National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 26, 1975

Annual Index
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Click figure 6 here for an enlarged image

"Christ with Saints Alexandra and Agatha"
A Russian Icon in the National Gallery

by George Galavaris

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7 

As we have already indicated, the metal cover of the background consists of two major pieces and some smaller pieces. Those pieces bordering the frame of the panel were actually fitted under the metal frame. The parts that are concealed by the frame were not carefully lined up, which would indicate that the craftsman intended to cover them by the metal sheets framing the borders of the panel. The obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that both the metal cover of the background and of the frame are of the same date. Another observation is significant: the metal background cover carefully follows the line of Christ's painted nimbus, as one can see from the pieces still left on the panel (see fig. 3, particularly the small piece on top of the halo and another on the left shoulder of Christ). But this entire area was subsequently to be covered by the metal nimbus and crown. If the craftsman had been instructed originally to fit the nimbus and crown, then he would not have been so careful in the application of the basma. This leads us to the conclusion that the metal nimbus and crown of Christ are not contemporary with the basma. And since the metallic content of all nimbi and of the inscribed metal plaques are the same (they contain silver and gold) we can assume that these ornaments are of similar date. The metallic content of the basma consists of silver, copper, and gold. It should also be noted that no stamps or marks of any type have been found on the basma.

The removal of the basma reveals a dark red background and inscriptions which correspond to those on the metal plaques. Those referring to Christ are painted in silver covered with a yellow lacquer to appear like gold, while the rest are in lead white paint - a differentiation prompted, probably, by reasons of hierarchical distinction. Better deciphered in the x-rays than in photographs, in transliteration they read as follows: above the angels, Angelû G[ospo]druîi ("angels of the Lord"); above Christ's shoulders, G[ospo]do vsederzitel ("Lord Pantocrator"); similar texts appear on the basma; above Alexandra, Sv[ie]taià C[hristo]va Much[initsa] Aleksandra ts[a]r[its]a ("Saint Martyr in Christ Alexandra Queen"); on the cover, S[vie]t[a]ià Alek[san]dra ("Saint Alexandra"); above Agatha, Svi[e]taià Much-[initsa] C[hristo]va Agathiià ("Saint Martyr in Christ Agatha").

Retouchings of the painting appear in the area of Christ's neck, around the hem of his tunic by his feet, on the lower-central part of the cushion, and on the upper-left corner of the Gospels.

The results of this technical investigation do not present special problems. The custom of applying a metal sheet to the background of the composition only, leaving free the ground on which the figures move, is common in icons of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; so too is the use of different decorative patterns for frames and backgrounds. In most instances, covers were commercially obtained and their application on panels does not always manifest the best of craftsmanship. Furthermore, damages - caused either by time or in the process of affixing new ornaments - were conveniently repaired with small metal patches. (4) The custom of covering the icons completely with a metal sheet, leaving exposed only the faces and hands, became common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (5)

In order to be able to place this icon within the context of Russian icon painting and understand its precise meaning as far as possible, the iconography of the panel must be discussed first. Its theme belongs to the category of proskynesis scenes (i.e., compositions portraying saints making obeissance or prostrating themselves to Christ). The saint on the left of the panel is the queen-martyr Alexandra of Nicomedia - as the inscriptions and her crown at test. According to an Armenian passio she was the wife of the emperor Diocletian (other versions refer to her as the wife of the Persian king Dacian). (6) Having been converted to Christianity and having fought for the Christian cause, she was torturcd by Diocletian himself and put to death with three of her servants (Apollo, Issakios, and Kodratos). Hcr martyrdom took place in Nicomedia of Bithynia (a territory in northwest Asia Minor) during the first year of Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. According to the same Source, her conversion occurred while she witnessed St George enduring his tortures. Her servants were decapitated in prison but Alexandra, having learnt that she was condemned to die with St George, " delivered her spirit, while in prayer, in prison. "She and her servants are mentioned in the Synaxarion of Constantinople, the Menologion of the emperor Basil II (tenth century), the Menologion of Rumjancev (thirteenth-century) and in the Typikon Studita (1398). All four are commemorated by the Orthodox Church on 21 April, two days before St George's day (23 April). In Some codices she is referred to as Alexandria, a name born by two other martyrs celebrated on 20 March and 18 May. However, they have no connections with royalty and must be kept apart.

In art Alexandra is portrayed wearing a royal garb, the usual head-covering worn by female saints, and a crown-conventions that were used for other queen-saints. (7) Alexandra is seldom represented alone. Since her martyrdom is related to that of the great martyr St George, she is occasionally found in scenes depicting episodes from his life; in fact, these scenes constitute the earliest extant depictions of Alexandra. Her conversion, for example, and her imprisonment had already been presented in the sixth century, while her condemnation in the presence of St George is depicted in the fourteenth-century frescoes of Staro Nagoricino, in Yugoslavia. (8) Her representations with other saints are not very common. In most cases she appears standing together with other female martyrs. In monumental examples she is shown usually with Barbara, Catherine of Alexandria, Theodora, Euphrosyne, Tatiana, and - in one instance - possibly with Mary Magdalen. The earliest examples of such standing portraits known to me are found in sixteenth-century frescoes in Romania. (9) In accordance with Byzantine custom, she is represented in the narthexes of these churches. (10)

More attention, however, should be paid to representations of Alexandra in icons because, contrary to churches which generally followed an established programme of monumental decoration, images of saints on icons reveal the special choice of the persons who commissioned the icon. Their preferences in turn reflect popular piety. In Russian icons, the rare images of Alexandra are customarily confined to the frames of larger panels. She is shown standing with other saints and extending her hands to the holy figures represented in the main part of the panel, in most cases the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child (see fig. 6). Already she appears in fourteenth-century icons and continues to be found in icons from the sixteenth to the nineteenth-century. Not to give the impression that I contradict my earlier statement about the rarity of her images, I should state that the Tretyakov Gallery catalogue lists only four icons with Alexandra. (11) And I know of only a few more icons in other collections. (12) In none of these examples is she associated with Agatha.

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