The Virgin of the Sign
Mid 17th century
38.3 x 33.1 x 2.7 cm
Condition. The background gesso has been exposed and damaged areas, mainly on the lower border, are restored with simulated ageing. There are minor retouchings on the Virgin's left cheek and on her hands. An old vertical crack, restored, running through the Virgin's left thumb, does not transfer to the back suggesting that the panel has been shaved and laid down on a new board. An area about 3.5 cm wide running from Christ's left shoulder, including his left arm and hand, and continuing down to the lower border is new. The restoration work seems to be recent and is skilful.
Provenance: art market, 2006
The image of the Virgin with hands raised in prayer is one of the oldest in Christian art; examples are found dating from 3rd century sarcophagi. The Latin term is 'orans' (literally meaning 'praying') and was common to both Pagans and Christian in Roman times. St Basil the Great, writing in the 4th century, gave the Greek term 'Platytera' ('Wider than Heaven') to an image of the Virgin in the 'orans' posture with a medallion of Christ at her breast. This term was used throughout Byzantium and Greeks still use it today.
Since the 14th century, Russian churches place the image at the centre of the upper row on the icon screen (iconostasis) where the Virgin is flanked by Old Testament prophets. This refers to the prophecies, particularly that of Isaiah: 'Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and this shall be a sign unto you.' Consequently the icon is known in Russia as 'Znamenie' ('of the Sign').
The icon was especially venerated in the ancient Grand Principality of Novgorod in Northern Russia, where an icon of the Sign, painted in the 14th century, was venerated for its many miracles, including the defeat of enemy armies. That image is preserved today in the Novgorod Museum.
The dark rich maroon of the Virgin's maphorion contrasted with small areas of dark green, the carmine rouging of her cheeks are typical colours of the late 16th and 17th centuries in Russia. The decoration on her wrists and on the edges of the garment, simulating gold brocade studded with pearls and jewelry also correspond to the period and are reminiscent of Pskovian artists.