Quadripartite Icon Images
Nativity of the Theotokos, Beheading of John the Baptist, Elijah
1804, Russian: Moscow region
tempera on wood
13 1/8"x11 1/4"
By the 19th century Russian icon producers were able to make use of a tradition of over 1300 years of creating icons within the Orthodox tradition. Russia is and has always been a deeply religious country and her people did all that they could to prove - not to the rest of the world, but to God - that they were worth the holiness that was bestowed upon her. Aside from attending church and leading devout lives, the Russians were on a quest to show visibly that Russia was the New Holy Land. During the 16th century in Moscow alone there were perhaps 5,300 churches, monasteries, and chapels. This great number of holy places, although probably hyperbolized, shows how prominent Christianity was in Russia. On a much smaller scale, icons also showed how pervasive religion had become. Thus religious devotion combined with relatively cheap and extensive production to make icons readily available. Icons were everywhere, in churches, houses, and even on fences along the road. There wouldn’t be one icon on the church wall; it would be completely covered by them. There were, in fact, entire towns devoted to creating icons. It was as if the entire country of Russia had taken on the business of making icons. Whether this was because religion had truly taken over, or icons made good business, there is no doubt that the sheer number of icons that existed was phenomenal. iii
Our icon is representative of a trend that was taking place in the production of icons in Russia as early as the 17th century. From this century on many icons were created to appear as though they were from an earlier time period. In order to discuss the idea behind this trend the icon must first be illuminated. This icon is constructed of a wood panel and is 13 1/8 inches tall, 11¼ inches wide and 1¼ inches deep. Painted on the icon are four images, panels, separated into four equal quarters as well as four saints, each accompanying a panel, but placed in the frame. The overall effect of the icon is diminished by a yellowed layer of varnish.
The upper left hand panel is titled The Entry of the Ikon of our Lord Jesus Christ "Not-Made-by-Hands [into Constantinople from Edessa, 944 AD]" iv. In this image Christ’s face is shown on a cloth (the Mandylion) held by two archangels. The archangel on the left is shown from the waist up. His left wing is pointed down and his right wing frames the head of Christ. He has a thin golden halo and curly golden hair. His tunic is green and he has a red cloak wrapped around his right arm and waist. He has been painted with very thin lines and with great attention to detail. The archangel on the right is essentially the same but wears a blue tunic. Their wings have a cross hatch pattern painted on them. The top, where the angels are holding the cloth, is arched in order to frame Christ’s head. It is gold with darker gold lines to detail the cloth. The cloth is designed with a barely visible flat, floral design in gold. There is also an inscription written along the bottom of the cloth in Russian. This can be translated: "Christ-God, everyone trusting in thee will not be put to shame." Christ’s face is contained within a circular halo. The halo is gold and rimmed in red with red lines on the bottom of the horizontal cross and a double red line on the right side of the vertical. The inscription within the cruciform halo identifies Christ as "Being." Christ has long brown hair, very detailed with many lines. His face is flat and long with a pointed chin, mustache and double tailed beard, heavy bags under the eyes, dark black piercing pupils, a long, thin nose, and small thin lips.
The image of the Mandylion shown in this icon is for the most part similar to other representations of the Mandylion. The basic elements of this type are Christ’s face represented on a cloth that is held by two archangels either standing next to the cloth or suspended in the air behind the top of the cloth. One might compare this icon with one from the 16th century which was possibly of the Novgorod school. (v) In the Novgorod icon the two archangels also hold the cloth from above. The faces of Christ are similar, being relatively dark and with finely drawn features and large eyes. The Snite icon’s depiction of the cloth differs in its use of light floral designs, in the placement of the archangels close to the framing corners and in that they look away from each other. One should note a 17th century Mandylion (vi) that presents the archangels in an almost identical mAnnar to that of the Snite icon, even though everything else about this image is different.
The feast of the Mandylion takes place on August 16th. The legendary narrative of the Mandylion starts in Edessa in Syria during Christ’s lifetime. There the ruler of the city, King Abgar, had been afflicted with leprosy. Abgar wrote a letter to Christ asking for him to come to Edessa so that he might heal him. The King also sent his court painter Ananias to paint Christ’s portrait. When Ananias arrived he found a crowd surrounding Jesus and was, therefore, unable to paint him. However, spoke to him and gave Ananias a letter for Abgar as well as a towel with which he had washed his face and which now bore an impression of Christ’s face. Ananias returned with these things and Abgar was healed. Later the Apostle Thaddeus came to the city and baptized Abgar as well as all of the citizens of Edessa. Thaddeus is also reputed to have written on the towel, the image-not-made-by-hands: "Christ-God, everyone trusting in Thee will not be put to shame." Afterwards Abgar placed this relic over the city gates so that it might act as an apotropaic device. Eventually the image was lost to sight only to be recovered during a sixth-century Persian siege of the city. The relic was credited with repulsing the besieging army. In due course the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos, brought the relic to Constantinople, where on August 16th 944 it was placed in the Pharos Church of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Great Palace of that city. vii
The upper right hand panel shows the Nativity of Most Holy Theotokos. viii A gift of pearls and precious stones covers much of the scene, leaving only the key features of the figures available to view, and so some description of the covered parts is necessary. The Nativity is set within an architectural setting that is divided by a red column, with the left half being a little wider than the right. Further red columns frame the entire image. The section in the left half displays St. Anna, the mother of Mary, in the foreground taking up about half of the space in the image. Her top is a deep purple/burgundy color and she is covered in an orange-red blanket with yellow highlights. She is on a bed. Anna’s head is covered in a light yellow cloth and by a halo that bears her name. She looks to the right across the image. Behind her is a green and brown curtain with black diagonal stripes forming large Vs. The curtain is tied back, but even so covers about half the image.
In the upper right hand section of this half of the image, there are two women and a child with a halo (Mary) set behind a table that has two chalices on it. Mary is held by the first of the women, who wears a veil and a red robe. The second woman has brown hair and wears a green and brown top. Behind them is a set of double doors or windows. The wall and border of the doors and windows is reddish orange and the interior area of the doors and windows is a deep brown-purple color.
The right half of the image is divided horizontally. The haloed male in the upper section is identified as Joachim, Mary's father. He is bearded, has brown hair, and looks down towards Anna. He wears a green tunic with a red cloak over his right shoulder. He is shown leaning out of a window that has half a burgundy curtain tied back against the right side of the window. Below him in the lower section of this part of the image is a nurse who sits against the wall of the building. She wears a small cap and has brown hair in two braids. Mary is shown naked except for a red blanket in the nurse’s lap. Next to them is a basin filled with water. There is an arch behind the nurse and then there are double windows. At the very top of the image is a cityscape.
While I haven’t found any icons that are identical to the Snite icon’s Nativity, it is clear that it fits into a well-defined tradition of representations of this subject. In this tradition Anna is usually found to the left and set on a bed. The nurse is usually to be found in the bottom right of the image and the other women stand behind Anna’s bed. As in this example, Joachim is shown separated from the scene and looking through a window at Anna and her company. A late 15th century Novgorodian icon of the Nativity shows notable points of similarity with the Snite example. ix
The feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos takes place on September 8th. Joachim, a descendant of King David, and Anna, a descendant of the tribes of Aaron and Judah were the parents of Mary. Joachim and Anna had been childless until late in their lives. This was a source of distress and led to them being looked down upon, as barrenness was considered a punishment from God. On one occasion, Joachim took an offering to the Temple, but the priest would not accept it because of Joachim’s childlessness. Ashamed, Joachim fled and then lived in solitude. Both Anna and Joachim prayed to God for a child and finally their prayers were answered. The archangel Gabriel brought them news that they were to give birth to their daughter whom they would name Mary.
The subject of the lower left hand panel is the Beheading of the Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.(x) John is first seen in the top left of the panel in the window of a fenced-in jail. He is haloed and wears a red tunic. The jail takes up about half the width of the panel. On the dark brown ground in front of the jail is a man in black boots, red leggings and tunic and a golden sash around the waist. He holds a sword above his head and leans over a bowed John the Baptist. John is then seen a third time, now on the ground on his hands and knees and lacking his head. In the right half of the image one can see the executioner the man (soldier) handing John’s haloed head in a bowl to a woman –Salome - who stands in the doorway of a pleasantly detailed palatial building. She has long brown hair and wears a long red gown with gold at the neck, waist, hem, and along the vertical seam.
There is an image of John the Baptist from the 18th century that is remarkably similar to the representation in the Snite icon. (xi) The most obvious similarity in the images is the progression of the beheading of John the Baptist: the jailing, the soldier about to strike John, John on the ground with a head, and the soldier handing John’s head to Salome on a platter. Other than stylistic differences, the placement and structure, as well as content are very similar. Nonetheless there are two significant differences. First, the jail in the earlier icon is in the center of the image rather than on the left-hand side. Second, in the Snite icon the beheading seems to take place in an urban setting, while in the earlier icon there is a hill behind the soldier leading the viewer to think that the beheading is taking place out of town.
The feast that marks the beheading of John the Baptist takes place on August 29th. John had been born to Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. John was born about three years before Christ and was the last prophet and a very active holy man. He was beheaded at the request of Salome, the daughter of the wife of King Herod. We see her receiving this head in the panel.
The lower right hand image depicts the Holy Prophet Elijah. (xii) The narrative begins on the left-hand side of the lower part of the image. Here one sees Elijah within a cave. Below, we see Elijah dream of a visit by an angel. A water bottle is behind the prophet. Then Elijah and Elisha (in the blue tunic and red cloak) stand by the river Jordan. Elijah uses his cloak to strike the water and divide it so that two could cross. Finally, the upper part of the image shows Elijah riding a chariot drawn by four horses within a fiery cloud. Elijah looks down and hands his cloak – the symbol of his power - down to Elisha. There is a notable color transition as the cloak leaves the flames and enters the realm of terrestial vision right hand is holding the reins. A similar composition can be found in icons of the 17th century. (xiii)
The image in the lower right hand panel shows the Holy Prophet Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a fiery chariot. This feast takes place on July 20th. Because Elijah, also known as Elias, was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot it was believed he would one day return to earth to "restore the tribes of Israel."
Four saints are found on the two vertical borders of the icon there four saint. The upper pair of saints have domes over their heads. Their background is red, while the lower saints have a background that is green. Each saint is accompanied by an inscription revealing their name.
The upper left hand saint is male and wears a golden halo. He wears a golden cap with light gold polka dots. He has a long brown beard. He is wearing an outer robe that is red with a golden design. The robe has a golden border that borders at the neck and down the front of the body. His undergarment has dark green and red vertical stripes. He is holding a book in his hands. This is St. Antipas, the bishop of Pergamon. He was a disciple of St. John the Theologian and was bishop of Pergamon when Domitian was in power. His martyrdom was to be placed inside a bronze bull which was then heated over a fire until he was dead. His feast date is April 11th.
The lower left hand saint is male and wears a golden halo. His robe is red with gold highlights and is bordered in green. He is wearing a gold cap with golden polka dots as well. He also has a long beard; however his hands are in the “proclamation” position. His undergarment is red with a green vertical band down the front. This saint is St. Andronikos who lived a devout life with his wife St. Athanasia in Antioch during the time of Theodosius the Great. Their two children died on the same day. They were inconsolable until St. Justin Martyr appeared to Athanasia and informed her that both of her children were in heaven. After this Andronikos and his wife assumed the monastic life in Egypt and lived out the rest of their lives separately. They died only weeks apart from each other. St. Andronikos’ feast day is October 9th.
The upper right hand saint is a male. He has short brown hair and a beard. He wears a red and gold highlighted robe with a gold border, similar to the saint on upper left hand side. He is dressed as a bishop. This is St. Tikon (or Tikhon or Tychon). He was bishop of Amathos in Cyprus in 425. He was born into a Christian family and was renowned for his piety. He was an active converter of pagans. As a young man he gave bread from his father’s bakery away and when reprimanded for this he prayed and the storeroom was miraculously replenished. On another occasion he planted a dry slip from a grapevine and it was miraculously revitalized and bore fruit. His feast day is June 16th.
The lower right hand saint is female and she wears a gold halo and a sort of gold crown. Her robe is green-blue and has orange highlights. She has a golden collar and vertical band. Her undergarment is red and gold and the bottom has a gold border. The inscription above her head leads us to believe she is St. Barbara. She lived in Heliopolis in Phoenicia. Her father Dioscorus, who was not Christian, adored Barbara and to keep her from harm’s way he built a sort of compound for her. One day he decided to build a bathhouse for her. After he had left, Barbara, who was Christian, ordered that there be three windows instead of two. She also made the sign of the cross on the marble floor and this left a permanent mark. When Dioscorus found out about the three windows and asked Barbara about them, she began to tell him about the Holy Trinity. Her father was enraged and had her imprisoned and tortured. In the end her father himself beheaded the saint. Her feast day is December 4th.
In addition to the painted surface of the icon there is a silver frame (oklad). This is hallmarked on the bottom, and is marked by a repetitive pattern of leaves and stars. There are also inscriptions that mirror those on the icon itself and a few framing elements that repeat the main outlines of the painted surface below. The top left panel has a raised halo surrounding Christ that recalls the one painted on the icon. In the upper right hand panel the frame that covers the painted cityscape presents a similar but slightly different city view. There are also labels on the top that have been attached. Written on these labels is Christ's monogram.
There are four hallmarks on the silver frame. There is the maker’s mark that tells us that the creator of the frame was Igor Antipov. The hallmark of St. George killing a dragon tells us that it is from Moscow. The format of the mark indicates the period 1790-1810. There is also the Trustee’s mark that gives us the dates of 1784-1807. The Assayer’s mark, however, gives us the exact date of 1804. Knowing this, it is most likely that the icon was painted around this time or before it, but certainly not after this date. While we can’t be certain, it is reasonable to assume that the frame was probably made for the icon and not the icon for the frame. It is also fairly certain that this frame does belong to this particular icon simply because they match up so well.
This icon measures 1 ¼ inches deep, 13 1/8 inches in height, and 11 ¼ inches in width. It is constructed of two different types of wood, one that makes up the icon as a whole, and the other consists of the two laths at the top and bottom of the icon. The back of the icon has a Snite Museum and various faint words in Russian. There are modern screws on the top two corners that were put in for hanging as well as two recent rubber bumpers in the bottom two corners to aid in hanging. There are also four holes from drills and in the top center of the back of the icon there are holes for hanging the icon as well that are no longer in use. The icon has a very smooth feel to it suggesting that it was cut mechanically rather than by hand.
Inserted into the top and bottom of the icon are laths. Each is about one inch tall and a ¼ inch wide. The laths were used to prevent warping and imply that this icon is either a product of the 18th century at the earliest or was made to appear as though it came from that century. The vertical edges of the icon are dyed red and the horizontal edges are black. There are three nail holes on the side and three on the top. Painted on the left side are the numbers 65.23, a Snite Museum number.
The front of the icon contains four painted panels that have been painted not directly onto the wood surface, but on fabric. The front of the icon is a completely flat surface, suggesting a late date. The front of the panel is framed by a red painted line enclosing a green line.
This icon appears to be made for an Old Believer audience. In Russia, there were two schools of religious thought and practice prevalent from the seventeenth century, the Old Believer and the New Ritualist. It is possible to identify iconographic responses to these competing school. Following the election of Nikon to the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1652 synods met in 1654 and 1655 to re-orient the Russian Orthodox Church. Traditions from the Greek Orthodox tradition were privileged over local Russian customs. Some of the visual aspects of these changes included the vestments for the clergy, the appearance of the crucifix, the manner in which Christ blessed – using three fingers rather than two -, signing the cross using three fingers rather than two, and abbreviating Christ’s name with an extra vowel: "I?C XC" rather than "IC XC." (xiv) Many of the Old Believers were upset by these new rules, distrusting a Greek model that they now believed to be influenced by Catholicism. So even though New Ritualism was introduced, the Old Believers continued their customs and the production of icons that reflected their beliefs. The abbreviation used for Christ and the style of the crosses carried by the saints betray Old Believer habits in the Snite icon.
It is unclear who the patron for this icon would have been. Nonetheless, several aspects of this icon suggest that it was made for a particular patron. First of all, it is a relatively rare quadripartite icon. The feasts depicted in the images in the panels all take place in same quarter of the year: July 20th, August 16th and 29th, and September 8th. Given this, it is notable that the icon does not include a major feast from this period, namely the Feast of the Dormition on August 15th. This lack suggests that the choices of subject might be more personal than festal. Furthermore, the saints and the dates of the saints, April 11th, June 16th, October 9th and December 4th, have nothing to do with the feasts painted on the icon, which leads one to believe that they were also chosen with a special purpose. For example, they might be the patron saints of members of a family or they might represent birthdays or death days: "An iconic frame might depict the saints who founded the monastery and form the border of an ancient icon with whose appearance their life was connected… An iconic frame can also contain a selection of saints who were protectors of a family."(xvi)
i Oleg Tarasov, Icon and Devotion, Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia (London: Reaktion Books, 2002). Tarasov continually references how pervasive Orthodox religion was in Russia.
ii Oleg Tarasov, Icon and Devotion, Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia, 47.
iii Oleg Tarasov, Icon and Devotion, Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia, 38. In discussing the fantastic presence of icons, Tarasov quotes Paul of Aleppo, "The quantity of icons in Russia never ceased to amaze observers from other lands—even Orthodox lands. The Archdeacon Paul of Aleppo, for example, an East Christian visitor to Moscow, has left us a mass of interesting information. In is memoir, The Journey of Patriarch Makarios of Antioch to Russia in the Mid-17th Century, he noted that 'In each house there is a countless multitude of icons, adorned with gold, silver and precious stones, and not only within houses, but also as all doors, even at house-gates, and this is true not only of Boyars, but of peasants in the villages, since their love and faith towards the icons is very great.'"
iv Fr. Christopher P. Kelley, An Iconographer’s Patternbook: The Stroganov Tradition (Torrance: Oakwood Publications, 1992), 428.
v Novgorod Icons, 12th-17th Century (Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1980), 213.
vi Ikonen: und ostkirchliches kultgerät aus rheinishem privatbesitz, catalog zur Ausstellung im Schnütgen-Museum (Köln: herausgegeben vom Schnütgen-Museumköln, 1990), 40.
vii The literature on the Mandylion is extensive. Notable recent discussions can be found in: The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation: Papers from a Colloquium Held at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome, and the Villa Spelman, Florence, 1996, Villa Spelman Colloquia, vol. 6, ed. Herbert Kessler and Gerhard Wolf (Bologna: Audi, 1998); Glenn Peers, Sacred Shock: Framing the Visual Experience in Byzantium (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004); Mandylion
viii Kelley, An Iconographer’s Patternbook: The Stroganov Tradition, 8.
ix Richard Temple, Icons: Divine Beauty (London: Chemaly & Chemaly, 2004), 89, plate 58.
x Kelley, An Iconographer’s Patternbook: The Stroganov Tradition, 442.
xi Gallerie di Palazzo Leoni Montanari Icone Russe (Milano: Electra, 1999), 309.
xii Kelley, An Iconographer’s Patternbook: The Stroganov Tradition, 398.
xiii Gallerie di Palazzo Leoni Montanari Icone Russe (Milano: Electra, 1999), 309.
xiv Tarasov, Icon and Devotion, Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia, 119,120.
xv Tarasov, Icon and Devotion, Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia, 53.
xvi Tarasov, Icon and Devotion, Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia, 307.