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Ivory icons from Russia are an extremely rare type of object. This was not the case during the Byzantine period where ivory was 'one of the most sought after products'. Edmund C. Ryder notes that Constantinople was 'the foremost centre of commerce and trade in Europe until the ascent of competitive centres on the Italian peninsula during the thirteenth century. The riches of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia poured into the city’s warehouses...' He further states that 'the production of religious images in the medium of ivory reached a high point from the tenth to the eleventh century'. A good example of a piece dating from this era can be seen below (Fig. a).
The few examples from Russia clearly draw on these Byzantine types, yet the contrast in the number of objects produced was likely due to trade and the more convenient method of using wood, in a land rich with forests, rather than an expensive, exotic material that would have to be imported. Another writer further states: 'By the time the tradition of icon painting was brought to Russia, the theological status and visual language of icons was fully developed. Whereas Byzantine icons, however, had tended to be made from the diverse materials that were available throughout the empire - gold, ivory, enamel, steatite, and painted wooden panel - in Russia they were almost invariably made of wood.'
If we now look at the stylistic elements of the present example, we find there are other ivory objects which share comparable features. For example, the scene of the Holy Trinity in the centre of the icon resembles another piece on the same subject from the 16th century in the Walters Art Museum (Fig. b).
Though, as mentioned above, Russian ivory icons are a rarity, there are a substantial amount of pieces made in rock and metal (see Fig's c & d). It is here that the style of the ivory pieces seems to have primarily developed. A style which correlates direct markings and faceted surfaces with intricate ornamentation.
If we look at a panel on the Synaxis of the Virgin in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg, attributed to the Vologda region (Fig. e), we find this style and technique appropriated to the ivory medium.
Of particular interest here are the similarities in the depiction of angels with the current icon, especially the round hollow eyes, the circles of hair that are configured in a repetitive pattern, as well as the large hands. This style is also found in a bone carving of the Deposition (Fig. f), again from the 16th century (see details below).
Discussing the attribution of the 'synaxis' icon, Izilla Pleshanova states that certain 'features of this icon, including the proportions of the figures, the low but elaborately carved relief, and the ornamentation, justify ascribing the icon to the school of Vologdian carved miniatures of the second half of the 16th century.' Another ivory icon from Vologda (Fig. g) also contains comparable figures, especially in the execution of the faces.
These similarities with the present example suggest that it was perhaps created in the same place and period.
Scenes from the Old Testament
The scenes around the main image of the Holy Trinity are narratives derived from the Old Testament. Many of these images are very rare in medieval icon panels. In the left-hand corner we have a series of interconnected images which are somewhat confusing. The top-left image includes the building of the tower of Babel. Above this: God creating the angels; and God creating the sun and moon (see details below).
Directly to the right of this we find an image of Jonah being swallowed by the whale (Jonah 1:17) (detail 2). This is understood as a symbol of Christ's death and resurrection, a figure formulated by Christ himself in Matthew 12:40.
Above Jonah we can see 'the casting down from heaven' of the fallen angels (detail 2). Next to this the 'Creation of Eve' from Genesis 2:22 (detail 2), and the Fall of Adam and Eve. The snake, which is positioned on the tree, has a face which directly resembles Eve's, and thus explicitly associates Eve with the Fall and 'sin' itself (detail 2.). This feature is normally found in medieval art from Western Europe, such as the piece below from the Walters Art Museum (Fig. h).
Under the Adam and Eve narrative is an ambiguous image, it is most likely Noah with his family freeing the animals from the ark, which is shaped to echo the rainbow-sign of God's covenant (Gen. 9) (detail 3).. A similar iconography can be found in the 12th century mosaic in the narthex of St Mark's Basilica in Venice (Fig. i).
In the horizontal tier beneath the main image of the trinity is a rare iconography showing 'the angels leading Lot' (detail 4).
Next to this we find Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac and the intervention by an angel of God (Gen. 22:14), who tells Abraham to replace Isaac with a ram, which he then puts on the altar instead (detail 5). This is schematically placed next to an image of Moses sacrificing a ram upon the altar (detail 6).
Next we have Lot's wife turning to a pillar of salt with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah behind (Gen. 19:26). The composition (detail 7) of this scene is similar to a Byzantine mosaic variation in Sicily (see Fig. j).
In the bottom left-hand corner (detail 8) we find Jacob's dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven (Gen. 28:10-22).
To the right of this, we see Moses before the burning bush at the foot of Mount Horeb (Exod. 3:2). The imagery (detail 9) uses the Patristic interpretation of the burning bush as referring to the Mother of God, highlighted by the iconography of the Virgin of the Sign as the burning bush.
After this, Moses miraculously crossing the Red Sea with the Israelites as they escape from the Egyptians (Exod. 14:21) (detail 10).
The last scene is a representation of Moses receiving the tablets of the Law (Exod. 31:18) - 'God speaking on Mount Sinai'; and then directly under Moses is reading the Law to the Israelites (detail 11).