Russian national state shares common roots with Ukraine in
the capital city of ancient Russ, Kiev, situated on the Dnieper
River. Old chronicles tell us the pagan rulers of Kiev concluded
that their nation was rising on the world stage and as a world
power needed to change its religion to increase the spiritual
and cultural level of the nation. The chronicles report that
the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to
find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling
from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship
observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of
life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither
of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they
visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy
in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. The Russians were
dumfounded by the richness and sublime beauty of the service,
the church and the celestial singing of the Byzantine choirs
in the lofty, domed cathedral. They breathlessly reported
back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell
if they were on earth or in heaven. The choice was made, Byzantine
Orthodoxy it would be.
In 988 the Great Prince of Kiev, Vladimir,
accepted baptism for himself and ordered his whole nation
to follow his example. In doing this he acknowledged the fact
that Christianity had already made tremendous inroads into
the life of ancient Russ. For more than 100 years evangelists
from the Byzantine world had achieved great success in converting
his people to Orthodox Christianity. In fact, Kievian Russ
instinctively looked down the Dnieper past the Black Sea to
the great city of Constantinople for her cultural and spiritual
inspiration. Russian merchants, churchman and warriors, travelled
to Constantinople regularly and saw first hand how things
where done in the Imperial city they called "Tsargrad".
Church services back home in Kiev were closely modeled upon
Byzantine norms and many ikons and liturgical furnishings
where brought back for Kiev's growing number of sanctuaries.
Although the first ikons in Kiev were certainly
imported, Byzantine artists were soon lured north to Kiev
to work and teach their craft there. The most important and
influential school of painting in Russia was established in
the famous catacomb Monastery of the Caves. The earliest ikons
painted in Russia closely followed Byzantine models. It took
some time for the Russian masters to acquire the high technical
level of Constantinople. The enormous ikon at upper left,
is composed of three boards fused together and is called the
Great Panagia. This ikon was known in Russia as the paladin
or protector of princes and most probably decorated a column
in one of the Great Prince's churches. The Theotokos is painted
in a severe, classical style, with her arms extended in prayer.
In her breast is an aureole containing the image of Christ
in her womb. Above both of her arms are images of two archangels
holding glass orbs topped with crosses adoring the Theotokos
and Christ. The Virgin stands upon a red carpet which is a
good example of Christian carpet weaving of the time. Her
robes are imperial purple and dark blue, liberally splashed
with wide areas of gold. What is interesting about the ikon
is the confidence of the painter in deviating from a simple
slavish copying of inherited Byzantine forms.
The painter has modeled the face of the Virgin
in an almost abstract fashion with vibrant color and subtle
shading. The majestic, unearthly effect of this ikon is a
precursor to later Russian ikon painting which reaches its
zenith in the transandental works of Andrei Rublev four hundred
An alternate form of this ikon, showing the
Theotokos only to the waist, is called "Znaminie"
in Russia, or "Our Lady of the Sign". The example
at lower right was painted 700 years after the Great Panagia
The ikon continued to be associated with Russian princes and
the Court Church of Tsarskoe Selo outside St. Petersburg was
dedicated to it. The last Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Fyodorovna,
had a special copy made of this ikon which she always carried
with her. It was called "Our Lady of Tsarskoe Selo"
and other copies where placed in most of the private rooms
of the Tsar's palace.
Below this ikon is the famous Christ, "Painted
Without Hands", which was displayed in the Moscow Kremlin
Cathedral of the Assumption, where Russian Tsars were crowned,
until the Bolshevik Revolution, when it was removed to a museum.
The ikon is based on the famous Veil or mandylion of King
Abgarus. The first record of this ikon dates from 590, when
a Byzantine historian recorded the story of the ikon, which
was miraculously imprinted upon a cloth by Christ himself.
King Abgarus of Edessa had asked Christ for a picture of Himself
and this was sent in reply. The cloth remained in Edessa until
944 when it was transferred to Constantinople to wild celebrations.
The Byzantine Emperor received the Holy Veil himself and had
it transferred to the Palatine Chapel. The Mandylion is sometimes
confused with the Holy Shroud or "Sindona" in Turin.
The ikon of the Holy Veil pictured here has
the same monumental style as the Great Panagia and is certainly
produced in the same era. The face is quite similar to other
ikons of this period, such as the great Christ of Cefalu in
Palermo, Sicily. It is possible they are all based on a celebrated
image of Christ created in Constantinople which is now lost
to us. The drawing of this ikon is extremely sure and the
strong lines of the face are complimented by thin gold lines
which highlight the hair. The piercing glaze of this ikon
was much noted and it was frequently copied.
The next ikon on the left is the famous Angel
"With the Golden Hair". Its tender gaze is quite
a contrast to the stern face of Christ in the Holy Veil. The
painting of the face is quite remarkable, showing the smooth
graduations of fused color which were typical of Comnenian
art in Constantinople during the 12th century. The last ikon
is the famous Virgin of Vladimir, which came to Russia from
Constantinople in 1131. The soft modeling of the faces and
the intensity of the tender feeling of this ikon had a major
impact on Russian art of the time. The ikon went through many
troubles and repaintings before it arrived in Moscow, where
it was placed on the ikonostasis of the Assumption Cathedral
in the Kremlin. "Vladimirskaya", as the ikon is
called in Russia, was the holiest religious image in the country.
As such, it attracted the interest of the Soviet Government
in 1918 and was removed from the cathedral for restoration
before it was placed in a glass case at the History Museum
in Moscow and then was transferred the Tretyakov Museum in
1930. Of the original painting only the faces and small patch
on Christ's shoulder remain.