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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

Additional Resources

Brumfield, William C., and Milos M. Velimirovic, eds. Christianity and the Arts in Russia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Cormack, Robin. Icons. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Evans, Helen C., ed. Glory of Byzantium: Arts and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843–1261. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Evseyeva, L., ed. A History of Icon Painting. Moscow: Grand Holdings, 2005.

Katz, Melissa R., and Robert A. Orsi, eds. Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tradigo, Alfredo. Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2006.

Vassilaki, Maria, ed. Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2005.

Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir

» Moscow School

In the artistic tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, an icon is a representation of a sacred event or person that facilitates direct communication with the divine.

The authority of an icon representing Christ, the Virgin, or a saint derives from its proximity to its prototype. In other words, the icon is powerful to the extent that it follows a pattern believed to originate with the living person. According to legend, for instance, Veronica (whose name comes from the Latin vera icon, or “true image”) offered Jesus her veil to dry his face as he struggled on the road to Calvary. When he wiped his face on the cloth, Jesus miraculously left behind the imprint of his features. The most common icon of Christ is said to be modeled on this image “not made by human hands.” In the case of the Virgin Mary, or the Virgin and Child, most icons trace their descent from images supposedly painted from life by St. Luke.

Sent to the Russian ruler by the Byzantine emperor between 1131 and 1136, the image later known as the Virgin of Vladimir was believed to have been one of St. Luke’s original paintings. Now considered the work of a twelfth century Byzantine artist, the icon came to be considered the most important and most powerful icon in Russia and its composition was repeated countless times over subsequent generations. The icon seen here is a copy dating to the seventeenth century. The authority attributed to the Virgin of Vladimir came not only from its ostensible provenance, but also through its association with a number of miracles. On more than one occasion, the icon was credited with protecting Russia in battles against formidable enemies. Because of this, the Virgin of Vladimir was held close by rulers of Russia. Whenever the capital moved, the icon did as well, eventually ending up in Moscow in the late fifteenth century.

The Virgin of Vladimir and copies, such as this one, belong to a type of icon referred to in Greek as the Elousa (in Russian as the Umilenie) that depicts the Virgin and Christ in a tender embrace. The Virgin, as seen in the example here, gestures to the child while looking out to the viewer, as if to acknowledge Christ’s imminent sacrifice on behalf of humankind. Paradoxically, the heavy use of gold leaf in this and other icons stresses both the otherworldly nature of this conduit to the spiritual realm and the rich materiality of the object, which honors the figures depicted in very worldly terms. While the original Virgin of Vladimir would have been on public display within the state cathedral, an icon such as this one likely had a private owner. The small size of most icons made them extremely portable, and allowed physical closeness with the object (hence with its subject), which the faithful might touch, hold, or even kiss.

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