By Alice Isabella Sullivan
The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is home to several icons from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that reveal aspects of the rich cultural heritage of Kyivan Rus’. These icons hail from centers such Kyiv and Novgorod, and supposedly arrived in Moscow sometime after the fourteenth century, coinciding with the time when Muscovy emerged on the political, cultural, and religious scene of the late Middle Ages.
Several of the early icons of Kyivan Rus’ are associated with Novgorod, the second most important city in the region beginning in the eleventh century. First mentioned in textual sources from the ninth century, Novgorod developed alongside Kyiv. For example, the cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod, completed by the middle of the eleventh century, deliberately emulated – although on a smaller scale and less intricate in terms of its design and decorations – the great cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv.
One of the early icons of Novgorod, dating to the twelfth century, is a double-sided icon showing the Mandylion (or the Holy Face of Christ “not made by human hands”) on one side, and the Veneration of the Cross on the other side. The image of the Mandylion, painted with tempera on wood, places emphasis on Christ’s haloed visage against a gold background. Thin strips of gold leaf accentuate Christ’s undulating curls, and precious stones would have once adorned the cross inscribed within his halo. Such images stressed Christ’s human nature and the miraculous instances that captured his likeness (such as the accounts of the holy relic of Edessa or the Veronica veil).
The other side of the icon similarly underscores Christ’s life, and in particular the suffering that he endured for Christian salvation. Set against a white background, the cross onto which Christ was crucified rises at the center above Golgotha, the “place of the skull,” that is, Adam’s burial. Although Christ’s body is missing from the composition, the Arma Christi is present. The crown of thorns hangs from the cross at the center, and the archangels Michael and Gabriel to either side hold the lance that pierced Christ’s side and the sponge soaked in vinegar that inflicted additional pain onto his already suffering body during the Crucifixion.
In the upper sections, two cherubim with red wings hold liturgical fans, perhaps in allusion to the celebrations of the Divine Liturgy, while two six-winged seraphim stand in the corners above allegorical representations of the sun and the moon. This image offers a symbolic and timeless representation of the Crucifixion. Together with the image of the Mandylion on the opposite side, this icon would have served as a reminder of Christ’s earthly presence and his sacrifice. We can imagine such double-sided icons being used in liturgical ceremonies and processions, raised above crowds, and easily recognized from afar or close-up.
Another noteworthy early icon is the so-called Ustyug Annunciation, which once resided at the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod and was transferred to Moscow sometime during the sixteenth century. The icon displays the moment of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel, shown on the left, approaches the Virgin Mary with the news that she will bear the son of God. In the composition, the Virgin stands on the right, with her head tilted to the side, and gazes longingly toward the viewer. A small figure of the Christ child – a distinguishing feature of the iconography in this case – hovers above Mary’s bosom, indicating her acceptance of her role, and visualizing the forthcoming birth of the Savior. A view of the heavens opens in the upper portion of the scene, in an otherwise golden and ambiguous setting. Just like with the Mandylion of Christ in the previous example, delicate gold leaf accents enhance the angel’s hair and prominent wings, indicating perhaps its divine origin.
Scholars have proposed that the Ustyug Annunciation was designed as a pendant to an icon of St. George. Both icons were supposedly commissioned for the consecration ceremony of the Cathedral of St. George at Yuriev Monastery in Novgorod in the 1130s. The two images certainly share compositional similarities and are roughly of the same dimensions. They could have been displayed in the naos of the church or incorporated into the iconostasis – the wall of icons that stands at the threshold between the naos and the altar in Eastern Christian churches.
Today, these two icons stand majestically side-by-side in a room of the Tretyakov Gallery, with the double-sided icon of the Mandylion and the Veneration of the Cross before them, in a case, that allows for the object to be viewed from both sides. How these icons arrived in Moscow from Novgorod during the late Middle Ages remains open to speculation. Although they have been stripped from their original settings, and of the meanings and functions they once carried in their Novgorodian contexts, at least they are preserved during these times of conflict. Their layered histories, intertwined with those of Kyivan Rus’, remain to be uncovered.
Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, Eclecticism in Late Medieval Visual Culture at the Crossroads of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Traditions, and co-founder of North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan