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The Virgin is shown in the centre of the icon lying in a contemplative state after having given birth to the Saviour in a cave. Christ is seen behind the Virgin wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a cot. To the left we see the three kings leaning over in adoration at the child and on the right a shepherd gazing at the miraculous birth. At the lower right two midwives bathe the newly born child. To the lower left Joseph is shown sitting in a bemused state being tempted into questioning the birth of the Saviour by the devil who is disguised as a hermit. Joseph’s doubting mind is emphasised by the black in which he sits. At the top, two large angels watch the event, with cloth covering their hands – an ancient gesture signifying reverence towards a person or object.
The iconography is mainly taken from the Gospels (Mat. 1:18–25, 2:1–12; Luke 2:11–20), and the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. The latter is the source of the cave setting; a feature that distinguishes the imagery from western versions of the Nativity where the event takes place in a stable. The narrative of Joseph being tempted by the devil derives from liturgical texts that express the doubts of Joseph about the miraculous birth of Christ. The liturgical feast was established, both in the west and in the east, by the end of the 4th century. All the main features of the Eastern iconography are in place by the 5th to 6th century.
The current version follows the classical type but has confidence and energy with a distinctively expressive, sketchy style and earthy colours. These features (along with the composition, see below) suggest that it was created in the Rostov province of Vologda in the mid-16th century.
Rostov was one of the most important icon-painting centres in medieval Russia, with close connections to Moscow. Writing in 2005 Engelina Smirnova argues, for instance, that '[r]ecent research indicates that Rostov played a seriously important role in the history of Russian culture, especially from the middle of the 14th century. In this period Rostov led the renaissance of culture during the Tartar occupation'. By the 16th century, however, 'the culture of Rostov was under the influence of both Moscow and Yaroslavl'. She continues by saying that Rostov, along with Novgorod, ‘were highly important influences on the regions of the North, and both had territorial possessions there.’ In other words, through ownership of land, Rostov styles of icon-painting influenced artists working in the North. This distinguishes these icons from works attributed to Vologda generally. The key distinction lies in the more earthy and rustic style of the provincial icons compared to works from Vologda that are associated with Moscow artists who worked in Vologda (especially in connection with the well-known Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery) in the 15th to 16th century.
It is this influence from Rostov in the North that we see in the current object, and more specifically in provincial Vologda, parts of which were owned by Rostov. If we compare, for example, an icon of the Nativity that has been attributed to the Rostov Province of Vologda, we find interesting comparisons. For instance, the way the large angels hover above the scene at the top; the way Joseph holds his right leg into his chest and turns his head to the left and the composition as a whole. As we can see fig. a follows a very similar composition and is painted with the same expressive style.