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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir
Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir
Artist / Origin Moscow School
Date Late 17th century
Material Gold leaf and tempera on panel
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 12 in. (30.5 cm.), W: 10 5/8 in. (27 cm).
Location Private Collection
Credit Courtesy of Mark Gallery, UK/ Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

Jane Ashton SharpAssociate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir

» Moscow School

expert perspective

Jane Ashton Sharp Jane Ashton Sharp Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University

An icon is an image that is worshiped in the Orthodox faith that bears a visual resemblance to the person referred to in the image. So there is a relationship of similarity. But it is also a trace of divine. This is a tradition that attempts to make relevant in the present day values that are considered originary. And the way you do that is through repetition, that understanding the presence of the divine in an icon today depends on this direct succession of images that goes back to the original image and which, in turn, refers to the archetype—the person, the divine presence of the saint, or individual itself. So that succession of images materially linked one to the other because it is not just repetition, it is tracing. An icon is created through a mechanical tracing and depends on numerous other prior images. And that tradition of tracing is not unique to the icon, but it is of critical significance to the transmission both of the image, the way it looks, and the notion that it is connected to the divine in a material way, the divine idea. Contemporary viewers, as much as viewers in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, they know that what they are worshipping is authorized, is consecrated, is a part of their faith. They are blessed by priests. They may be worshiped as a vehicle through which the divine communicates. That’s a very different sense of presence from one of simple similarity, which is more prevalent in the Western tradition.

I would say there is a sense of familiarity an Orthodox viewer has with the vocabulary of icon painting and with the series of images. The Virgin exists in several types, and Orthodox viewers automatically know that this particular—the Vladamir Madonna, for example—is a particular type indicating the affection the child and the mother share for each other, so a traditional Umilenie in Russian. And because they are repeated, because the imagery is repeated, stylized regionally perhaps, Orthodox viewers have faith that this is the image of the Virgin herself. So they simply know that. It is a part of their culture, I would say. The icon is a part of a wider culture that they learn.” 

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