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

Bulletin 26, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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

by George Galavaris

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

Like Alexandra, St Agatha is not so popular in eastern Christian art. According to the account of her life, she was a beautiful virgin, a member of a noble family from Catania in Sicily who suffered martyrdom in the time of the emperor Decius (249-251). She was subjected to various tortures, one of which involved the removal of her breasts (this was to become one of her attributes in western European art). Agatha died a frightful death; she was thrown on burning coals that were mixed with shards. She is commemorated on 5 February, though four other dates in the Church calendar-year are related to her. In the early Christian period she was one of the most important martyrs both in the East and in the West, and popniar imagination was to develop her saintly properties in the form of various legends concerning her and her miracle-working veil. (13) Considering the numerous representations of her in western European art, one can definitely say that she was not popular in eastern Christian art, either in Byzantine or post-Byzantine times. In the art of the early Church she is represented like other female martyrs without any special attribute, as one can see in the sixth-century mosaics in the nave of the church of S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. Her attributes appear in art from the fourteenth-century and only in the art of the West. Later depictions of her appear in the narthexes of Byzantine churches, and at times in a bust form within a medallion as, for instance, in the eleventh-century mosaics of the catholikon of the monastery of Hosios Lukas in Phocis. (14) She is also represented with other saints in calendar icons: two such examples from the twelfth-century are in the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai. (15) Occasionally one sees depictions of her martyrdom such as that in the Menologion of Basil II, now in the Vatican (cod. gr. 1613, fol. 373r). (16) In Russian icon painting her images are rare and continue the tradition of the standing portrait adopted for representations of female martyrs. The Tretyakov Gallery catalogue lists only two examples, two sixteenth- or seventeenth-century icons of the Moscow school which show Agatha standing on the margin of a larger composition. She is associated with George, Euphrosyne, Daniel the Stylite, Theodore Stratilates, and the martyrs Irina and Xenia. (17) She is similarly depicted in a late nineteenth-century icon. In this case placed below Theodore Stratilates, she witnesses the Decapitation of John the Baptist, the main subject of the icon. (18) In another Russian icon (dating from the second half of the seventeenth-century and now in Recklinghausen), which portrays feast scenes and standing portraits of saints, Agatha is shown with Irina and other female saints. The figures are not placed around a central composition but stand next to one another in the manner of pictures found in menologia ("calendar") icons. (19) There is a calendar icon with St Agatha, dating from the nineteenth-century, now in Schloss Autenried. (20)

However, none of the above-mentioned examples has any iconographic connection with our icon. The master of the National Gallery icon has taken St Agatha from the margins of her obscurity and has placed her in a major composition. There is only one work which differs from those cited above and which relates, somewhat, to the Ottawa icon in concept, in so far as Agatha has been given an eminent position. This icon (c. 1500), probably a product of the circle of Master Dionysius and now in Recklinghausen, portrays Agatha on the same level with Constantine and Helena (fig. 7). (21) But even this icon differs fundamentally from ours because it typifies the tradition of frontally standing saints followed in menologia.

The presentation of these icons has made it clear that there is no example known to me which parallels the iconography exemplified by the National Gallery icon. Agatha and Alexandra are not limited to the margins of larger compositions: the master of our icon has given these two saints principal roles and has not followed the practice of depicting "standing portraits" common in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Russian icon painting. These features clearly set the Ottawa icon apart.

The creator of the Ottawa icon has instead sought his prototype in representations of saints adoring Christ. The ultimate sources of his composition may be more than one. For instance, one of these may be a scene - known in Byzantine art since early times - depicting the appearance of Christ before the myrrh-bearers (Chairete) (Matthew 28: 9-10). A sixteenth-century Greek icon in the Stavroniketa monastery on Mount Athos representing this theme furnishes us with an example of a composition that comes very close to that employed by our master (fig. 8). (22) It should, however, be remembered that Russian artists had already used and adapted these earlier Byzantine models, which means that the master of our icon could have found his prototype within the Russian tradition of icon painting. A good parallel is provided by a late sixteenth-century panel now in the Korin collection, Moscow (fig. 9). (23) Fundamentally, the composition in both icons is similar and both masters have used the same component parts including the flying, adoring angels as well as the same text inscribed on the open Gospels.

Leaving aside the identity of the saints (in this Moscow icon we have two very popular holy persons, St John Chrysostom and St Nicholas), the apparent differences pertain to the actions of the adoring figures. One of the bishops offers his book to Christ and is directly related to Him through Christ's gesture. In the Ottawa icon Christ does not seem to point to a specific person. There is also a differentiation in the stance of the two saints: Alexandra is in an attitude of complete submission while Agatha is imploring, looking up at Christ. Apart from these minor differences, the similarities establish a relation between the two panels - possibly both derive ultimately from the same prototype - and prove that this type of composition was known in seventeenth-century Russian painting.

The discussion of the iconography has shown that the master of the Ottawa icon has used a composition found in representations of popular saints to depict holy persons who are not often represented, and that he has departed from the tradition of portraying them as standing figures. There is no doubt that he has conveyed to these saints an unusual importance in accordance with the demands of those who commissioned the panel. They must have had special reasons for giving such an eminence to Alexandra and Agatha, a question to which we shall return after we discuss the style and date of the panel.

This Moscow icon, which has provided the best parallel to our icon from the point of view of composition, has been ascribed to the latter part of the seventeenth-century and to the school of Yaroslav. Notwithstanding certain artistic principles which the two icons have in common (such as the relationship of the component parts to the picture frame and the aesthetic function of the figure of Christ which forms the axis of the composition and at the same time dominates it), the two panels manifest different styles and cannot be considered products of the same artistic area.

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