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This iconography is based on the scriptural account of Christ entering the Temple at the age of twelve: 'And it came to pass, that after three days they [Mary and Joseph] found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.' (Luke 2:46-7) Mary and Joseph can sometimes, as in the current version, be seen entering the temple. The passage is understood as the beginning of Christ's ministry as it is the first time he makes his knowledge public.
In the Orthodox Church the event is celebrated during mid-Pentecost (feast between Easter and Pentecost. Russian: Преполовение), though the feast is unknown in the west. Because the theme is not one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church that are included on the festal tier of an iconostasis, the subject is rare in iconography. There are no Byzantine objects of this scene until the eighth century, though western examples (from Perugia and Milan) can be found as early as the fourth. The classical Byzantine iconography with Christ in the middle on a raised throne with two or three doctors either side, and sometimes with Mary and Joseph entering the temple from the left or right, derives from the Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390). Variations of this iconography can be found in later Byzantine art (see Fig. a).
Perhaps the most significant icons on this subject come from 15th century Novgorod (Fig's b. & c) and Tver (Fig. d) These pieces exhibit typical characteristics of icon-painting in this period: sharp contours, bold colours, and architecture formed by strange patterns and inexplicable entrances; all of these features create a mysterious atmosphere that departs from a naturalistic understanding of figures and space, and shows the influence of Paleologan art (see below).
Examples in the Pskov Museum of Art show variations of this iconography from the 16th century (Figs. e & f).
Our version is notably different from these early examples in ways that suggest it was painted in the 18th century. For example, the baroque furniture and architecture (especially the classical columns and decorative patterns in the spandrel); as well as the loosely hanging garments, rather than the sharp, geometric folds that we find in earlier icons. The footwear worn by the 'doctors' can also be compared to18th century boots worn throughout Europe in this period. This is a clear attempt at a more naturalistic approach. Here we can perhaps identify an influence of the Armoury School (see Fig. g), which was based in Moscow's Armoury Palace from the 17th to18th centuries. It is in the Armoury School that we find a new direction in Russian icon painting that was strongly influenced by western ideas, as Olga Polyakva points out:
Icon's by the tsar's painters combined the features of traditional convention that were typical of old works with the new realistic tendencies that made their way into Russia from Western European countries in the 17th century. These icons are characterised by a striving to be life-like: a naturalistic depiction of the figures and faces of saints, attention to the landscape and architecture at the sides, and complex multidimensional structures.
The images below highlight how our icon aims for a similar sense of realism in the folds of clothing and baroque-styled furniture as artists working at the Armoury Palace.
In the youthful face of Christ we can see a resemblance to the way angelic beings were visualised in the 18th century, as an icon of the Archangel Michael, which has been signed by Grigory Popov and dated 1741 (Fig. h), highlights. These round faces, in contrast to the ascetic features of medieval icons (see Figs. b, c & d), were the most common way of depicting angelic beings in 18th century iconography, perhaps another influence from the voluptuous figures found in baroque art. But the face in our work is less modelled than Popov's and does not use the chiaroscuro technique to create dramatic lighting. Whereas in a Ural icon (school of icon painting from east Russia, the Ural region) of the New Testament Trinity, the central angel has a more comparable face to Christ's in our work (Fig. i).
The Ural region began producing icons in the middle of the 16th century, though the earliest works to survive are from the 18th century. Because there were many artists working for either the Orthodox Church or the Old Believers over a vast territory, there is not a clear and unified body of work which we normally associate with an icon-painting school. Yet many of the pieces can be characterised as 'absorbing all the stylistic trends of Russian art: from baroque and classicism to realism and the historical trend with certain modernistic elements.' It is this type of synthesis that we can identify in the current object. For example, the positioning of the figures, which give the impression that they are levitating, almost as if they're in a dance, derives from the Paleologan period - the most notable example being the Kariye Djami (early 14th c.) in Istanbul (see Fig. j & k) - which was influential in medieval Russia (as Fig's a & b illustrate). This interesting stylistic feature can be understood as signifying the dematerialisation of the earthly body, and has been related to the mystical form of prayer known as hesychasm.
A Ural icon of the Nativity of the Virgin from the late 18th century (see Fig. l) shares with our piece these dematerialised figures.
If we look at details of the feet in each icon we see a similar positioning and a sense of motion, giving the impression of a space that defies gravity, very similar to the examples above from Kariye Djami and Novgorod.
What these icons also share is a convergence of styles: naturalism, baroque details, bright pastel tones, as well as a more traditional approach. These artists were not, it seems, predominantly 'striving to be life-like' (as in the Armoury School), but were attempting to unite many aspects from the history of Russian icon painting into a composite whole. Our object highlights the unique result of this endeavour.
This evidence justifies dating the object to the 18th century and suggests that it was painted in the Urals region of Russia. The size of the icon further suggests that it was created for a church, possibly a church dedicated to Mid-Pentecost.
There are three saints on either side of the border. Some of these figures are unidentifiable. But at the bottom left we see St Peter holding his attribute of keys. On the middle right is Abba Moses, and an Egyptian monk from the fourth century.
The inscription in the top centre of the icon: Вшедшу Iи(су)су во соборище иуд[еиское, дадо]ша ему / книгу Исаия пророка: 'When Jesus entered the Jews' assembly, they handed him the Book of Prophet Isaiah.'
The text on the book Christ is holding is from Isaiah: 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me', etc. (61:1) Elsewhere: Saints Joseph and Mary (above their halos); Christ's Greek initials ICXC (above his halo).