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

Bulletin 26, 1975

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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

by George Galavaris

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

In the course of time St Agatha lost her inscribed plaque and the icon passed into the hands of new owners who discovered the similarities of the composition with the representation of the Chairete and gave Agatha a new identity - she became the penitent Mary of Magdala.

The discussion of the iconography of the icon has already prepared the way for a consideration of its meaning and use. The importance given to the represented saints has been stressed. The queen-martyr Alexandra and the martyr Agatha are represented in the manner of major saints.

It is well known that personal or commissioned icons often represent the patron saint of the faithful who ordered the panel and that in the Orthodox world generally an individual and his patron saint bear the same name. Thus, if one orders a personal icon, it would most likely represent one's patron saint. A good illustration of this is a late sixteenth-century panel now in Moscow which represents the Mother of God of the Monastery of the Grotto (Petcherskaya Bogomateri). (37) Normally in icons of this type, the Mother of God is accompanied by two monks associated with the monastery, but in the case of the Moscow icon the place of the two monks is taken by two other saints, Nicetas and Anastasia. This substitution is due to the fact that the icon was produced for the Stroganov family, members of which bore the names of these two saints. Another example of a patron saint's icon is furnished by the panel commissioned by Princess Kilikia (her wordly name was presumably Xenia) Ushataya or by her daughter Xenia. The icon, dating from 1551, represents St Xenia and scenes from her life. (38) It follows from this evidence that the Ottawa icon must be related to two particular persons, members of one family, who bore the names of the represented saints at the feet of Christ. This is, in other words, a family icon. Whether the Alexandra and Agatha who commissioned the icon had personal reasons to suggest a meaningful differentiation in the stance of their patron saints we cannot know. Agatha's position - facing Christ - may imply a higher role; yet iconographic evidence shows that variations in degree of submission occur in other examples of adoration scenes for which no such meaning can be supported. (39)

And so this family icon, before it started its migration to the West and ended as a rare piece in the National Gallery of Canada, must have had a special place in the Krasnyi ugol, the beautiful corner of a Russian house. (40)

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