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This icon is an example of a rare form of Russian panel painting known as tabletka. These are small, double-sided icons that depict calendrical themes: for example, feast days of the saints; feasts of the life of Jesus; the Seven Ecumenical Councils; and other important feasts from the Orthodox Church calendar. They generally originate from culturally developed regions in Russia that have a well established icon-painting tradition, such as Moscow, Novgorod and Suzdal. Thus they are usually of the highest quality. Their function was to stand on the lectern in the centre of the church during the month of the relevant feast day.Only two complete collections of tabletki exist, today preserved in the museums in Novgorod (late 15th - early 16th c.) and Suzdal (16th c.).
In his study of the celebrated Novgorod tabletka series from the St Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, Victor Lazarev observes that the 'use of tablets, the small-size icons...was widespread only in old Russia.' Lazarev also notes that the size of the icons create a more intimate relationship between the painting and the viewer so that 'a more personal contact was established between the worshipper and the object worshipped.' One of the most important pieces from the Novgorod collection (the Holy Trinity) once belonged to the Temple Gallery (see fig. a).
The current example has two important feasts: the Holy Trinity and the First Ecumenical Council. In the Orthodox Church the feast of the first six councils and Pentecost both normally fall in June.
There are unusual, and possibly unique, aspects to the image of the Holy Trinity that indicate a degree of confidence and independence on the part of the painter; the artist is not simply following a prototype mechanically. The figures are depicted with soft, transparent brushstrokes giving weightlessness to their bodies, dematerialising flesh into translucent form - symbolising the resurrected body - typical of many icons of the Moscow School. The middle angel has raised wings perhaps echoing the shape of a cross and thus signifying that it is Christ, i.e. God the Son of the Trinity. On the table we see food and cups symbolising the Eucharistic bread and wine of Christ's Passion.
Behind this main image is a highly unusual, and in fact unique, addition to the traditional composition: from an arched doorway numerous figures are gazing at the scene, some turning their heads towards each other in discussion - an iconographic convention for representing wonder at a mysterious event. The leading figure holds a chalice. These figures are, we may surmise, a group of the faithful observing the celestial feast. The fact that they are not saints (they do not have haloes) suggests that the artist wished to establish a connection between the congregation and the mysteries of the Divine Liturgy they are celebrating. This idea is reinforced by the figure holding a chalice which in the Orthodox liturgy is used during the Eucharist. The scene also echoes a passage in Pseudo-Dionysius on the saints joining Jesus in the celestial feast:
For the King himself will come...and have them sit at table and will serve them. What this indicates is a certain common and harmonious sharing by the saints in the good things of God...We must think of the leading to the table as the rest from numerous labours, as life without toil, as a commerce with God in light and in the land of the living, a fullness of sacred joy...It is Jesus himself who gladdens them and leads them to the table, who serves them and grants them everlasting rest...
And as Alexander Golitzin observes, the 'eucharistic meal...as an icon and real anticipation of the Messianic banquet, is a feature of Christian tradition which goes back to the latter's origins'.
On the reverse side of the panel we have the iconic representation of the First Ecumenical Council, convened in 325 by Constantine the Great, and one of the most significant events in the history of Christian doctrine. It was at this council - which took place in Nicaea (now Iznik, Turkey) - that the doctrine of Christ's divine nature, and his hypostatic relationship with God the Father was settled. The heretical ideas of Arius - for example, that the Father is superior to the Son - were defeated.
At the top we see the crowned figure of Constantine clothed in imperial garments of red and gold. Opposite him and seated on the same throne is another royal figure. This is an anomaly that nothing in the entire canon of iconography prepares us for. The two royal figures face each other in poses that seems to echo images of the New Testament Trinity. However, the more immediate question arises from the inscription above the king on the right which identifies him as Tiridates III. Tiridates, after his baptism by St Gregory the Illuminator, made Armenia the world’s first Christian state. He was represented at Nicaea by his delegate Ariostaces, the son of Gregory the Illuminator, but according to tradition was not himself present.
Two possible reasons can be suggested to explain this anomaly. It is a convention of iconography that a painter will symbolically introduce a figure to correspond with theological tradition. For example, St Luke is present in icons of the Pentecost though according to tradition he was not in fact there. We must bear in mind that icons never intend to represent a literal narrative, their primary aim is to convey spiritual mystery. It is also interesting to learn of a significant Armenian presence in Russia in the 16th century. One of the chapels of that date in St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is actually dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator.
Four bishops accompany the emperor and the king. The figure in the mitre to the left of Constantine is perhaps Spyridon, other great saints known to have been present at the Council were Athanasius, Nicholas and Peter of Alexandria. However the absence of inscriptions leaves us guessing.
Beneath this scene we see the saints on the left disputing with the Arians on the right. Arius himself is shown on the far right dying in a latrine - a detail taken from a letter by St Athanasius:
Praying about these things, the bishop withdrew, very concerned; but a wondrous and unexpected thing took place. As those with Eusebius threatened, the bishop prayed, and Arius, overconfident in those who were with Eusebius, foolishly went in to the ‘throne’ because of the necessity of his gut. Immediately, according to what is written, ‘falling face first, he burst in the middle’. Upon falling, he immediately expired, deprived of both communion and his life at the same time.
In the opposite corner - i.e. upper left corner - we have the vision of St Peter of Alexandria when he was imprisoned in a cell for defying Arius. His vision consisted of the twelve year-old Jesus with a torn garment. Christ tells Peter that it was Arius who tore his garment.
The style is consistent with the Muscovite approach mentioned above, especially during the late 16th century. A similar group of icons from the festal tier of an iconostasis - also attributed to 16th century Moscow - are highly relevant (see fig's b and c for three examples from this group). We see that the faces have been painted with a delicate touch, a gentle light emanating from the flesh, while the eyes and other facial features are delineated with simple black strokes. The compositional similarities between our Trinity and an icon of the Descent into Hell from this collection are also interesting. For example, the depiction of Abraham and Sarah almost directly mirrors that of Adam and Eve (see fig. b. detail).
Sarah also echoes (compositionally and stylistically) the figure of Mary standing beneath the Cross in the Crucifixion icon from this group (see fig. c. detail).
These comparisons suggest a connection between the objects, indicating that they are perhaps painted by the same hand or workshop. Further comparisons can be seen below.