The Archangel Gabriel (from the Deesis tier)
The St. Ferapontov Monastery
Few icon painters are known by name, but Dionysus is one of the most celebrated Russian names associated with this art form. The artist and members of his studio created this large and commanding image of the Archangel Gabriel in 1502. It was painted for the iconostasis of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the St. Ferapontov Monastery.
The Monastery, located in northeastern Russia in the Beloozersk region, was quite removed from the bustling center of Moscow where Dionysus lived. Nevertheless, his fame earned him an invitation from Archbishop Loasaf of Rostov, a prince who had taken vows and retired to the St. Ferapontov Monastery in 1488.
Dionysus placed the Archangel Gabriel, the Archangel Michael, and other figures on either side of Christ in the Deesis tier of the iconostasis. He depicted Gabriel as a strong yet devoted angel who exudes humility. Garbed in a himation (the ancient Greek outer garment thrown over one shoulder -- usually the left -- and fastened either over or under the other) and placed against a gold ground representing divine light, the figure is both powerful and delicate.
Dionysus lived during a time of tremendous political upheaval in the Muscovite state. He was witness to the fierce battles between Moscow and the independent Novgorodian principality and its aftermath. The artist also experienced the final liberation from the Mongols in 1480. The decades following that event saw dramatic improvement in Russian life. The arts flourished and reconstruction of the Moscow Kremlin began. Dionysus was commissioned by Bassianus, Archbishop of Rostov, to complete several works, including the icons of the Deesis, the Festival tier, and the Prophet tiers for the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Moscow Kremlin.
The period also saw intense debate surrounding ideological teachings, a byproduct of the political turmoil of the times. A number of Dionysus' works were thought to reflect the aesthetic preferences of his patron Joseph of Volotsk (1439-1515), who was often condemned for his alleged obsession with physical beauty. Dionysus was not immune to the attacks on his patron and some his works were criticized for being too decorative -- too beautiful. This tendency toward the overly decorative clashed with the ideals of monastic austerity advocated by St. Sergei of Radonezh and his follower, St. Nil of Sora. What these critics did not acknowledge, however, was Dionysus's extraordinary ability to use decorative elements to enhance -- rather than dilute -- the spiritual content of the subject.
The most significant figure to appear in Russian art since Andrei Rublev (see ImageBase), Dionysus hoped to unite the spiritual world with the aesthetic. His innate taste and technical virtuosity enabled him to realize that goal. It has been suggested that the refined style of Dionysus, who was descended from several princes and a Tsarevich, reflects not only the tastes of his patrons but also his own background.
Towards the end of his life, Dionysus worked with his sons Vladimir and Theodosius on the frescos and icon paintings for the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin in the St. Ferapontov Monastery (1502-1503). They are considered to be the best and most complete examples of his surviving works. These objects are particularly valuable for the study of icons since Dionysus executed them during such a brief period of time. Moreover, study makes it clear that he attempted to create a cohesive program between the icons of the iconostasis and the frescos.