The dimensions of this icon as well as its unusually high quality suggest it was intended as something more than a regular domestic image. We can think that it was made for a person, or more probably a place or a community where the two bishops were held in special veneration. We need to establish the identity of the saints in order to take this question further.
There is no evidence of an inscription so we have no sure means for identifying the two saints other than by their attributes. There can be little doubt that the figure on the left, with his bishop's omophorion, high-domed forehead and short rounded beard, represents Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, the most revered saint in Orthodoxy and whose cult is almost equal in popularity to that of Christ or of the Mother of God. It is not unusual to find him paired with other saints (see for example no. 1). He engages the viewer with a glance both piercing and compassionate while blessing with his right hand. His left hand, reverentially covered, holds the Holy Gospel.
The figure on the right wears the characteristic white cowl of a metropolitan bishop (higher in rank than a bishop equal to patriarch or, perhaps, archbishop). Several metropolitans of Moscow are revered and celebrated in 15th century Russian icon painting and often the beard is the distinguishing individual feature. Thus Alexei has along pointed beard, Peter (Piotr) a full long round beard, Jonas (Iona) a full round beard. In our icon we see a medium-length beard which characterises not one of the famous Metropolitan of Moscow but the no less famous Leonti of Rostov. In icons he is especially notable for the intensity of his look. Most painters depict him with sunken cheeks and fierce inwardly focused eyes such as we also find in no. 29. These features can be seen in an icon of Saint Leonti of Rostov in the Kyril-Belozersk Monastery in Russia and dated, like ours, to circa 1500 (fig. c.).
Among the many principalities and grand principalities of medieval Russia, Rostov the Great (Rostov Veliki) held immense power and influence until 1474 when it became part of Muscovy and, even after that, it remained an ecclesiastic centre of utmost importance. Rostov had enjoyed long alliance with Novgorod and owned vast lands in the northern Novgorodian region. The art of both centres is often indistinguishable.[See:-Engelina Smirnova in Masterpieces of Early Christian Art and Icons, Temple Gallery, 2005, p. 45. ]
Of the many examples of standing saintly figures of the late 15th century preserved today in Russian museums, I have chosen two for comparative study. Fig. a. is the well known image of Alexei Metropolitan of Moscow painted by Master Dionysius (d. 1503). The proportion - 7:1 - of head to body is traditional and the apparently unnaturally elongated look is actually an illusion. It is typical of the period 1480 - 1500 or a little beyond, after which the proportion goes to 6.5:1 or even 6:1. Dionysius actually gives the 7:1 measurement in the small diamonds that decorate the vertical edges of the saint's garment.
The emphasis on verticality through the column of circles containing crosses is a specific feature of the art of Dionysius and only seen in the work of his contemporaries or near-contemporaries.
Close analogies can be seen in the late 15th century Novgorod icon of three bishops: Saints Jakob, Nicolas and Ignatius (fig. b.). We note the elongated verticality, the intensity of expression and the honey ochre ground typical of northern icons. The details show how both artists avoid a stiff or static posture by placing the saints weight on one leg with the foot of the other turned slightly outwards. This gives life and movement without interfering with the icon's atmosphere of contemplative stillness. 16th century icons tend to be more schematic and lack the subtle fluidity of the earlier period.
The style of our icon is predominantly Novgorodian but with some muscovite elements included - a typical combination found in late 15th century painting due the incorporation of Novgorod in the Moscow state in 1475, a year after its annexation of Rostov. This period sees the first generation of artists free to move from one city to another and to absorb artistic ideas and influences. The depiction of Saint Leonti of Rostov suggests a location in the Rostov held lands in the Novgorod region - perhaps in a monastery where his spiritual endeavours were a special inspiration.