron saint to be pictured, often along with Christ and one other figure.
Icon with Saints Constantine, Anna and Theoctista with Icon of the Virgin and Child Above
This image is saturated with such expressive color (the artist used oil) that it is easy to see how meaningful this icon was for those who owned it. Here is an example of an icon within an icon, with the Virgin and Child depicted above three saints. Sts. Contstantine, Anna, and Theoctista stand reverently below the Virgin and Child, who are shown in the Hodegetria type (as in No. 527). Although the Virgin and Child icon is smaller, because of its placement and the importance of the Virgin and Child, it is obviously meant to be the object of more glory and veneration. Each saint has an elongated body in the Byzantine icon tradition. However, their graceful draperies and contrapposto pose suggest a classical Greek influence as well. Their spirituality is emphasized by the style of the paint and the movement of their vestments. Yet the icon is not completely spiritual and ephemeral, the three-quarter poses of the saints allow the viewer to see weight and three-dimensionality in the icon.
St. Constantine the Great was instrumental to the history of Christianity, and it is for this reason that he has the status of saint. In 306 A.D. Constantine was proclaimed emperor of the Western part of the Roman Empire. A religious man even before he discovered Christianity, it was in 312 A.D. that the fateful awakening took place. At that time, Constantine was engaged in war against Maxentius. During the war, it is said that Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the inscription, "By this sign conquer." Constantine recognized God and Christianity, and subsequently defeated Maxentius. After his own revelation, he proclaimed that no Christians should be persecuted. However, Constantine waited to be baptized until he was on his deathbed, and then died at peace.
Because of his recognization of Christianity, and his subsequent protection of Christian followers, Constantine was made a saint. In this icon, he wears a regal garment which is blue (symbolizing the heaven) and green (symbolizing the earth). His gold mantle is said to symbolize truth, with a white fur border which symbolizes purity. Constantine is holding a scepter and cross, and wears a crown which is surmounted by another cross. His garments and placement in the icon demonstrate his power and importance. It can be noted that the icon of the Virgin which is above Constantine could symbolize his own Christian revelation.
St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, wears robes of red and green, and makes the gentle blessing gesture. Because of the renewed interest in Mary as a figure in Christianity, it is likely that there was also a renewed interest in her mother and father. Her inclusion in the icon probably means that the icon was intended for someone who held St. Anna as their personal saint.
St. Babylas was the Archbishop of Antioch while the Emperor Numerian was in power. The emperor, a pagan who was strongly against Christianity, came to Babylas's church and demanded the right to enter and do as he pleased. Babylas and his followers refused, submitting their faith to God. Eventually Emperor Numerian tortured and killed the saint and some of his followers for this defying action.
St. Sergius is an adored Russian saint, yet little is known about his life. He led a spiritual revival of Christianity during the twelfth century in Russia. It is said that his love for God was simple and undivided, and therefore so was his life.
St. Nicholas, whose image also is illustrated and described below in No. 530, could arguably be the most popular saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. Appealing to children and the older generations alike, Nicholas performed numerous good deeds and defied pagan tradition as well.
The three saints are all adorned in simple robes and rich stoles, the traditional dress of the Russian Orthodox Priests. We are able to identify them due to the Cyrillic inscriptions upon their halos. Their faith and religiosity is emphasized with their blessing hand gestures, and the books that two of the saints hold, which are most likely Bibles. The back of the icon gives us the date and origin of this presentation icon. It reads "14 September, 1844 L 1894," which suggests that the receiver of the gift was celebrating their fiftieth anniversary or birthday. Below the inscription are eight names, presumably of the men who provided the gift.
Presentation Icon in the Form of a Triptych
An unusual aspect of this significant icon is the arrangement of the saints in relationship to Christ. In the majority of icons and art works, Christ is placed in the center, showing his importance and revered position. Here, however, St. Andrew is pictured in the center, with St. Vladimir on the left and Christ on the right.
St. Vladimir is significant because he introduced Christianity to Russia. However, although he is now adored as a saint, his life could not be said to be truly holy and pure. He ruthlessly took control of Russia as the Great Prince in 980. He sought out Christianity for a couple of reasons: so that he could unite his country, and so that he would be able to arrange a marriage with the Emperor of Byzantium's daughter. It is possible that he had spiritual motives, but the other reasons were purely for political and personal gain. Vladimir sent out emissaries in order to determine which religion would be best; when he eventually decided to convert to Christianity, he forced his followers and those he conquered to do the same. This introduction of the Christian theology into Russia also introduced Byzantine style art. Here Vladimir is shown wearing a royal red robe with a gold stole, and crown. Holding a cross, Vladimir is identified by the Cyrillic inscription.
St. Andrew, an apostle and martyr, was the last of Christ's disciples to be martyred. A devoted Christian, Andrew was associated with Russia through a legend that claimed he set a cross on the site of the future Kiev, and predicting that there would arise "a great city and that God would found many churches there". Here Andrew is dressed in mauve and dark green and holds his right hand in the gesture of blessing. He is also identified by an inscription.
The inscription on the back identifies the receiver of the icon and the occasion for which it was presented. The inscription reads
It is most likely that the icon was presented to Andrei Vladmirovich at his retirement or another anniversary. His patron saints are depicted, and as noted before, the placing of St. Andrew in the center is an example of the artistic freedom that the artist was able to take with the making of the elaborate icon.
Icon Easter Egg
St. Tatiana is shown on one side of this delicate egg, another saint whose dedication to Christ led her to be martyred. Tatiana, who lived in Rome from 223-235 A.D., practiced Christianity illegally with her family. When the Emperor Alexander Severus discovered this, he killed her father, and then tortured Tatiana in attempt to convert her. Because Tatiana refused to betray Christ and her beliefs, she was killed. She is probably pictured here because the egg was meant as a gift for someone who had Tatiana as their personal saint.
More information on this work is available on the Easter Egg Page.
Icon of the Virgin of Tenderness
The patron saints of the owners of this icon are depicted on the frame of the icon, which shows the Virgin and Child embraced. The leader of the apostles, Peter, is at the bottom left of the frame, wearing golden yellow. One of the most significant apostles, Peter witnessed the Transfiguration, and later became the first Roman Catholic Pope. The virgin martyr St. Agnes is at the top right. She was martyred due to her refusal of marriage because of her dedication to Christ. St. Stephanida is at the bottom right, wearing blue with a red over-garment, and holding a staff.
This image is also discussed on the Madonna page.
This treasured icon depicts St. Nicholas, with a small figure of Christ to his left, and a small figure of the Virgin Mary to his right. One of the most popular and revered saints of Orthodox Russia, he is claimed as the patron saint of Russia. As the Bishop of Myra, Nicholas performed many good deeds, making him popular with a range of Russian generations. One such story that is told of him epitomizes his faith and selflessness. It was said that there was a poor father with three daughters, and he could not afford a dowry for any of them. The oldest daughter was about to leave the house for a life of humility and poverty and prostitution, when St. Nicholas gave the father a bag with three gold coins, which the girl was able to use as her dowry. St. Nicholas provided coins for the other daughters, so that they too, were able to marry. It is also said that St. Nicholas also raised three boys from life. For this reason and others, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of children, which leads to our image of Old St. Nick, otherwise known as Santa Claus, today.
Nicholas is dressed in the traditional robes of a bishop. He holds a bible which has an inscription of the verse following the Beatitudes:
The Nicholas icon (also shown in No. 452), which had layers of paint scraped away in order to reveal the original surface, comes from a time when religious art was much in demand. Because of this, the icons grew to have a sort of formulaic sense about them. Here we see the white ground, delicate figures, and subtle shadows which are typical of the Moscow school. However, the icon's delicate nature and beauty reveal the talent of the iconographer.
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This page has been researched and compiled by Whitney Burke, with additional research provided by the original exhibition catalog text by Kristin O'Donnell and Janine Confer.