In the upper zone the ‘Scroll of Heaven’ is held up by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel with the Lord God Sabaoth attended by Seraphim.1 From his mouth issues a great beam along which Gabriel and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove travel towards Mary who stands in the gates of Jerusalem. Within the city walls we see the Visitation: Mary and Elizabeth embracing. Opposite on the left is the Heavenly Jerusalem inhabited by Angels. In the centre, between the two cities, we see the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the staffs of the Heavenly Hosts. Immediately below is Christ in a red sphere with both arms extended in blessing. He is attended by Cherubim and Seraphim and immediately below him is the Mother of God enthroned and attended by angels within a double circle. The contours of both circles around her are decorated with clouds indicating the Divine Realm. Reaching up to this level is a rocky mountainous landscape where we see groups of the Righteous approaching the Theotokos. Some of these are identified with inscriptions in red and many display scrolls with written texts. In the lower zone are scenes illustrating verses from the Magnificat.
This image belongs to a category of icons classified by the great Russian historian N. P. Kondakov under the denomination ‘Mystical and Didactic Subjects’ whose origins he traces, via Greek fresco painting, to the medieval art of the Latin West.2 Their appearance in Russia generally dates from the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Some themes, such as the Burning Bush or the Only-begotten Son, became wide-spread and popular while others like the Magnificat remain rare. Our research has turned up only one of any note in Russia (Fig. 1.) 3
It can generally be said that all icons are expressions of cosmic hierarchy. Persons and supposed historical events taking place in the terrestrial world are viewed in the context of eternity. Sacred art depicts a world beyond space and time whose realities are unknowable to the rational mind and our physical senses. Only visionaries can know this world which is why we rely on mystics, prophets and artists whose spiritual powers allow them to see Reality. To help communicate these visions philosophers and priests employed a language of symbol and myth to describe the indescribable. The psalmists and prophets of Judaea, the writers of hieroglyphs and images in Egypt, the geometers and philosophers of Greece had long established literary and pictorial figurative languages to communicate sacred wisdom through symbols. Such were the cultural conditions for educated people of the Roman world in the time when Christianity first was becoming established and the first theologians would adapt them to their new doctrines. One of the great initiates into such mysteries and wisdom, who took the name Dionysius the Areopagite,4 adapted the Neo-Platonist classification of divine hierarchy revitalising it with a new nomenclature. The cosmic order of the Greeks became the Celestial Hierarchy, the ‘Nine Choirs of Angels’.
Dionysius’ writing, regarded by some as the foundation of Christian mystical tradition,5 sometimes expresses ecstatic states similar to the prophets of the Old Testament and to the writer of the Apocalypse. These complex visions make vivid reading and cannot be taken as literally as our schematic diagram suggests.
The idea of the higher and lowers stages of the cosmos has its counterpart in the higher and lower states in us, in human beings. This is expressed in John Climacus who wrote less than a hundred years after Dionysius. He was a monk at Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in the seventh century and his book, the Ladder of Divine Ascent enumerating the stages of mystical progress, soon became one of the most widely read treatises on Byzantine spirituality.6 Both Dionysius and John Climacus are speaking about the same endeavour, the same journey.
One of the first icons explicitly illustrating the cosmos as a diagram is the fifteenth century Last Judgement from Novgorod. (Fig. 2.) In the upper half we see tiered rows, one above the other, indicating levels of being with a central axis showing the divine powers as cosmoses or circles. Lower down is the less ordered world culminating in Hell and punishment.
Our icon is an image of the Cosmos comprising three stages; higher, lower and a central intermediate stage where we see the Theotokos. Everyone converges towards this point in their journey towards the higher. Visual references to the writings of John Climacus and the Celestial Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius offer us the means that enable this spiritual journey.
The central part of the Magnificat icon shows a series of vertically conjoined circles the highest of which - above the image of Christ blessing - is the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Bodiless Powers.7 Throughout the image there is an emphasis on the presence of angels. Michael and Gabriel both appear in the icon five times: 1, holding up Scroll; 2, in the Synaxis and in the Annunciation; 3, handing crowns to monks; 4, in attendance on the Theotokos and 5, putting down the mighty from their seats.
Angels personify cosmic states, ideas philosophically developed by Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists and which passed into Christianity through Pseudo-Dionysius. They belong to the mystical current that flowed through the religious schools and monasteries of Byzantium and medieval Russia nourishing culture and the arts of the religious life. Our icon is thus a profound philosophical treatise incorporating the highest traditions of theology.
With these ideas in mind we can begin our study of the details of icon of the Magnificat. The composition is close to the Yaroslavl example, which may be contemporary to it and consists, in the lower half, of a rocky desert landscape rising to a summit in the centre. Dispersed in it are various scenes which at first seem only loosely related but which on investigation tell a carefully thought out story. Some scenes illustrate verses of the Magnificat, some show Festival events, and some show groups of prophets, theologians, bishops and monks offering their prayers and adoration to the enthroned Theotokos who we see in the first group of cosmic circles at the very centre of the composition. She is accompanied by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.
The icon is divided horizontally with a lower half showing the earthly world and an upper half that implies the divine world. The visual images illustrate the theology regarding the processes by which the human ascends to the divine and how the divine – through the Incarnation – is present in the lower.
The group at the centre comprising the Virgin and the Archangels is inscribed within a circle edged by clouds and the spreading red wings of a seraph (Detail 1.) This is a stage in the ‘Great Chain of Being’ of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite whose cosmology provides the structure of the composition.8
Another stage is the three laterally conjoined circles above the Virgin where we see Christ blessing with both hands outstretched and accompanied by Cherubim painted in grisaille. Verses 4 and 5 of the Magnificat are written in white either side of Christ in the red roundel: For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his Name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations. Rising above this we see the image known as ‘The Assembly of the Archangel Michael and the Bodiless Powers’.9 (Detail 1).
Across the top of the icon, showing us the highest stage, the Archangel Michael and the Archangel Gabriel hold a cloudscape whose form is adapted from the ‘Scroll of Heaven’, the apocalyptic vision described in Revelations 5:1-6 found in icons of the Last Judgement. The painter has omitted the Sun and the Moon as we see in the Yaroslavl example (Fig. 1) but he emphasises the sense of the higher spheres by the use of clouds, the traditional indication of the sky. Here we find the second part of verse 1: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour, written in red either side of the apex of the cloudscape. Within the apex, but making a continuous line of writing, we read The Lord God Sabaoth, identifying the figure seated below among the red-winged Seraphim. (Detail 2.)
From him issues energy: a ray containing the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and alongside it the Archangel Gabriel with his staff raised high. They both fly down towards Mary who stands at the gate of the city of Jerusalem. She holds a scroll where we read [my] soul doth magnify [the Lord], the first part of verse 1. This group thus constitute the Annunciation. Further within the city we see the Visitation, where Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, both pregnant, embrace. This was the moment when Mary feels the child ‘leap in her womb’ and utters the words of the Magnificat. In both scenes Greek inscriptions in black letters ΜΡ ΘΥ identify Mary as the Mother of God. In the gold ground above the city walls is verse 2 written in red: For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. The three men just in front of Mary may be apostles the leading figure probably Saint Luke in whose gospel the Magnificat appears. (Detail 3.)
In the upper left just below the Archangel Michael we read, again in red on gold, [He] hath holpen his servant Israel, part of verse 9, and in a cloud-encircled ellipse, is the heavenly Jerusalem where we see a Cherub (six-winged and bodiless) and from which Gabriel and Michael lean down to hand crowns to flying winged monks. This may be an allusion to John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent.10 Indeed the left hand side of the icon can be seen as a visual echo of the central vertical axis with its cosmic hierarchy. It shows the ascending path for humanity as represented by monks. Next to the flying angels, on, so to speak, the same level, are Old Testament prophets including a crowned figure who, given his relationship with the Psalter, is probably King David.11 (Detail 4.)
We can now consider the lower half of the icon and the events nearer our human nature. We shall see that the divine is also present at this level.
Below the two ‘angelic’ monks are a group of monastics enclosed within a cloud-encircled ball perhaps representing the community for whom the icon was originally intended. Next to them is a group of theologians headed by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem a and theologian who attended both the Councils of Nicaea (325) and of Constantinople (381) that produced the formula defining Christ in the Nicene Creed. He is dressed in green with crosses on his robe and identified by the red writing above his head. His scroll touches the central circle. (Detail 5.)
Over on the right is a large group of lay and princely figures wearing Russian court costume. The leading figure, who is paired with Saint Cyril opposite, is identified as Saint Moses. In front of his chest he holds the Tablets of the Law. We can understand here that the journey of the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage into the Land of Canaan under Moses’ leadership symbolically parallels the imagery of spiritual ascent. Behind Moses, with red and black spotted headdresses, are the Jewish elders of the people and the group behind them, despite their Russian costumes, are the Israelites. (Our painter is not a historian.) (Detail 6.)
Below in the right corner devilish figures are seen spearing eight heads in a red lake obviously representing Hell. The scene is inscribed in red with the words of Verse 6: He hath shewed strength with his arm, he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. One of the heads wears a crown and two others wear the Metropolitan’s cowl. We note that the scene is rendered without drama; the action of the two black devils is perfunctory and without particular relish. The icon painter, unlike his western counterpart, is never literal or ‘realistic’. (Detail 7.)
Next to this is a black pit into which crowned figures have fallen from their precipitously unstable seats. Michael and Gabriel push them down with their staves with actions that are firm but not violent. Just above is the inscription in red giving verse 7: He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. The painter has rendered the toppling thrones in a manner that, in the early twentieth century, would be called constructivist. (Details 8, 9)
On the lower left is a space with trees and four feasting saints of which three are monks and one is a naked desert ascetic. This image is a visual allusion to traditional images of Paradise and it illustrates the first part of verse 8: He hath filled the hungry with good things. (Detail 10.)
Above the dark cave in the lower left corner we read the second part of the verse: and the rich he hath sent empty away. In the cave is a sorrowing figure in red, next to him an overturned jar, its contents spilt. (Detail 11.)
Dating the icon.
Comparison with an icon formerly in the Likhachev Collection and now in the Hermitage Museum shows similarities of style, of colour and formal arrangement. (Fig. 3.) We see similar relationships between figures and architecture and similar use of interacting circles denoting hierarchy. The Hermitage example is dated to the first quarter of the seventeenth century. According to Constanta Burlacu the manner of the inscriptions in our icon is also typical of the early seventeenth century.12
Our icon can also be compared to the wing of a rare Russian diptych dated 1617 where many similarities can be observed. (Fig. 4.) Both icons employ scripts using different colours; we also note the fluttering hand-held scrolls with curled ends, the similar relationship of rocky landscape to heavenly realm, the double tiered palm trees, similarly proportioned figures and the same degrees of movement and animation.
The Athens icon has a ‘Golgotha Cross’ or ‘Calvary Cross’ in the centre of the ‘Scroll of Heaven’ at the top. We find the same image on the back of the Magnificat icon (Figs. 4, detail and 5, detail). Such crosses are sown onto the analavos (apron) of a monk of the ‘Grand Schema,’ indicating the highest attained spiritual level.
Such kinship of styles and mannerisms between the two icons, one of them dated 1617, permits us to ascribe our icon of the Magnificat to the first quarter of the seventeenth century.