Evolution of Style in Muscovite Icons:  Icons of the Birth of Mary

Even though we tend to think of the Byzantine cultural traditions as unchanging and the Russians, more than any members of the "Byzantine Commonwealth," seemed determined to preserve Byzantine Orthodoxy just as they had received it, in fact much did change over time.  While by and large Russian churchmen were not creating original philosophical or theological texts, the repertoire of texts available to them grew substantially through the importation of translations.    As Russians were canonized, their "lives" were composed according to the Byzantine models.   Over time, partly under the influence of South Slavic bookmen who came to Russia in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the style of these texts became more complex.  There was a tendency for authors or copyists to elaborate and add descriptive passages.  In fact such "innovation" became so prominent that the archbishop of Novgorod, Makarii, who then became Metropolitan under Ivan IV, had to "purify" the texts included in his Velikie Chet'i Minei (Great Menalogion)--an encyclopedic compilation of "all the books fit to read"--in order to bring them back in line with what were perceived to be the pure Byzantine models.

Analogous to these developments in literature were the developments in icon painting, where even back in Kievan times we can see the emergence of stylistically distinct "schools."  By the Muscovite period,   iconographic themes become more complex than they had been, and stylistically there are "innovations" that raise questions as to whether the Byzantine canons regarding religious painting were being strictly observed.  Although it seems likely that such developments initially reflect merely a process of internal evolution, rather than some particular foreign (especially Western) influence, by the seventeenth century clearly Western models were becoming important.  A convenient shorthand for discerning the distance between the icons of the early fifteenth century in Muscovy and those of the second half of the seventeenth century can be seen in this comparison of two representations of the "Old Testament Trinity." 

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On the left is the famous "Old Testament Trinity" attributed to Andrei Rublev and painted ca. 1410; on the right is the same image, in the rendering by Simeon Ushakov, painted and signed by him in 1671.  Both depict the angels recorded in the eighteenth book of Genesis as appearing to Abraham.  The Christian interpretation of this passage in the Old Testament is that they presaged the birth of Christ and thus symbolize the Holy Trinity--God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  Given the difficulty churchmen had in deciding what, if any, representation of the Holy Trinity might be acceptable, this "Old Testament" version seemed to offer a relatively safe way to visualize symbolically the deepest mystery of the faith.  We know that such representations of the Old Testament Trinity became popular in Byzantium in the fourteenth century, and in turn many churches in that period in Russia were dedicated to the Trinity.  Rublev's icon was painted for one such church, in the important Monastery of the Holy Trinity founded by Sergius of Radonezh. 

While Rublev is praised for his ability to imbue the holy figures in his icons with almost "humanistic" qualities, and he has been, perhaps too extravagantly, compared with the famous early Renaissance artist Giotto, his icons conform to the accepted Byzantine forms.  In particular, we note his use of deliberate "inverted perspective" to maintain the appearance of two-dimensionality in what would otherwise be a three-dimensional scene if taken in a literal sense.  The "furniture" in particular seems to be larger away from the viewer.  Furthermore, the spare symbolic building, tree and mountain in the background are highly stylized and do not really seem to exist in a distinct plane apart from the figures of the angels.  The angel "behind" the table is of the same size as the others, and their facial features have only minimal shading.  In general the imagery is confined to bare essentials; the table holds only the cup with the head of the sacrificial lamb, symbolizing God's sacrifice of his Son for the redemption of mankind.  It is worth remembering that Rublev's work was held up as an example when the Stoglav Council of 1551 addressed the question of how icons were to be properly painted.

In contrast, Ushakov's "Trinity" is full of decorative detail, in the hems of the robes, the elaborate setting of the table, and the background.  On the left he depicts classical buildings, with Renaissance perspective emphasized by the view through the arch (the model was a  engraving by the famous Italian artist Paolo Veronese).  The tree has real foliage and grows on a grassy knoll;  the shading of the angels' faces gives them a three-dimensional roundness.  True, the treatment of the furniture suggests conformity to the Byzantine norms of inverted perspective, but the elaborate detail and realism of the rest breathes an entirely different spirit from that found in Rublev's painting.  It is no wonder that the leader of the Old Believers (the schismatics who broke with the Russian church leadership in the 1650s) decried in paintings such as this what they saw to be an unhealthy infatuation with "German" (i.e., foreign) ways.

While there can be no question about the inspiration from foreign models in paintings by Ushakov and his contemporaries (much of this coming from Poland via Ukraine, as Ukrainian churchmen arrived in Moscow), it would be wrong to assume that foreign influences are the sole explanation for the distance which separates Rublev from Ushakov.  Here we will look at the example of a single icongraphic theme to illustrate the ways in which style evolved, possibly as an organic process.  Even before the acceleration of Western influences in the seventeenth century, much had changed in Muscovite iconography.  As in architecture, the changes involved, among other things, the elaboration of decorative detail, where perhaps the models were manuscript illumination and embroidery.  The elaborate "weaving of words" in the written texts is paralleled in the visual arts.   Old iconography at times was subject to new interpretation, with hierarchically discrete scenes re-organized in often original ways.  None of this necessarily violates Byzantine norms, nor can it necessarily be tied to specific foreign influences, at least in the realm of the visual arts.

Our example is depictions of the Birth of Mary.   The life of the Virgin Mary was a popular subject in Byzantine art even before Christianity came to Russia. Among the texts used as the basis for visual representations was an apocryphal Gospel attributed to St. James.  In Kievan Rus, the Cathedral of Sancta Sophia built by Iaroslav the Wise in the eleventh century contains a cycle of paintings on the life of Mary.   The imagery which developed for such "lives" be they of Christ or Mary or one of the saints, tended to employ the same visual language; in fact to the unitiated viewer who might not know the identity of the holy figure, any number of separate lives might seem to be one and the same.  Of course this is no accident, since ultimately the models were those for Christ's life.

This late fourteenth century Russian icon, from the Monastery of the Protection of the Virgin in Suzdal,  illustrates in such conventional fashion the birthicon4.jpg (95537 bytes) of Mary.  The conventional elements include the mother (here Anna) on the left on a couch, attended by a row of servants on the right, with the new-born baby being bathed by other attendants in the lower right.  In the background are stylized architectural elements connected with a drape (symbolically, this is the building inside which the scene takes place, but of course it cannot be shown realistically as inside the building)..  The figures are quite rigid, the poses of the three servants on the right are essentially identical, the inverted perspective of the architectural forms is pronounced, and the two-dimensionality of the picture is emphasized by the equivalent size of all the figures, even though the exposed parts of the bodies do have a certain amount of dark shading and white highlights emphasize some of the facial features.  

icon5.jpg (69615 bytes)        A mid-sixteenth-century Muscovite "hagiographic icon" (that is, one with a central panel and  a border including the range of scenes from a saint's life) also features the Birth of Mary in the center. Among the scenes on the right side of the main image is one of the parents of Mary, Joachim and Anna, holding the infant; below it she is being presented to the priest in the temple.   With one significant exception, the central panelicon6.jpg (66462 bytes) contains all the elements of the fourteenth- century icon reproduced above.   We see the mother, Anna, on the couch, with three attendants on the right and two more attendants bathing the child in the lower right.  The background is filled with stylized architecture connected by a red drape.  The obvious "innovation" here is that Joachim, the father, is also present.   While his presence of itself is not uncommon, his placement here, clearly inside the upper floor of the right-hand building and peering out from it, is.  This is a clear violation of the Byzantine principles of two-dimensionality.  Apart from that significant difference, the sixteenth-century icon also is distinct for its style, compared to the late fourteenth-century example of the same scene.  The attendants are in various poses, almost seeming to move about, in contrast to the rigid and identical poses in the earlier example.  Also, the decorative features of the architecture are more clearly articulated, with what looks like a columned porch.  Finally, we note the addition of a decorative pattern on the couch cover. 

It is difficult to know whether an image such as this one exemplifies the reason why questions about the proper way to paint icons seem to have come to the fore in the middle of the sixteenth century in Moscow.  The Council of the One Hundred Chapters (Stoglav) in 1551 addressed such issue; there is an account (perhaps apocryphal) suggesting that one of the Tsar's officials may have created something of a sensation by questioning the way icon painting was being done, possibly in violation of Byzantine norms.

By the early seventeenth century, new regional centers of the arts were emerging.  One of the most interesting was that sponsored by the famous Stroganov family of entrepreneurs in some of the important salt-producing and commercial centers of the Russian north.   The Strogranovs accumulated a fairly sizeable library, were patrons of church building, and sponsored a school of painters and copyists.  The icons of the "Stroganov school" have distinctive icon7.jpg (57519 bytes)common stylistic features.  Here we have a Stroganov icon showing the birth of Mary and several scenes from her life.   The arrangement of the scenes is itself distinctive, with the core of the standard birth imagery occupying the upper left quadrant, but with the two attendants bathing the child shown directly below in what appears to be in effect a separate panel.  In addition to these components of the traditional birth scene, the artist has added the parents holding the baby (upper right) and the presentation in the temple (lower right), and for good measure placed in the center of the lower panel a small scene of the child in her bed with an attendant.  All of the scenes are separated by a rather elaborate framework of architecture including turrets and crenellated walls.  There is considerable decorative detail, on the furniture, and on the clothing of the animated group of attendants in the upper left.  finally, we note that the architectural elements that seem to be representing an arched doorway or window at least partially enclose the figures they frame, suggesting three-dimensionality of the space.

The final Russian example in this sequence is a mid-seventeenth century icon from the region of Tver.   Here the composition is quite elaborate.   Theicon8.jpg (67206 bytes) architectural elements are quite fantastic and elaborately decorated.  Not content to contain the scene within one "room" as the fourteenth-century icon seemed to do, here there is a stair, with one attendant coming out of a curtained doorway and another half way up the stairs.  The brocade on the couch is now very elaborate.  Almost as if he had a horror vacuo, the artist filled the otherwise empty space in the lower left with a well or pond surrounded by more elaborate architecture and with feeding white swans (presumably symbolic of icon9.jpg (19484 bytes)innocence or purity).  Lastly, we note, distinctly off in the distance, the happy parents cradling their child on a balcony in the upper right.  What makes this particularly interesting is, on the one hand, its distinct suggestion of perspective (the figures are much smaller and clearly thereby are distant in a suggested three-dimensional space.  Yet on the other hand, the artist, presumably conscious of the need to emphasize inverted perspective, has created an architectural impossibility with the front pillar of the balcony canopy behind the seated figures.  the fact that the attendants in the main scene are not firmly anchored to the ground but rather seem to float above it may be another indication that the artist was trying to provide visual signs that the scene is not to be perceived as a representation of three-dimensional reality.

Many features of the style of this mid-seventeenth century icon connect with the icons of the Iaroslavl' "school" of that period (Tver, after all, is only a bit upstream on the Volga from Iaroslavl).  We know that Iaroslavl' artists drew extensively on foreign sources, including engraved Bibles, and depictions from compendia of moralizing and entertaining fables (which also circulated in Russia in this period in translations from the Polish).  Presumably the icon here then cannot be considered merely an example of evolution from Russian tradition.  At the same time though, it is instructive to compare it with both its more distant predecessor of the fourteenth century,  and an approximately contemporary Ukrainian/Polish painting of its own time.  This comparison shows, on the one hand, how far Muscovite iconography had moved from rigid Byzantine canons and at the same time how much distance there still was between it and contemporary Renaissance and Baroque painting of the West.

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In the case of the two Russian icons, the common Byzantine elements are abundantly clear, even when overlaid in the seventeenth century by a decorative reinterpretation of the rather rigid canonical model.  The Ukrainian/Polish painting is stylistically from a totally different world, recalling more evocations of Flemish peasants or burghers than anything connected with the Orthodox world and its imagery.  The chief iconographic elements of the Byzantine-style Russian icon of the fourteenth century are still present, with the addition of a contemplative Joachim seated at the table, but Anna is comfortably ensconced in a canopied bed way in the back of the scene, and the prominence of the newborn child is emphasized by the perspective that thrusts the washing of the baby to the foreground.  The attendants are all engaged in a variety of domestic tasks in a realistic interior of the house.

2000 Daniel C. Waugh