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A number of such portraits of Saint Nicholas from the 15th and early 16th century are well known. When considered together they seem, as a type, to constitute a separate classification from the half-length and full-length (with or without ‘vita’ scenes telling the stories of the ‘life’ of the saint). Although the expression in these images show variety and even individuality, all these images of Nicholas, showing the head and shoulders only, are characterised by a high degree of graphic intensity. The head is large in relation to the proportions of the narrow, sloping shoulders and, in relation to the dimensions of the panel itself. The domed head seems to fill up the whole area, giving an impression of closeness and immediacy. This heightens the viewer’s awareness of the saint and this awareness is intensified by the intimate and personal nature of his gaze.
Characteristic of the earlier, i.e. 15th century, examples is the delicacy and subtlety of the thin transparent glazes of paint whose changes of colour are no more than fine gradations of ochre washes. This nuanced ‘sfumato’ effect is only broken by the graphic clarity of eyes, ears, nose and mouth. (The Italian word sfumato, ‘to vanish' or 'to shade' captures the idea of what, in photography, is called ‘low contrast’’. The glazes are so subtle they look as though they have been ‘smoked’ onto the picture surface.)
Our icon is close in many respects to an image of the same subject also once in the Temple Gallery and now in the Museum of the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas. (See Anne Marie Weyl Carr and Bertrand Davrezac, Imprinting the Divine, Byzantine and Russian Icons in the Menil Collection, Yale University Press, 2011, front cover and pp 106, 107.) Both icons have a similar geometric construction with an exaggerated high sloping collar – dark on one side and white on the other – and an unnaturally domed forehead. (The latter feature is more emphasised in the present example.) The square-ended, gilt and jewelled opening at the neck is almost identical in both cases.
The Menil Saint Nicholas (fig. a) appears directly before us ‘face-on and symmetrical. Our example at first suggests the same regularity until we notice a number of subtly nuanced incongruities. For example we see little of the saint’s left nostril, hinting a profile view. Likewise, his left ear is smaller and higher than the right and the left side of his head is disproportionately larger than the right. This asymmetry introduces mobility and dispels the static geometry of the composition. It is as though, halfway through a movement of turning his head, Saint Nicholas stopped in order to direct his attention at the onlooker. Thus we seem to receive his penetrating compassionate gaze, issuing from his focussed interior attention, enhanced by his inner stillness. The icon is thus not just a symbol, not just an image, however finely painted, but a living reality – the mysterious quality we find in the portraits of Rembrandt and in some great works of Asian art. Form, technique and style have transcended art.
In medieval Russia artistic and religious culture drew on the grandeurs of Byzantine theology and painting and it is to the Palaeologan tradition that we may now refer. A characteristic of our icon, albeit expressed discreetly, is the circular swirling forms of the hair and beard. We especially notice the seven-petalled spiral on the saint’s chin.
Such swirling rhythms are found throughout Byzantine painting in the Paleologan period as can be seen in the fresco imagery of the Chora Church (Karyie Djami) in Constantinople (fig. c) and the Saint Matthew from Ohrid (fig. b).
In two 15th century Russian icons (figs. d and e) preserved in the Rublyov Museum, Moscow, we see the reflection of Byzantine treatment of hair. We remember that part of the icon painter’s task is to render the spiritual life of the saint and not his physical existence. All the elements drawn from natural life are recreated to symbolise the divine life. The painter, like the cubists five hundred years later (but for different reasons), breaks up the appearances of the three-dimensional world in order to raise our comprehension to a higher multi-dimensional world. In this world the human sense of time is displaced by Eternity; length, breadth and height are absorbed into the ‘Life Everlasting’ of the cosmos. In 14th and 15th century Byzantium, and in 15th century Russia, painters developed an artistic language to express such ideas. The floriated details we are describing here have the same function as the schematised geometry of drapery folds and the dream-like architectural settings we see in icons of the period. They refer to the energies and spaces of the spiritual world; that is, the world that reveals itself to mystics and saints through the intensity of their contemplative prayer and the disciplines of meditation practice. The Hesychast influence on Palaeologan art and its counterpart in 15th century Russian icons is less evident in the 16th century which is why the Menil Saint Nicholas, still exquisitely beautiful, is less ‘powerful’ than the example currently in the Temple Gallery.