Russian, Moscow School
Workshop of Dionisy (?)
Late 15th or beginning of the 16th century
79 x 63.5 x 3.5 cm
Provenance. Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, Russian Works of Art, March 24th 1971, lot no. 528 (as Novgorod School, last quarter of the 15th century).
Exhibited. Temple Gallery, 1971.
Collection. The Rev. Ledlie Laughlin, USA, 1972.
Condition. Report on the Annunciation icon supplied by Martin Bould in whose studio the painting has been conserved.
In general the original design with its bold drawing is there in its original form. Paintwork is thin and almost transparent in places, and in others it is quite dense. This adds to the strong sense of contrast in this piece, clearly the intention of the original artist. The central elements of the architecture are particularly transparent whereas the figures are stronger in impact. Retouchings have been applied intermittently in the area between the two main figures and on the lower parts of the figures themselves around the knees; these are of some antiquity - perhaps as much as two hundred years old and I have allowed these to remain. Inspection by ultra-violet light shows there is retouching around the mouth and the left ear of the Virgin and around the chin of the angel but the flesh of the Virgin's small helper shows the old style and colours. A skein of wool extending from the Virgin to this figure has disappeared but its red colour is just visible over the Virgin's thumb. For some reason long ago, the gesso of the 'sky' and the halos has been expertly replaced. (A possible explanation is that it was damaged by inserting pins to hold sheets of thin silver forming a revetment or basma.) This is shown by the evident difference in crack patterns. We can also see how the repairer has carefully cut around the edge of the architecture and halos. The original sky was probably gilded. As a result we are missing now a device that would be part of this subject - the segment of the heavenly realm with its ray of divine energy, containing a white dove, directed to the Virgin. This appears to have been added again as there is an impression of divine rays in the position of the dove in the lower right sky, but it was subsequently removed. There was a remnant of a broad orange border which has been removed. I feel any original border colour would have been in a better red. The recent one proved to be rather later as it extended over the border repairs. The panel itself is very stable and strong owing to its thickness and the size of the supports. Past movement about a join in the panel has caused cracking and paint loss down its whole length in the left half of the picture and this has been retouched. There is no movement now and no further panel repairs were necessary. It appears that the top and bottom rails of the border were replaced in the distant past. Alternatively there is a small possibility that these joins may have been made to create the original panel. Whatever its origins the whole border displays a historic gilded gesso.
M. B. 4/4/07
Icons of Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary date from the third century. One fresco of the subject, in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla, is thought to be second century.[See footnote 1] The imagery is based partly on Luke (1:26-38) and the apocryphal Protoevangelium Jacobi or Book of James (11:1-3), which dates from the second century.[See footnote 2] This document was the source throughout the Middle Ages for much of the imagery associated with Mary, both in the East and West. Today it is little known other than to scholars. According to this apocryphal tradition, Mary was one of seven virgins set to spin wool. For each a different colour was chosen by lot and that of royal purple fell to Mary. It is said that this was the skein of wool that would cover the Holy of Holies in the Temple and which would be 'rent in twain' at the Crucifixion.
Gabriel's actions, though painted with the proper restraint typical of icons, are specific: the feet show that he is in movement, he is a messenger (angelos), and his right hand reaches forward to bless Mary. The iconographic tradition denotes three separate events comprising Mary's reaction to the news. First, her perturbation: she resists from Gabriel's advance and raises her hand as though to ward him off. Second, her perplexity and prudence: she turns towards the angel but does not yet accept ('How can this be, seeing I know not a man?'). Third, her consent: here we see her press her palm to her breast in a gesture of acceptance while her head bows in assent ('So be it'). The diminutive figure of the handmaid in the foreground is named Salome in the Protoevangelium.
The background shows Mary's house which, as is so often the case in icons, has little meaning as a logical structure in the material world but which has profound meaning as a rendering of her psycho-spiritual state. One thinks of the Philokalia's 'house of spiritual architecture' with its doorways and entrances.[See footnote 3] She sits enthroned, and her feet do not touch the ground but rest on a footstool. That her feet are tiny further symbolically emphasises her spiritual level as being higher than the material world represented by the ground. The archangel is also a creature of the divine world and his feet, too, are off the ground. His movement is in contrast to Mary's repose and suggests the drama of his sudden appearance from the spiritual realm.
Several features of our icon compare with an icon of the Doubting of Thomas in the Russian Museum Saint Petersburg (see fig. 1).[See footnote 4] We can note the same contrast between the pale colours, applied in thin transparent pinks, greens and ochre and the saturated richer tones of the figures. The effect is somewhat lessened by the abrasions to the paint that, in the icon of the Doubting of Thomas, have not been retouched. (We note, also, that a large are of the gesso ground in the upper right has been replaced. Again this is likely to have been caused by nailing on strips of basma; indeed, nail holes can be clearly seen in several places). The architectural forms of both icons have a similarly 'laconic' sense of understatement. This dream-like atmosphere of stillness and silence, present in both icons, has the effect of removing the event from the harshness of the ordinary world.
Dionisy died in 1501 and the famous workshop with its many assistants continued under the direction of his sons for another generation.[See footnote 5] Writing of the 'standardised devices' Dionisy employed, Dr Lazarev tells us 'there is a fragility, at times rather studied ... an extreme delicacy and a harmonious roundness ... faces are handled in a soft manner without abrupt transitions from light to shadow ... with no suggestion of relief or depth, there is a greater stress on the ethereal element ... figures appear to be floating in space, unconfined to any definite area, devoid of weight or volume. Dionisy disregards perspective and avoids chiaroscuro, he does not represent movement.'[See footnote 6]
fig. a. Dionisy, Doubting of Thomas, c. 1500. Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg.
The Salome figure is not often seen in icons;[See footnote 7] however, there is a close parallel in a well-known icon of the Annunciation in the Yaroslav Art Museum, thought to date from 1516 (see fig. 2), where the similarity of the two figures is close enough to suppose that both artists drew on the same tradition (figs. 3,4).
Our icon, with its absence of agitation, its grandeur, it stillness and its ethereality is closer the manner and style of the 15th century. Such characteristics do not in themselves establish the date - the artist could well be a conservative, a traditionalist working in an older style - but they do indicate a milieu of the highest theological and spiritual attainment. The work is not a provincial or even a regional expression of Slav sacred art. There is nothing here of the earthy boldness and innocent expressiveness of northern lands held by Novgorod. The dynamics of the relationship between the two principle figures are contained and understated, with rhythms attuned to the slowed-down breathing of those who practice contemplative prayer. They express the assurance, inner confidence and balance achieved through the spiritual practices inherited from Constantinople and Mount Athos. Our icon is thus nearer an Annunciation in the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin attributed by some scholars to Rublyov than to the Yaroslav example (fig. 5). That icon (whose background gesso is also much repaired) establishes the artistic and theological environment that we know as the Moscow School and to which our icon belongs.
Annunciation, 1516, Yaroslav Art Museum
Annunciation, 15th century, Annunciation Cathedral, Moscow Kremlin
The icon before cleaning.
1 See also: 1. Kazhdan, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, OUP 1991, vol. I, p. 106. 2. Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Olten 1952 (reprinted SVSP, 1982) p. 172.
2 The Protoevangelium of James, also sometimes known as the Gospel of James or the Infancy Gospel of James, is generally dated to the 2nd century AD. It is an apocryphal gospel that was widely read but never accepted into the New Testament Canon. See Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version (Sonoma, C A: Polebridge Press 1992), pp. 373-389.
3 'Directions to Hesychasts' in Kadloubovsky and Palmer. Prayer of the Heart, Faber, 1961, p. 181.
4 The icon was originally in the Saint Paul of Obnorsk Komel Monastery. See Anna Laks, ed., Russian Monasteries, Art and Traditions, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, 1997, p. 127.
5 Аntonova, V.I. New Survey of the Work of Dionysios (in Russian) Moscow: Tretyakov, 1952. See also
Yamshchikov, Saveli. Dionysii Image and Light, Moscow, 1969.
6 Lazarev, V. N. The Moscow School, Isskustvo, 1972
7 We are sure, from a sentence of Clement of Alexandria, that some story of a midwife being present at the Nativity was current in the second century. It is also mentioned, as we have pointed out, in the Protoevangelium though the date of that book is less certain.