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The Virgin, dressed in the classical maphorion, holds the Christ-child with her left hand and leads the gaze of the observer into his body with her right. She gazes hypnotically into the mid-distance, her look suggesting contemplative trance, as well as deep solemnity towards her son. Christ blesses his mother with his right hand and holds a sealed scroll in his left. The sole of Christ's left foot is turned towards the viewer - a recognisable feature of the Tikhvin typology. The colours, derived from ochre, are earthy and restrained - again adding to the solemn atmosphere.
The Tikhvin is a variant of the Byzantine Hodegetria image. According to an ancient Russian chronicle the icon appeared in 1383 near the village of Vyimochenitsyi in the Novgorod region. It was associated with several miracles and finally found a resting place on a steep rise overlooking the Tikhvinsk River where a church dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin was built in its honour to house the icon. The Tikhvin typology became a popular feature of Russian icon painting in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
The depiction of the Christ-child in this iconography is known as Emmanuel, the Divine Logos. This is because though he is small, in fact the size of a child, he has a mature face, and thus 'eternally young and old at once'. This represents Christ as the eternal, pre-existent Logos, the creator of the universe, which early Christian theologians connected with passages in the Old Testament. For example, in the Wisdom of Solomon: 'And wisdom was with you: and knows your works, and was present when you made the world, and knew what was acceptable in your sight, and right in your commandments' (9:9). And in Sirach, 'Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be' (24:9). These verses anticipate the opening of John's gospel, which directly connects Christ with the Logos tradition: 'In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (John 1:1; see also Hebrew 1:3).
Re-dating the Icon
When the icon was first published in 2005 (Masterpieces of Early Christian Art and Icons, Temple Gallery) it was dated to the second half of the 16th century (1560) by Alexander Grishin. After further research, however, we believe that this attribution should be revised and that the icon certainly belongs to an earlier date. As we will now attempt to show, it is much more likely that it was created in the first years of the 16th century, within the Circle of Dionisi, successor to Andrei Rublyov and regarded as the last great master of the Moscow School. Dionisi's works are characterised by an ethereal atmosphere, fluidly delicate forms and elongated bodies that impart a sense of transformation from the material world to the spiritual. He was considered a great master in his own day: the Chronicle describing his frescoes for the Dormition Cathedral remarks that the 'onlooker is transported to heaven.'
Grishin noted the influence of Dionisi in this work stating that 'This icon bears the undeniable influence of Dionysius'; yet he saw this as part of the re-emergence of the style of Dionisi in Moscow in the second half of the 16th century. His argument was based on a comparison with two other Tikhvin icons that were created during this later period (fig's. a and b).
These icons bear initial resemblances to our example but closer analysis shows that the similarities are mostly superficial and actually misleading. Of the icon in Kostroma, Grishin states that 'it precisely repeats the peculiarities of our icon in almost every respect.' However, the overall shape of the body and the head of Mary is, by comparison, static and heavier in the Kostroma version - the shoulders are wider and the head doesn't possess the perfect spherical line that distinguishes the Temple Gallery version. The fluidly linear outline of the body of our example, which gives the impression of a light, dematerialised form, is much closer to works created in Moscow in the 15th century and by Dionisi's workshop at the beginning of the 16th century (e.g. see fig's c and d). In other words, there is a purity of form. These features can also be seen in a Trinity icon attributed to the Circle of Dionisi (fig. e)
These works show the influence of the earlier Moscow style developed by Andrei Rublyov. For example, they share characteristics with the face of Rublyov's Archangel Michael from the Zvenigorod Deesis (fig. f). All are characterised by soft, delicate, precise brushstrokes that render the facial features; a long, curved, neck and a warm glow complemented by a deeply contemplative, interiorised gaze. Whereas in the later version from the Ipatievsky Monastery (fig. b) there is a sentimental quality not found in the earlier icons, and the features have been applied with less assurance.
The qualities of transparency, delicacy and spiritual intensity - characteristics of the 15th and early 16th century - are clearly evident in the current object. This great Tikhvinskaya icon expresses through symbol and art profound solemnity and a feeling of heightened spiritual intensity. We feel that the Virgin’s compelling look, gazing at the world from her innermost being, conveys the mystical beauty of Moscow’s unique sacred tradition.