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In the centre of the panel is an enthroned angelic figure (Sophia) wearing Byzantine royal vestments, including a crown, and holding a sceptre in her right hand. Sophia is surrounded by a blue, concentric mandorla representing the celestial sphere. Both her flesh and her wings are bright red. Sophia's feet rest on a spherical shaped footstall, representing the world (see Isaiah 66:1; Matt. 5:35; Acts 7:49), and the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chr. 28:2; Ps. 99:5; Ps. 132:7). As in the deesis iconography, Sophia is surrounded by the Mother of God (on the left) and John the Baptist (on the right); both are standing on malachite-green platforms. Above her chest, the Virgin is holding a sign showing Christ Emmanuel, the iconic representation of Christ as the Logos. While the Baptist holds an open scroll with an inscription from the Gospel of John: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’ (1:29). Above Sophia - in another mandorla - is an image of Christ the Saviour in half-length. At the top of the panel we see the 'scroll of heaven' (Rev. 6:14) with the hetoimasia in the centre with a closed Gospel and a garment representing Christ's glory. Six angels (three on either side) surround the hetoimasia. They are shown in 'divine conversation' as they support the 'scroll of heaven'. Luminous swirls between the angels represent celestial clouds. The two saints on the side borders are Nicetas of Novgorod (left) and John of Novgorod (right).
This extremely rare and important iconography has a complex history and symbolism. Though Divine Wisdom had been a subject in Byzantine icons and culture (the famous 5th century Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople was, of course, named after this theme), the current iconography developed in Novgorod in the 15th century and was then brought to Moscow soon after. The main cathedral in Novgorod is named after Sophia, and the earliest known icon of this subject is still located there (fig. a). In Moscow, an early version of this subject (mid-15th c.) can be seen in the Church of the Annunciation (see fig. b), while a fresco of this iconography (17th c.) can be seen on the outer walls of the Dormition Cathedral (fig. c).
Though the current object was originally dated to the 17th century, our own view is that the work is best compared with icons of this subject created in Moscow in the late 16th century. For example, see fig's d and e - the latter of which shows an inclusion of this subject within a hybrid iconography from the State Museum of the Moscow Kremlin. If we look closely at these Sophia icons, we can see the similarities to our own version, especially the atmosphere, facial design, bold colours, and overall composition. The simple, yet effective brushstrokes that delineate the facial features are a particular characteristic of the Moscow School from the 15th to late 16th century. Also interesting in the current version is the way the hem of both the Virgin and John's garments shoot away from them, and seem to be pulled toward the radiant light of the central figure - like a kind of mystical phototropism (the magnetic response of a plant or other organism to light) - emphasising the curve of the celestial sphere and leading the viewer into its centre.
Fig. d. Sophia the Sacred Wisdom, Moscow, 16th c.
Another example in the British Museum in London is also comparable in terms of composition (fig. f), but is of a later date (17th c.) and was painted in Novgorod (see fig. f). Here we see a much more embellished style that lacks the simplicity and restraint of the earlier versions.
The iconography of Sophia the Sacred Wisdom is important not just because of its rarity, but because of its significance in the history of icons and religious thought. One of its distinguishing features is the fact that it doesn't represent an historical scene or figure, but is wholly allegorical, as Donald Fiene states: 'Quite probably no other icon type was (or is) so abstract or allegorical in its content.' Kornblatt adds that 'images of wisdom remain the most abstract of all holy pictures.' Let us now look at the complex symbolism behind the main angelic figure.
Though the angel is clearly feminine, according to tradition she represents Christ as Holy Wisdom (Sophia). Wisdom is a theological concept that was important in the early Judeo-Christian world, and is associated with creation, glory, purity, fertility, unity, righteousness and beauty. Margaret Barker points out that 'possession of knowledge or wisdom had long been the sign of the angelic state'. In some versions of the iconography, the Virgin and the Baptist also have wings, suggesting they have undergone an angelic transformation (see fig. b). While the redness of Sophia's flesh can been connected to a passage from Revelation: 'Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire' (10:1).
The symbolic language of the iconography makes direct reference to the Hebrew Wisdom tradition, with a visual appropriation of a passage from Proverbs: 'Wisdom has built her house. She has set up her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table.' (9:1). If we look closely at the icon we can see 'seven pillars' emanating from the throne of Sophia (though the pillars are slightly faded in our version, they are clear in a 16th century Vologda version of this subject, see fig. g). In the icon, these pillars can also be understood as streams of wisdom flowing into creation from the divine realm.
Patristic theology interpreted Proverbs 9:1 as symbolising Christ, the Church, and the Eucharist. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, sees in this verse a figure of Christ's Incarnation: 'It was not in someone else's building that the true wisdom dwelt, but she constructed for herself a dwelling from the body of the Virgin.' Similar language regarding 'wisdom' and its connections to creation, beauty and order are found in Sirach 24 (see below). St Paul appropriated these ideas and applied them to Jesus, the 'Holy Wisdom' (1 Cor. 1:30). Origen also regarded Wisdom as the 'first and principle name of the Son'.
The small Emmanuel that the Virgin holds is most likely included in the iconography as it represents Christ as the eternal, pre-existent Logos, the creator of the universe; a theme connected with the Old Testament tradition of Sophia, as we find, for example, in the Wisdom of Solomon: 'And wisdom was with you: and knows your works, and was present when you made the world, and knew what was acceptable in your sight, and right in your commandments.' (9:9) And in Sirach, 'Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be' (24:9). These verses anticipate the opening of John's gospel, which directly connects Christ with the Logos tradition: 'In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (John 1:1; see also Hebrew 1:3). This passage is sometimes inscribed on the Gospel book upon the hetoimasia at the top of the image. Another writer states that the icon of Emmanuel 'represents the principle of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom' as the iconography shows Christ with youthful proportions, yet wizened face, and thus 'eternally young and old at once'.
Though the theme of Wisdom has its roots in the early Judaic world, it was applied to Christ and became an important theme in Neoplatonism and late antique Gnosticism. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) highlights a meeting point between these traditions concerning Wisdom:
If then we assert that Christ himself is Wisdom, and that it was His working that showed itself in the prophets, by which the Gnostic tradition may be learned, as he Himself taught the apostles during his presence; then it follows that the gnosis which the knowledge and apprehension of things present, future and past which is sure and reliable, as being imparted and revealed by the Son of God, is Wisdom.’ (Misc.6.7)
In some icons the transmission of wisdom from Christ to the saints is shown by Sophia (with a halo in the shape of an eight-pointed star, symbol of eternity - see fig. h) whispering in the ear of the Evangelists, or guiding them as they are writing their gospels (for example, see fig. h).
Many scholars see a connection with the conception of the Sophia iconography and hesychasm. For example, Wisdom (and its identity with Christ) was one of the key arguments used by Gregory Palamas in the hesychast controversy of the 14th century, as Anita Strezova points out: 'Wisdom was one of the subjects discussed during the hesychast controversy, resulting in a symbolic image of Sophia...The supporters of Palamas...interpreted the meaning of Sophia in the context of their Christology, to support Palamite doctrine of Christ as the Wisdom of God.' Thus the current iconography can be seen as fusing Hebrew, Patristic, and Palamite ideas relating to Wisdom into a composite image. The icon therefore represents a meeting-point between an ancient theological/philosophical concept and its reconfiguration through different cultures and practices.
In Russia during the 19th - 20th century, Sophia (with its Hebrew, Byzantine, and philosophical roots) became an important concept and symbol for theologians, philosophers and poets. Their ideas became known as Sophiology and were highly controversial within the Orthodox Church. The symbolism of the Novgorod Sophia icon was used, most importantly by the philosopher Vadimir Solovyov, to justify their ideas.
The icon can be seen, then, as an allegorical masterpiece that captures the tradition of Wisdom - from its Hebrew roots to its connections with hesychasm - and thus as a symbolic paradigm of Russian culture in the 15th century. In any case, the image represents one of the most important iconographies to emerge from Russia, and one of the most challenging. As we've shown the current example is an important and extremely rare version from the late 16th century.