Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Annunciation - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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YY027. Annunciation

Russian, Novgorod School
15th century
Panel: 37 x 28 x 1.8 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

Provenance:  1. Boris Anrep Collection.[1]

2. Iconostas Gallery, London

Exhibited: Exhibition of Russian Art. No. 3. Russian Red Cross Society, 1 Belgrave Square, London, SW1. 4th June-13th July, 1935. See label (fig. 4.)

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Fig. 1. No. 27. detail

Fig. 2. No. 27. detail

Fig. 3. No. 27. Reverse

Fig. 4. No. 27. Reverse, detail with label with catalogue No. and owner’s name Anrep.

The icon is on a single slightly curved panel with two transverse struts (shponki) all of close-grained, pale wood (probably Linden) slightly chamfered top and bottom in order to fit into an iconostasis screen. The painted surface is slightly recessed within a narrow raised border (kovcheg) 7mm in from the edge.

The condition is generally good. There are minor losses at the borders, at the top left corner and more significantly in the blue and white semi-circle representing Heaven on the upper border. A small part of the Archangel Gabriel’s cloak and his foot are missing together with the green ground where the paint is lost in the lower left corner.

There is no retouching and no repainted areas. The gesso ground was once covered in silver leaf of which only traces are still visible.[2]

On the upper border, is the lower part of a circle, partly damaged, representing the highest realm of the cosmos or Heaven. From this three parallel lines descend representing the passage of divine energy from to Heaven to earth. They intersect the inscription, in Old Slavonic, БЛАГОВЩЕНИЕ ПРЕСВЯТОЙ БОГОРОДИЦЕ (Annunciation to the Holy Mother of God).

On the left in the foreground is the archangel Gabriel in a swirling voluminous red cloak. He wears a pale blue undergarment (the chiton of late antiquity) and gestures with his right arm towards the Virgin while he holds his staff, slanting at 45 degrees across his body in his left hand. His wings, done in golden yellow ochre, are tipped with red. His curled hair is ribboned in the classical style and a laconic inscription in pale orange-ochre identifies him. Although his left foot is missing due to the damage in the lower left corner it is clear that he barely touches the ground indicating that he is weightless - asomaton (ασώματον), without body.[3]

On the right the Mother of God sits on red and blue cushions on a throne, her tiny feet on a stepped dais. (According to apocryphal sources after her first seven steps ‘she never more walked on the ground’.[4]) Her head inclines towards Gabriel while her raised right hand indicates her assent: ‘be it unto me according to thy word’.[5] The Greek inscription ΜΡ ΘΥ (Meter Theou, Mother of God) is seen above her head. In her hands are the threads of wool that, according to tradition, she was spinning. [6]

The architecture behind the two principal figures is orderly and at the same time fantastical, creating a space implying multiple psychological and symbolic meanings. The painter used techniques that would later become conventional but are here consciously employed so that the viewer contemplates the theological idea. The iconographer has dispensed with the logic of physical space to present forms that belong not in the three-dimensional world but to a higher reality, a multi-dimensional world. This suggests the states of heightened consciousness, the result of the profound contemplative mystical practice known as Hesychasm, achieved by artists in certain monastic schools, particularly in the 14th and 15th centuries.[7] The writings of the fourteenth century monks Ignatius and Callistos in the Philokalia refer to the ‘House of Spiritual Architecture’.[8]

Fig. 5. No. 27. detail

Fig. 6. No. 27. detail

Fig. 7. No. 27. detail

Fig. 8. No. 27. detail

An elaborate geometric scheme separates the Virgin’s space from that of the archangel. An earth green floor covers the foreground. At the back of this, in front of a dark door-like opening, we see a short column beneath a vertical structure that supports what may be a balcony or a portico associated with the green building behind Gabriel. Beyond this we see the top of a hidden tower from which rises a chimney-like structure. All this creates a vertical division in the proportion of the golden ratio between the two spaces separating Mary’s space from the domain of the angel.[9] The Mother of God is associated with humanity while the Archangel represents the divine hierarchy. This difference is emphasised by the dissimilar architecture and different colours behind each figure. A series of diagonals direct the viewer towards Mary. These comprise the Archangel’s lance, the angled wall near Gabriel’s head, the three rays issuing from the Cosmos (indicated by the partly damaged blue semicircle at the upper border), the slope of the dais on which Mary’s feet rest which opens outwards and the right-hand angles of the pitched roof. The drama of descending cosmic power and the energy of the archangel’s appearance with God’s tremendous message is modulated by corresponding opposite diagonals from the left-hand angle of the roof, the red curtain and Gabriel’s gesture. These restore balance to the composition, contain its dynamic energies and establish harmony.

Behind Gabriel is a triple-tiered tower in apple green, a favourite colour of fifteenth century Novgorod painters. It rises to a barrel shaped ciborium of blue and red. A low wall is behind the Mother of God and beyond that a church-like building surmounted by a pitched roof. Here the colours are tawny-ochre and mauve-pink. A partly-furled red cloth or curtain descends diagonally from the point of the roof to the top of a narrow tower.

Our icon belongs to a group that once represented the Great Festivals of the church in the part of the iconostasis known as the ‘Feasts Row’. At least one other from this screen exists, now in a New York private collection and it is possible there are others.

The New York icon shows the Presentation of Christ (see Fig. 9). It was published in The Temple Gallery in 2001 with an essay by Dr Nicholas Gendle [10]. There can be no doubt that that both icons are by the same artist and that both icons were part of the same ensemble. Both icons are the same size and, further, we note the similar strikingly unusual colour scheme with its silver ground, apple green, tawny orange, pink, ochre, blue and vermilion tonalities. The inscriptions for the Mother of God - ΜΡ ΘΥ - have identically formed letters (figs. 10 and 11) . Each icon has a characteristic oeil-de-boeuf window that we cannot doubt are the product of the same hand.

Fig. 9. Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Russian, Novgorod School, 15th century. 37.0 x 28.5 cm. Private collection New York.

Fig. 10. No. 27, detail Fig. 11, detail from Fig. 9

Fig. 12, detail from Fig. 9 Fig. 13, No. 27, detail

It is interesting to note that the 1935 catalogue mentions two further icons lent by Boris Anrep of the same size and similarly catalogued as a group, namely an Assumption of the Virgin (i.e. Dormition) and a Descent into Hell. The present whereabouts of these two works is unknown.

Fig. 14. Christ’s Sermon to the Doctors, Novgorod 1475. Private Collection, Brussels

Fig. 15, detail of Fig. 14 Fig. 16, detail of No. 27

Our icon shares a number of features typically found in Novgorod icons of the 15th century. We note for example the same ‘fantastical’ architecture as in the well-known icon of Christ’s Sermon to the Doctors dated to 1475,[11] the same bold colours and a similar sense of space and form.

Fig. 17. The Raising of Lazarus, second half of the 15th century. Russian Museum, St Petersburg Fig. 18. Dormition. 15th century. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Other examples displaying the same boldness, similar colour schemes (apple green, mauve, pink, vermilion), and sense of heightened, almost hallucinatory, reality all point to a moment in Novgorod, perhaps between 1460 and 1480, when icon painting both as art and as an expression of heightened mystical insight reached its highest point. Already by the end of the century as we begin to see, as for example, in the famous Sophia Tabletka series, a diminution where forms are more delicate, compositions more crowded. This would lead, gradually throughout the sixteenth century, to a more graceful or ‘artistic’ style, using delicate and decorative effects

Fig. 19. Tabletka. The Old Testament Trinity. Novgorod, late 15th century, Novgorod Museum of History, Art, and Architecture. (Formerly Temple Gallery) Fig. 20. Tabletka. Protection of the Virgin, Novgorod, late 15th century. Novgorod Museum of History, Art and Architecture.

derived from the influences that, since the conquest of Novgorod in 1478 by the Muscovite princes, had come from Moscow.

Fig. 21. Annunciation, 1497. Icons of the Kirillo-Belozersk Museum, No. 23, Severny Palomnik, 2005. No. 27.

Fig. 22. Annunciation, circa 1200. Saint Catherine’s Monastery Sinai

Fig. 21 is a good example of the Moscow style. It is associated with the workshop of the great painter Master Dionysi (died 1502) and dated to 1497. While the styles of the two icons are different the Vologda icon echoes many details of No. 27: the raised arm of the Virgin with only the hand showing and echoing the inclination of her head is quite unusual. A Byzantine icon from Saint Catherine’s at Sinai has the same gesture (Fig. 22). Also notable is the is the column and its superstructure set at the point of the archangel’s right hand and suggesting the phi proportion (the golden section).

The oldest image of the Annunciation is generally considered to be the wall painting of circa 200 in the Roman Catacombs (See Fig. 23).

Fig. 23, Annunciation. Tomb of Priscilla,
Catacombs, Rome. c. 200.

According to John Sanidopoulos[12] ‘in the 4th and 5th centuries the Annunciation becomes part of a much wider context, it starts to be included in cycles of epiphany scenes relating to the first manifestation of Christ to humankind. The epiphanic nature of the annunciation is often emphasised by the presence of a curtain, which is used, not merely for decorative purposes but also for its symbolic reference to revelation. (In this context it is worth remembering that the curtains in the sanctuaries of some pagan ‘mystery religions’ hid the sacred image until the moment of the theophany (i.e. the appearance of the divinity when they were pulled open.) The feature of the curtain was introduced towards the end of the 4th century’. (It is worth mentioning here that the same ritual can be seen today in the temples of India.) Our icon, then, is a theological commentary on the esoteric nature of mystery and revelation: what is hidden and what is revealed.

A good short introduction to the theology of the Annunciation is found in Lossky and Ouspensky The Meaning of Icons. The authors, referring to the Catacomb image, tell us that the iconography remains ‘fundamentally the same’ apart from ‘differences merely in details’. They emphasise how the ‘inner significance of the event . . . is rendered with great restraint and reserve’.

Appendix A

Dr Smirnova visited London in February 2012. After inspecting the icon she wrote the following.

Christ’s Sermon in the Temple (the Mid-Pentecost)

The icon, measuring 53.5 by 42 cm, is a part of the iconostasis of the St. Nicholas monastery in the village of Gostinopol’e which lies to the north of Novgorod on the river Volkhov. The decoration of the monastery was completed around 1475 under Feofil the Archbishop of Novgorod (1472 -1480); however there are grounds for belief that the work was begun in the 1460s under the Archbishop Iona (1458 -1470), who was known for his devotion to art. The church was painted with frescoes, and the iconostasis, besides the lower row, consists of Deesis, Festival and Prophet rows. The building was destroyed, along with the frescoes, during the Second World War. The church icons were discovered by Nikolai Repnikov, a dealer and icon expert, in the years 1913 and 1914; some in the church, and some in neighbouring country churches. Since the 1920s the Gostinopol’e icons have been dispersed: in Russia they are kept in the Tretyakov gallery, the Historical Museum, the Pavel Korin gallery in Moscow, and in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. Foreign collections hold the “Nativity of Christ”, the “Presentation of Christ in the Temple” and “Christ’s Sermon in the Temple.” The whereabouts of the “Holy Trinity” from the Festival row, the “Mother of God” icon from the Prophets row, and the icon of the Prophets David, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Moses are unknown.

The collection of Gostinopol’e icons is important for the study of: a) the history of Russian iconostases, b) the composition of the Festival row, c) the role of Novgorod's archbishops in the development of local icon painting, d) the character of Novgorod culture in the period before the unification of the states of Novgorod and Moscow (1478).

The Gostinopol’e iconostasis is significant as a product of the painting of the archbishop's court, where the best Novgorod artists worked. The icon “Christ’s Sermon in the Temple” is well preserved; it combines both the traditions of the later Palaeologan style of art of the late 14th century (the form of the building, the steeply curving bench giving depth to the background) and the new tendencies in Russian art in the period “between Rublev and Dionysius,” i.e. between the beginning and the end of the 15th century. The specific cultural features of the 15th century are clearly seen in the Sermon of Christ, in the form of a circular movement of spiritual experience. The Saviour, with a clear expression of sorrow on his young countenance, turns to the left-hand (from the viewer’s standpoint) group of listeners. They listen to him as though hearing in inner voice, conveying their understanding with their eyes and with restrained gestures. The movement then rises to the right-hand group, where it is shown not only by facial expressions but also by hands, which direct our gaze to the figure of the Saviour. Thoughtfulness, concentration, silent unity and inner harmony of the figures, a gentle circular motion - all these serve to remind us of the intonations contained within "The Holy Trinity” of Andrei Rublev. However the minor figures and the heightened expression of the architectural background (a symbolic temple of Jerusalem) already suggest the advent of a new artistic era.

Engelina Smirnova 13.02.2012

Appendix B

Luke 1:26-38 King James Version (KJV)

[26]And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

[27]To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

[28]And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

[29]And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

[30]And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

[31]And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

[32]He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David

[33]And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

[34]Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

[35]And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

[36]And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

[37]For with God nothing shall be impossible.

[38]And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

1. Boris Anrep (1883-1969) was a well known Russian poet, a close friend of Anna Akhmatova, and an artist and mosaicist. After the Revolution he settled in London and his work can be seen in Santa Sophia Cathedral, Bayswater and on the floor at the entrance of the National Gallery, London.
2. c.f. fig, the companion icon from the same group. It retains the silver.
3. c.f. Dionysios the Areopagite. The Celestial Hierarchies lays out the cosmology of angelic beings.
4. Protevangelion Jacobi from the Apocryphal New Testament - translated by M.R. James - 1924, Ch. 6, v. 2
5. Luke 1. 26.
6. Protevangelion op. cit. X, 1
7. Anita Strezova, Hesychasm and Art, The Appearance of New Iconographic Trends in Byzantine and Slavic Lands in the 14th and 15th Centuries. ANU, 2014
8. Kadloubovsky and Palmer Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London 1961, p. 181. See also Anita Strezova, Hesychasm and Art, op. cit, also R. Temple, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity, Luzac Oriental, 2001, p. 136.
9. Phi, (ф) Greek letter referring to the ratio of the two parts of the golden section, i.e. 1.618. A good introduction can be seen at
10. Summer 2001, Exhibition No. 25 pp. 16-18,
11. Engelina Smirnova in a privately commissioned report dated 13.02. 2012 (See appendix A)