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

Bulletin 26, 1975

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

by George Galavaris

Résumé en français

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The National Gallery of Canada recently received a Russian icon which, though modest in size, is important for a number of reasons. The icon, Christ with Saints Alexandra and Agatha (fig. I), was bequeathed to the Gallery by Frederick Hudd of Compton, Surrey, in 1969. It had been given to him by his colleagues in the Canadian Foreign Service, who had bought it in Paris. According to a Russian inscription on the back of the panel, written in ink probably at the turn of the century, the icon was once in the possession of a Russian count by the name of Vielgorsky.

The composition is dominated by the figure of Christ standing on a vermilion cushion decorated in gold. Two female saints are at his feet and two worshipping angels are in the upper part of the panel. Christ is depicted frontally and wears a long brown-red chiton ("tunic") with a clavus (i.e., ornamental band) on his left shoulder and over it an ample blue himation which falls over the shoulders and tums around the waist rustling in the air on his right side. Both the tunic and the himation are marked by very thin gold striations which also serve as highlights of the drapery. His delicately painted face is distinguished by a moustache and a soft beard drawn in thin, parallel lines with two locks falling from the chin. In his left hand Christ holds the Gospels open to Matthew 11:28 "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." The script is written in black on ivory white pages. The edges of the book are painted in strong red. With his right hand, Christ makes a speaking gesture towards the saints at his feet. The crowned saint at Christ's right foot is identified by two inscriptions - one on the panel and another on a metal piece attached to the metal cover of the icon - as Saint Alexandra. There is no inscribed metal piece identifying the saint on the opposite side, though the nail-holes indicate that there originally must have been one. According to an oral tradition whose age and origins I have not been able to trace, the saint was identified as Mary Magdalen. But the removal of the metal cover revealed the original inscription on the panel itself - identifying her as the holy martyr Agatha.

Alexandra wears a dark blue tunic with sleeves that have wrist-bands decorated in gold, a red mantle over the tunic, a white head-covering, and a white and gold crown. Agatha is dressed in a similar fashion but the colour system is different. Her tunic is wine red and her mantle is brown. In both figures, white has been employed for the highlights of the drapery and black has been used for the contours of the head-covering. Alexandra, extending her hands towards Christ's feet, bows deeply: she is making a proskynesis ("obeissance") to the Lord Pantocrator. Agatha, though kneeling, keeps her body upright and, as the position of her hands show, she addresses Christ. This difference in stance may express an attempt on the part of the unknown master to vary the composition or alternatively may be related to the meaning of the scene - we shall return to this question later. The angels, with hands covered (a typical sign of reverence and worship), fly towards Christ. The angel above Alexandra wears a dark blue tunic and a red himation. The colour system for the tunic and himation of the angel above Agatha is reversed to avoid monotony and absolute colour correspondence. The angels' spread-out wings are brown and marked by gold striations. The highlights are in white and have been applied in the same manner as those on the drapery of the saints.

The flesh tones are in brown. The modelling is achieved by brown shades with the lighted parts painted in white. The hair is dark brown. The contours of Christ's face are stressed by a dark line. The highlights, applied in blotches, are distributed on the upper part of the cheeks to stress the cheekbones, above the eyebrows, on the forehead, and on the tip of the nose. Two white, parallel lines mark the outside corners of the eye.

An embossed silver sheet with floral motifs covers part of the background of the icon, but it leaves free the lower part of the composition which is painted in dark olive green. The metal sheet, known as a basma, (1) nailed on the panel consists of one major piece on either side of Christ and additional small pieces cut to fit the outline of the represented persons. There is a fine metal frame, also of chased silver, decorated with floral motifs forming scroll patterns enclosed within borders. The frame is made of four pieces, placed against cloth backing, with designs that are not identical - the top and bottom pieces differ from those forming the sides in the arrangement of the scroll motif and in the shape of the leaves. Spiral engraved motifs adorn the silver nimbi of the saints and the angels. In addition to a nimbus with a cross and the usual letters O w N (He who exists, Ex. 3:14), Christ wears a rich metal crown decorated with leaves, floral patterns, and two small crosses in the centre. On the three tips of the crown there are rings into which precious stones originally must have been fitted: they are now lost. Other icons that have retained their original decoration may give us an idea concerning the impression the crown must once have conveyed (see fig. 5). (2) Small inscribed pieces, nailed to the basma above or next to the relevant figure, serve to identify the represented persons (see fig. 4).

For study and conservation purposes the basma was removed (figs. 2, 3), and the conservation laboratory of the National Gallery carried out technical investigations - including x-rays - with the following results. The panel is of soft wood, probably linden, 2.3 cm thick with two wedges (sponki) which are later replacements of earlier ones. A partial backing of canvas (povoloka), forming the underlayer for the painted surface, has been applied across the upper Dart of the panel from the top to the face of Christ (approximately 9 cm high) and from the lower edge to the feet of the kneeling saints (approximately 5 cm high). Normally, cloth would have been glued to the entire area of the panel on which the composition was to be painted. But this is not the rule, since partial use of backing cloth is not altogether unusual. Ordinarily, the upper and lower parts of a panel crack or break first, once the wood is warped and the wedges are lost in the course of time. Therefore, icon painters used cloth to strengthen these sensitive parts of the panel prior of the levkas (i.e. the layer of powdered alabaster or gesso, - which receives the painting done in tempera). (3)

Next Pagemetal cover of background

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