[ Click on the above image for a full screen view ]
1. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow with label and inventory numbers
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.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. Demetrios was martyred by having spears lanced into his side. Many stories about his posthumous body performing miracles, such as healing, have been recorded. 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’).
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.
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'. 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.
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’ 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.