Russian Icons

Holy Wives at the Sepulchre, Detail

Notes:
Detail from "The Holy Wives at the Sepulchre" The St. Cyril of Byelozersk Monastery "The Holy Wives (Three Marys) at the Sepulchre" may also be titled "The Appearance of the Angel to the Myrrh-Bearing Women." This beautiful and refined chiastic (Greek cross-like) composition is one of the approximately sixty surviving icons from the iconostasis erected in the Cathedral of the Dormition at the Monastery of St. Cyril of Byelozersk. Belonging to the Festival tier of the iconostasis, the image depicts the appearance of the angel to the three Marys as they visited the tomb of Christ to anoint the body with spices. This tier, which includes twenty-four icons of festivals, is one of the most complete tiers surviving from the fifteenth century. Referred to as extended festival cycles, such groupings of icons represented the twelve major church festivals as well as the twelve events from Christ's final week on earth. Most probably, the cycle in the Cathedral at the Monastery of St. Cyril of Byelozersk was inspired by similar Festival tiers from the Cathedrals of the Dormition in Moscow and Vladimir. Found earlier in works from Byzantium and Serbia, such cycles enter Russian art in Novgorod frescoes of the fourteenth century. "The Holy Wives at the Sepulchre" reflects its poetic painter's ascetic tendencies; only the most essential features needed to identify the scene are shown. The sloping ground on which all facets of the episode occur cuts the rectangle of the panel almost in half. The empty shroud in the sepulcher and the two sleeping figures are placed at diagonals approximately parallel to the line of the slope, thus emphasizing the sense of ascent. Set on a diagonal which intercepts the slope of the hill, the angel is critically positioned to interrupt the visual flow upward. Indeed, the head of the angel is situated at the intersection of the principal diagonals of the painting. This placement may be thought of as a visual metaphor for the textual significance of the angel's utterance: "The Lord is Risen." (Matthew 28: 1-7; Mark 16: 1-6; Luke 24: 1-10; John 20: 1). Though its artist is unknown and its origins (Moscow vs. Novgorod) have been debated, this powerful and exquisite work is among the true treasures of Russian icon painting. Because of its quality, both private individuals and the State sought it for their collections. Those changes of ownership indicate the important and interesting shifts that have characterized the status and collecting of significant historical objects in twentieth-century Russia. About 1922, the icon was chosen by A.I. Anisimov for his own collection. Because Anisimov headed the Commission for the Restoration of Icon Paintings in Russia, this acquisition can be seen as a conflict of interest. In 1931, the icon was incorporated into the holdings of the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow as part of the Anisimov Collection. By 1938, the object had passed to the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, and in 1956 came to rest at the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.
Copyright ©. George Mitrevski. e-mail:mitrevski@pelister.org