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

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Comparisons show that the master of the Ottawa icon displays less stylization, greater fluidity, and more love for gold ornament and that he renders the figures very differently from the master of the Moscow icon. In the rendering of the figure of Christ in the Ottawa icon, the most important stylistic feature is the fullness of the body and the way the drapery relates to it. The right leg is emphasized, relief-like; the volume is stressed by a series of oval-shaped lines belonging to the drapery and is designed in a broad manner (though their fine application recalls the technique of book illumination). The drapery falls over the body in a natural way and does not transform it into geometric shapes consisting of flat areas of colour. In other words, and in terms of Medieval style, there is a naturalness in the figure and in the drapery. Furthermore, the broadness of the robes is emphasized by the effect of the fluttering himation which adds a great deal of movement to the figure of Christ. These features are not found in the icon of the Korin collection. Instead one has to go to seventeenth-century products of the Moscow school to find stylistic parallels. (24) One icon depicting John the Baptist (see fig. 10), (25) attributed to this school (c. 1630), reveals the same artistic principles. The volume of the body is never lost, and the system of the oval-shaped lines forming the folds of the drapery over John's right leg is similar to that of Christ's in our icon. This special feature - the relative fullness of the body and the enhancement of the volume by means of drapery - is a reflection of Byzantine art of the Palaeologan period which constituted one of the most important sources for the Moscow school of painting. The same type of drapery and treatment of volume may be recognized in another icon of the Moscow school (now in Berlin) that can be dated as from the first half to the middle of the seventeenth century (see fig. 12). In this work one sees the fine design and the abundant use of gold striations found in our icon. (26) These gold lines on the drapery, which ultimately derived from Byzantine art, recall the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century works of the great Dionysius and his circle. (27)

In contrast to Christ, the bodies of the kneeling saints and of the angels appear flatter. One does see an attempt on the part of the artist to relate the drapery to the body (the limbs underneath are somehow distinguished); nevertheless it is the linear treatment that prevails. A specific feature of these robes is the application of highlights painted in curved, broken white lines that follow the contours of the garment with a striking effect. This characteristic again finds parallels in icons made in the Moscow area during the seventeenth-century, as an example reproduced here shows (fig.11). (28)

With regard to the rendering of the faces, those of the saints and angels are more useful for stylistic comparisons. Christ's chin and beard are later restorations (following, however, seventeenth-century patterns) and so only the upper part of his face can be considered. The highlights on all faces are in the form of splodges rather than lines and this is a characteristic typical of the seventeenth-century Moscow school of painting (cf. fig. 13). (29) More specifically, one can point to an icon, now in Leningrad, which can be assigned to the middle of the century (fig. 14). (30) As far as the treatment of the faces is concerned, this work best resembles our icon.

Clearly, on the basis of all these comparisons and considerations, the Ottawa icon can be assigned to the seventeenth-century Moscow school and a date ranging from the first half to the middle of the century seems most probable. This conclusion can also be supported by the palaeography of the inscriptions on the panel. Professor Grebenschikov thinks, and rightly so, that best palaeographical parallels are found in Moscovite writing of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries. (31)

There are several Russian icons dating from the fifteenth century and later that have come down to us in their original repoussé frames. But catalogue entries, whether published in Russia or Europe, in most cases state that the cover is old or new; we are seldom given particulars. Even if the facts are given, poor reproductions do not facilitate stylistic comparisons. Even the study by Goldberg, however important it may be for the publication of stamps and marks on metal jewellery, is of little help in dating silver covers that lack stamps of artists or of workshops. Moreover, the comparative material that Goldberg illustrates is very limited indeed. The lack of a comprehensive study of icon covers and ornaments as well as the absence of marks or stamps on the basma of the Ottawa icon makes it extremely difficult to propose a precise date for the silver cover, the nimbi, and the crown of Christ. (32)

The ornament on the basma, consisting mostly of a floral pattern which takes the form of a scroll with stems springing from the flower buds, is common in Russian silverware of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (33) But in actual design, in the complexity or simplicity of the scroll, and in the shape of the leaves and the type of rosettes, the ornament presents a great many variations. Two dated examples illustrate some of the varieties and also aid us in dating the metal cover of our icon. One, a silver compote dish in Moscow dated 1685, displays the pattern in its engraved ornament (fig. 15). The other is an embossed silver icon cover in the State Historical Museum, Moscow, which dates from the end of the sixteenth-century (fig. 16). (34) The technique is similar to that used in our icon and the designs that adorn the upper and lower parts of the frame belong to the same type or category of ornament exemplified in our basma. Between these two dated examples, we can place another metal cover which can be ascribed to the seventeenth century. It covers an icon dated 1652, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (fig. 17). (35) It is actually with this metal cover that the frame of our basma finds its best stylistic parallel and a similar date for both seems most probable.

Technical evidence has shown that the metal background must be contemporary to the frame and this means that the entire basma must be placed in the second half of the seventeenth century. If this is correct, it follows that the basma is somewhat later than the panel itself, but not too far removed from it.

It would be a mistake to suppose that, in the process of covering and ornamenting an icon, the nimbi and the crown were the last to be added. Our knowledge about icons does not support this concept; a case in point is the ornamentation of the famous Trinity icon by Rublev, which is well documented. In this icon the haloes and the frame were added at the same time (the late sixteenth-century) while the process of decorating the panel with other elements - the metal garments of the angels was one of them - lasted to the middle of the eighteenth century. (36) But in the case of the Ottawa work we have already argued, on the physical evidence itself, that the nimbi and the crown of Christ were not planned when the metal cover was applied. Therefore, we consider them to be later additions: they may well have been added as late as the early nineteenth-century. The stylized letters on the metal plaques do not contribute to the solution of this problem. This type of script is found in earlier inscriptions - the A, for example, with the point attached on top-left occurs in eighteenth-century inscribed works. It is possible that the inscriptions imitate earlier script and this, perhaps, may explain the simplicity of the carving and the stylization of the characters (although allowances should also be made for the medium itself). Though these ornaments may be later additions, it must be pointed out that such nimbi and crowns are found today on other seventeenth-century icons (cf. fig. 9).

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