Hagiographical icon: origins, development, Russian iconography

Hagiographical Icon: Origins, Development, Russian Iconography

The phenomenon of the hagiographical icon always raises a lot of questions for those who are just beginning to get acquainted with Byzantine and Old Russian art. In this article we observe its history and the contribution that Russian iconography made to it.

Hagiographical Icon: Origins, Development, Russian Iconography (Part 1)

In the first few centuries of Christianity, theological debates encompassed more than just the dogmatic pillars of the nascent faith. Concurrently, the veneration of icons was a hotly contested topic. During this period, the esteemed fathers of the Church viewed icons as having a crucial role in enlightening illiterate individuals who couldn’t read the Gospel or hagiographical texts on their own. The concept of hagiographical icons emerged early on, namely, those icons that depict not only the saint but also the scenes from their pious life, miracles, or martyrdom. With such an abundance of very different subjects, both Byzantine and Russian iconography developed very actively in hagiographic icons.

Even though we do not know the exact date of origin of the first hagiographical icons, the oldest surviving ones are from the 12th century onwards. The earliest surviving example is the Byzantine icon of St. Marina (Byzantine Museum, Nicosia), presumably dating back to the end of the 12th century. This example depicts a traditional composition, featuring a large waist-length image of the saint in the center (srednik), surrounded by scenes from her life in the margins. It is customary to read the plots in such icons beginning from the upper left corner, progressing line by line from left to right, in a manner similar to reading a book.

The relationship between icon painting and hagiography as a literary genre is not coincidental. Icon painters have always depended on familiar hagiographical texts in their work. The most important source for Byzantine icon painters was the 10th-century Minology by Symeon Metaphrastus, secretary to the Byzantine emperors Leo VI the Philosopher and Constantine VII, whose nickname can be loosely translated from the Greek as ‘narrator’. In his research into the subject, Simeon Metaphrastus undertook the immense task of detailing the lives of all the saints known at the time and classifying them according to the months and days in which they were celebrated. This invaluable and practical resource has become highly sought-after among icon painters and serves as a major source of Byzantine and by implication Russian iconography.

However, the situation in Old Rus’ took a different course of development. Hagiographical compilations translated from Greek into Slavic, such as the Synaxaries and the Mesyatseslov, were widely used from the early 12th century under the incorrect title of Prologues because the word “ο προλογος” (the title of the preface) was wrongly taken as the title of the whole book. In addition to the prefaces consisting of accounts of ordinary Christian and Byzantine saints, the Old Rus’ artists had other sources, including other editions, often more extensive and detailed than the prefaces, and accounts of the lives of Russian saints, particularly of Saint Boris and Saint Gleb, the sons of Prince Vladimir. Though their hagiographies existed in various editions, the most widespread version was authored by the famous Kyiv saint, Nestor the Chronicler. These texts subsequently remained in high demand in the Moscow principality, serving as a valuable resource for Russian iconography.

Hagiographical Icon: Origins, Development, Russian Iconography

The Prophet Elijah in the Desert with the Life and Deesis from the village of Vybuty. Second half of the 13th century

The earliest surviving Russian hagiographical icon dates from the second half of the 13th century. It is the Prophet Elijah in the Desert with Scenes from His Life and the Deesis from the village of Vybuty (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). This artwork, alongside many others from the 14th century, remains closely linked to the Byzantine iconographic tradition. However, during this period, Russian iconography progressed in portraying new miracles that had taken place in Rus’. The hagiographical cycles of St. Nicholas, a highly venerated saint, are a particularly good example of this. Among the most popular is the Kyiv miracle from the icon of St. Nicholas the Wet (11th century, not preserved), which concerns the rescue of a baby who drowned in the Dnieper and was found safe, albeit wet, under the icon of the saint. One of the earliest examples of the incorporation of this miracle in the hagiographical cycle is the icon dating back to the late 14th – early 15th century, originating from the Church of St. Nicholas in Kievets, a Kyiv resident settlement close to Moscow (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

In the last third of the 15th century and early 16th century, hagiographical icons became increasingly popular. During this time, Russian iconography experienced significant growth, featuring new compositions created by the Moscow-based icon painter Dionysius and his sons. In their time, the hagiography of Moscow saints was used extensively, such as Saint Sergius of Radonezh, Saints Peter and Alexis of Moscow. Epiphanius the Wise wrote poetic and sometimes personal hagiographical texts in the first half of the 15th century, which would be later edited and reworked by the skilled writer Pachomius the Serb, who came from Mount Athos. These editions of the new Moscovite saint’s hagiography became significant for Russian iconography, and especially for Dionysius.

Hagiographical Icon: Origins, Development, Russian Iconography

Metropolitan Peter, with Scenes from His Life. Dionysius. 1480s

Perhaps, the most noteworthy instances of hagiographical icon development in this era are the icons of Saints Peter and Alexis of Moscow. They were created around 1480 for the recently constructed and consecrated Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin and can now be found in the Museums of Moscow Kremlin and the Tretyakov Gallery. The style of Dionysius, characterized by elongated and seemingly buoyant figures, as well as delicate coloration, became instantly recognizable. However, it is intriguing to observe the development of Russian iconography. Despite the common veneration of St. Peter, he was previously depicted in isolated images only. Furthermore, Dionysius’ workshop developed a new principle for arranging hagiographical cycle scenes. Instead of separate compositions, the compositions in the upper and lower rows were now combined into a single elegant frieze, divided by architectural elements or human figures.

The intricate, multi-figure icons crafted by Dionysius, together with their stylistic features, would persist in their evolution in monuments linked with his son Theodosius’ workshop. An example of this can be observed in the icon St. Sergius of Radonezh, with Scenes from His Life from the early 16th century (Andrey Rublev Museum, Moscow). It was in these workshops that Russian iconography was enriched not only with fresh variations of traditional compositions, but also with fundamentally new ones. For instance, in the paintings of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary of the Ferapontov Monastery in 1502, Dionysius and his sons actively reproduced the Mother of God hymns in colors: Akathist, “Unto the Defender General the Dues of Victory…”, “All of Creation Rejoices in Thee….”

The accumulated experience and innovations of Dionysius and Theodosius’s workshops would serve as the foundation of 16th-century art, which signaled a new era of development for Russian iconography.