Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Icon of the Virgin of Vladimir
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.
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.”
Larry Silver, Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania
“The icon is a fabulous example of the way visual imagery can be an instrumental part of faith, especially if you go into an Orthodox church and see people literally kissing a picture that was made by a human, but which is really meant to be a kind of medium through which that human communicates with the figure represented.
Or, in the same church, if you see certain, especially venerated, icons almost literally covered, except for the edges of their features, by silver or gold that frames them, you see the emotional and literally physical relationship that people have with such works. So icons are a particular poignant aspect. Indeed, one of the conventions of icons is that a painter never signs his name. It’s only in the very last centuries of the Byzantine Empire people like El Greco started finally to put their names on their works of art that we call icons.
Repetition is so important in icon painting precisely because once a particular image either had a kind of famous association with the actual form of the Virgin or of the Christ, the holy face of Christ from the miraculous appearance on a cloth or some other source like the shroud of Turin. The repetition of that likeness became essential, It wasn’t the brushwork or the color harmonies or any of the other manufacturing surface details of creativity, of an individual that was at stake. It was the likeness. And so once a likeness becomes a famous image venerated at a famous place, whether St. Peter’s or Constantinople, that image and its replication became the real medium to the figures who are depicted. So creativity wasn’t involved at all, at least not initially.”
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