Hagiographical Russian Icon of the 16th Century
Russian icon painting of the late Middle Ages underwent enormous changes in comparison with previous periods. The loss of connection with Byzantium, the creation of the idea of national identity, and the concept of “Moscow is the third Rome” could not but affect artists and patrons. In this article, we continue the conversation about the history of the hagiographical icon, its characteristics and sources in different periods.
Hagiographical Russian Icon of the 16th Century
The Late Middle Ages was a transformative period for the culture of Rus’. The disappearance of Byzantium from the world map, following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, had a profound impact on the political relations throughout Europe. The outcome of this situation was the development of the perception of Moscow as the last bastion of Orthodoxy. This necessitated the search for new political and cultural associations for Rus’ and its rulers, the Moscow princes, and eventually, after Ivan IV the Terrible, the tsars. The most sufficient goal of the people of Rus’ was to understand themselves, to understand their past, and to determine its position in the global chronological context. Russian iconography, particularly icons depicting saints, embraced these developments.
The ideas of independence of the Moscow principality on the path of studying its history, the foundations of faith, and the protection of Orthodoxy in its primordial form, as people of that time believed, were realized in a variety of forms. It is characteristic that at the end of the 15th century, after the fall of Byzantium, the first complete translation of the Old Testament into the Slavic language was made, initiated by the Metropolitan of Novgorod, Gennady. The Palea Explanatory (Palea Tolkovaya), which provided commentary on the canonical text, was a significant work accompanying those texts. The works, together with the apocryphal Lives of Moses, formed the basis of a distinctly new iconographic cycle. In the 16th century, Russian icon painting was enriched by its own version of the “Creation of the World,” typically designed according to the principles of hagiographical icons.
From an artistic perspective, the Russian icon painting during the first third of the 16th century was considerably influenced by earlier art, specifically the work from Dionysius’ workshop. The major stylistic elements included light and seemingly floating figures, colorful crowds, numerous architectural motifs and velums, and the significant role of drawing and refined silhouettes in creating the image. These elements formed the foundation of art during the early 16th century.
In the mid-16th century, during Ivan the Terrible’s reign, Metropolitan Macarius greatly stimulated cultural and artistic development. A range of church Councils were triggered by his initiative and aimed at the canonization of Russian saints, particularly locally venerated saints from various regions of Rus’. Soon after, new hagiographical icons of immense dimensions and incredible precision emerged. A prime illustration is the depiction of St. Alexander of Svirsky, created for the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, prominently featuring 129 hagiographical marks. This Russian icon exemplifies the 16th-century iconographer’s inclination toward narration, rather than the contemplative and pithy Byzantine style: the central area where the saint himself was depicted is largely minimized, ceding much of the wooden panel’s surface to his Life cycle.
Another valuable contribution of Metropolitan Macarius, which is actually still an important source among historians and art critics, was the Great Menaion Reader (Velikiye Minei Chetii). This single set comprises all known editions of the Lives of Saints who were canonized by the mid-16th century. Russian icon painting was also enriched as a result of this creation. But even if the amount of information provided by the Great Menaion Reader was limited, the icon painter was able to refer to the firmly established canon. It adhered to the literary genre of the Life, which includes details such as the saint’s birth to pious parents, baptism, initiation into teaching, lifetime miracles, burial, and posthumous miracles.
The format of hagiographical icons proved highly practical for portraying narratives not only about saints but also about evangelical events. This is exemplified by two renowned icons for the Moscow Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral: “The Crucifixion with Gospel Scenes” and “The Resurrection with Gospel Scenes.” Alongside direct biblical depictions, these artworks also contain cycles and illustrations of parables and dialogues between Jesus and His apostles. It is noteworthy that these two icons were widely regarded as a unified theological ensemble and were situated in the Assumption Cathedral alongside the Holy Sepulcher model during the 17th century.
In the 16th century, a new genre of literature emerged as a source for hagiographical icons in the form of Tales of wonderworking icons. The Russian icon of that type usually featured revered images of the Mother of God, such as the Vladimir Icon, the Tikhvin Icon, the Kazan Icon, and so on, surrounded by scenes of the discovery and miracles associated with them.
Thus, Russian icon painting in the 16th century was enhanced significantly through the creation of new types of hagiographical icons, attaining the right to narrative. The new literary sources that emerged during this period were also incorporated by icon painters into their work, becoming crucial elements in the further development of hagiographic iconography in the 17th century.