Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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XX007. Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki

Northern Russia (with the influence of Rostov)
16th century
43.8 x 35 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

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1. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow with label and inventory numbers
2. Collection Jacques Zolotnitsky with label
3. A La Vielle Russie Gallery New York, 1961
4. William Robertson Davies. The icon was purchased in New York in 1961, see his diary entries for December 1, “Friday:  see fine ikons at Zolotnitskys (A La Vielle Russie)” and December 2, Saturday:  “. . . then to Zolotnitskys & buy 3 fine ikons & are well pleased.” Acquired from his daughter Miranda Davies

William Robertson Davies, CC OOnt FRSC FRSL (1913 – 1995) was a Canadian novelist, playwright, critic, journalist, and professor. He was one of Canada's best known and most popular authors. Highly regarded works are the Deptford Trilogy and the Salterton Trilogy.

St Demetrios of Thessaloniki is depicted as a warrior saint dressed in armour and a blue cloak riding a brown horse. He is slaying the 'king of the infidels' with a long black spear; the latter is depicted on a white horse – both of which are noticeably smaller in size to the saint and his horse - below Demetrios in the black, cave-like abyss at the bottom-right of the panel. Directly above Demetrios’ head an angel is honouring the saint with the crown of martyrdom. In the top-right corner of the panel, in a blue lunette representing the celestial sphere, the figure of Christ is shown blessing the scene.

St Demetrios (d. 304 CE) is one of the most popular saints in Orthodoxy. Originally associated with 3rd century Sirmium (according to the early 5th century Syriac martyrology), yet he became connected to Thessaloniki after miracles attributed to him were reported in the famous Byzantine city.[1]According to this later tradition, Demetrios lived in Thessaloniki during a time of great persecutions against Christians. He boldly proclaimed his faith in Christ, resulting in his execution by order of the Emperor Maximian on October 26th 304 CE.[2] Demetrios was martyred by having spears lanced into his side. Many stories about his posthumous body performing miracles, such as healing, have been recorded.[3] Since the 10th century icons of Demetrios have depicted him as a warrior saint and wearing the red cloak of martyrdom. Because of the miraculous state of his martyred body, he is often referred to as the 'Great Martyr' or myroblytos (‘giving forth myrrh’).[4]

The style of the current icon indicates that it was painted in Northern Russia in the 16th century. The expressive and simple style is characteristic of the region during this period. A similar icon of Demetrios can be found at the Recklinghausen Museum in Germany (fig. a). The composition is noticeably comparable to our object. While we also see the same use of blue for the garments of the figures. In addition, Jesus is depicted as a full-length figure in the lunette at the top-right of the panel – Christ is usually in such instances shown half-length. Although it is not entirely unusual to show his whole body as we find here (as well as in fig. a; see also fig. b), it becomes much more frequent in 16th century icons from Northern Russia.

Fig. a. St Demetrios, Northern Russia, 16th century, Recklinghausen Museum, Recklinghausen, Germany.

Fig. b. St George and the Dragon, Northern Russia, 16th century, private collection, Netherlands.

Stylistic features of the current icon allow us to further suggest a Rostov influence in the work. Rostov was one of the most important icon-painting centres in medieval Russia, with close connections with 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'.[5] By the 16th century, however, 'the culture of Rostov was under the influence of both Moscow and Yaroslavl'.[6] 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.’[7] In other words, through ownership of land Rostov styles of icon-painting influenced artists working in the North.

The use of blue in our icon is, for instance, particularly characteristic of provinces in the north owned by Rostov, as Smirnova again highlights: ‘the beautiful nuances of blue colour… loved by the painters of Rostov and its provinces’[8] In this regard we can note interesting parallels between the figure of Christ surrounded by a sapphire mandorla in a 15th century icon of the Dormition (see fig. c), with the full-length depiction of Jesus in the lunette (again sapphire blue) in our work.[9]

Fig. c. The Dormition (detail), Northern Russia (with the influence of Rostov), mid-15th century, Collection of Arthur Koenig, US. XX007 (detail)

Fig. d reverse with labels and inventory numbers

Fig. e State Tretyakov Gallery label

Fig. f State Tretyakov Gallery inventory number.

Fig. g State Tretyakov Gallery inventory number.

Fig. h Label, perhaps Zolotnitaky collection?

1. Alexander Kazhdan, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vl 1, (Oxford, 1991), pp. 605-6; see further, Piotr Grotowski, Arms and Armour of the Warrior Saints Tradition and Innovation in Byzantine Iconography (843–1261), (Leiden, 2010), pp. 104-114
2. The Icon Collection in the Tretyakov Gallery, (Moscow, 2006), p. 46
3. Kazhdan, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vl 1, pp. 605-6
4. See Christopher Walter, ‘St. Demetrius: The Myroblytos of Thessalonika’, in Eastern Churches Review 5 (1973), pp. 157–78; and idem, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition , (Ashgate, 2003)
5. In Masterpieces of Early Christian Art and Icons, (London, The Temple Gallery, 2005), p. 47
6. Ibid
7. Ibid
8. Ibid, pp. 45-47
9. This icon was published by Engelina Smirnova in ibid, pp. 42-47