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An angel with feminine features is shown in half-length. The figure is wearing a jewelled crown the classical Byzantine garments of an angel. Wings with streams of light can be seen behind the figure’s shoulders. The fiery red face of the angel corresponds with biblical descriptions of angel beings (e.g. Rev. 10:1). The Slavonic inscription in white directly above the wings reads: София Премудрость Божия (Sophia Holy Wisdom). While the head of the figure is surrounded by a cruciform-inscribed halo with the initials 'Ὁ ὢ Ν', which translates from the Greek as 'He who is' and derives from God's response to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod. 3:14).
Around the halo are the Greek initials of Christ, IC XC, an abbreviation for the Greek words Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC) that uses the first and last letter of each word. These inscriptions explicitly identify the figure as Christ.
The inscriptions on the icon explicitly indicate that Sophia is the feminine manifestation of God and directly connected with the person of Christ. This association between Christ and Sophia goes back to the early Christian period. While in a 14th century Byzantine icon of Christ painted for the Church of St Sophia in Thessaloniki (now in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in the same city), an icon of Christ Pantocrator bears an inscription with Sophia (Wisdom) of God (fig. a), in the same place on the panel (i.e. above the shoulders) as our icon but, of course, in Greek rather than Slavonic.
Though the Russian iconography of Sophia – which uses the feminine angel form as a symbolic manifestation of Jesus as Wisdom - developed in Novgorod in the 15th century (e.g. fig. b; see also no’s 1 & 4 from the Temple Gallery Summer 2018 exhibition), the current example represents a very rare type of this subject as it is a half-length variation. Because of this distinctive feature it is likely that the artist was inspired by the 14th century Russian iconography known as the Blessed Silence, or the Angel of the Great Council (see fig. c and no. 24 in the current exhibition). The iconography of the Blessed Silence is also clearly connected with the theme of Sophia and became popular in Russian icon-painting ‘from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries’ especially with the ‘Old Believers’.
The loose, expressive brushstrokes of our icon, along with the earthy colours, suggest that it was painted in Northern Russia in the 17th century. This style was prevalent in the Northern regions from at least the 15th century. A Deesis icon from the collection of De Wijenburgh (fig. d) exhibits many of the qualities that we can see in our work. This icon was originally dated to the 15th-16th century, though it is probably closer to the early 17th century, making it contemporary with our object.