Symeon the Stylite
Symeon the Stylite (from the Deesis tier)
The St. Ferapontov Monastery
This early sixteenth-century icon of Saint Symeon atop his pillar is one of a group of panels included in the Deesis tier of the iconostasis from the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the St. Ferapontov Monastery (see other images from St. Ferapont iconostasis in this ImageBase). The narrow panels representing the Stylites completed both ends of the Deesis tier.
The Stylites were Christian ascetics who sought solitude by living on the tops of columns. Though exposed to the weather, the holy men spent their days and nights in prayer, usually in very restricted confines surrounded by a rail to protect them from falling. They depended for sustenance on their disciples who climbed ladders to bring them food.
The first ascetic to live on the top of a pillar was St. Symeon Stylite (the Elder) who began the practice in 423. In Russian Orthodox tradition the Stylites are considered saints, and in ancient Russia both saints named Symeon (St. Symeon the Elder, d. 459 and St. Symeon the Younger, d. sixth century) enjoyed considerable devotion and were often depicted as one saint. Even their festivals were combined and celebrated on September 1.
Represented on this tall and narrow icon is either St. Symeon the Elder at the top of the pillar, which he built in Antioch, Syria, or a conflation of both St. Symeon the Elder and St. Symeon the Younger. Devoted entirely to prayer and fasting, Saint Symeon the Elder lived on the top of his column for 47 years. Saint Symeon the Younger built his pillar or column on the "Wonderful Mountain" near Antioch and lived on it for many years as well. The Saint portrayed is garbed in his monastic cowl (large loose hood) and mantle, and assumes the gesture of benediction with his right hand as he holds a scroll confirming his ministry with his left.
The work on most of the iconostasis at St. Ferapont is by the celebrated artist Dionysus and his assistants. However, technical and iconographic features of the panels depicting the stylites suggest that other artists painted them somewhat later. These features include their heights (3 to 4 cm higher than the other icons in the tier), their lower ground lines, and certain compositional features (e.g., filling the plane of the panel to the maximum degree possible).
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.