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The front side consists of two concentric circles. In the centre is the iconography of the Virgin Panagia [All-Holy]. This is a classical iconography showing the Virgin in half-length with her hands raised in prayer (orans), and with Christ Emmanuel (also in half-length) in the centre of her body. Christ holds a scroll in his left hand and blesses with his right. In some versions Christ is situated within a circular disk, as we find in the earliest known Russian panel version of this subject in the Tretyakov Gallery (fig. a).
In the second circle are 12 smaller circles containing half-length depictions of Old Testament prophets, identified by minute inscriptions. From the top, moving clockwise around: David, Solomon, Samuel, Moses, Zechariah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Daniel, Jonah, Hosea, and Isaiah. The inscription in the bands delineating the two concentric circles contains a hymn to the Mother of God known as the Axion Estin ['It is Truly Meet']: 'It is truly right to bless thee, O Theotokos, thou the ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God. Thou the more honourable / than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, who without corruption [gavest birth] to God the Word...' (there was not enough room for the artist to inscribe the last verse).
The reverse side of the object is less detailed and artistically less refined (possibly produced, therefore, by another artist). It follows the same basic structure but with different scenes and figures. In the inner circle we have the Crucifixion, while in the outer circles the 12 apostles.
This is only one half of the original object. The complete object would have closed like a box - the other segment would have shown the Holy Trinity, as we find in a 15th century version in the Benaki Museum, Athens (see fig. b).
Objects of this kind - though now rare - were part of a popular tradition in medieval Russia, as they were used not only in churches and monasteries but also at home. As T. V. Nikolayeva points out:
Small plastic art, in other words miniatures carved in wood, bone and stone or cast in silver and brass, held a place of their own in the art of early Russia. They were perhaps the most popular form of all the fine arts and could be found not only in churches and monasteries, but above all in people's homes.
Thus these objects were produced on a large scale. Yet the current object can be considered a masterpiece of Russian medieval miniature art; its high craftsmanship can be compared with the great works of Russian panel painting, and fits in with Nikolayeva's description of the great works created within this tradition: 'In the art of sculptured miniature the Russian masters achieved a degree of perfection and produced masterpieces that are in no way inferior to the best works of icon-painting or frescoes.' These objects, like ours, were therefore often treated as special 'heirlooms' passing from one generation to the next.
Though it is much more difficult to discern where a carving was created - in comparison to panel painting, because 'they bear the imprints of different schools, workshops and individual master craftsmen' - the severe expression of the faces and frowning eyebrows suggest that this object may have been made in Pskov (one of the greatest icon schools of medieval Russia), or at least influenced by this well-known region. For this is a defining characteristic of the Pskov School, as Irina Rodnikova points out: 'The Pskov icon is distinguished by a highly contemplative approach, felt in the spirituality of the severe faces of its saints, faces scorched with an indomitable inner flame of faith...' (see detail below and compare with details of fig's c and d)
Other similar objects from the period are comparable. For example, a version from the George R. Hann Collection uses a close iconographic formula. Yet the style of the Virgin and Child in this version - especially the stylistically elongated body - suggests an influence of Dionisi and 16th century mannerism associated with Moscow.
Other similar works include the above mentioned example in the Benaki Museum (fig. b), along with a work created in the Nikolo-Peshnoshsky Monastery in the Moscow Region (fig. f).
The comparisons of our object with these examples makes it difficult to place an exact date on this ivory Panaghiarion. However, the striking quality and style point to the region of Pskov in the late 15th century or the early 16th century.