Pskovian Icons of the 14th - 18th centuries

Author: O.A.Vasilyeva

Pskovian Icons of the 14th – 18th centuries

Pskovian medieval iconography, with its loyalty to the Byzantine canon, specific iconographic style, austere simplicity of the icons and philosophy, holds a special place in Russian national culture. Russian culture in general can’t be regarded without understanding the significance of Pskovian iconographic culture. Pskov is one of the few, if not the only, iconographic center in Rus that preserved its integrity and the original peculiarity of its Orthodox Christian traditions up to the 17th century. While not being an industrial imitation of the previous samples, every icon is unique for its internal conception and artistic dominance.

The Pskovian Museum keeps the largest and most complete collection of Pskovian icons of the 16th – 17th centuries. Some of the items are dated 14th, 15th and 18th centuries, which is key to understanding the traditions of the local art and its evolution in conceptualization of new aesthetic ideas.

Remaining in the sphere of Europe’s political and economic interests, Pskov, in the 14th – 15th centuries, lived a hectic and dramatic life. Alternately warring and trading with their neighbors, its citizens, while tolerant of foreign customs, resolutely defended their house of the “Holy Trinity” and the Orthodox faith. Building up their military force, Pskovians, within as a short period of time from 1414 through 1467, built six new fortresses around the city. Throughout the 15th century, as many as 30 churches were built with donations from ordinary people and princes, the clergy and posadniks (mayors).

In their willingness to profess the Orthodox faith without the mediation of the clergy, some Pskovians joined a strigolniki heretical sect. Denial of some of the Christian sacraments and understanding of the significance of a human being as a fundamental value are characteristic features of the rationalistic ideology of the strikolniks that found response in a certain part of the Pskovian society. But even more important evidence of Pskov’s spiritual life is found in the testament of the founder of Pskov’s hermitage monasteries Efrosin (1479 or 1481), which focuses on Christian virtues, such as tolerance, love and a simple way of life. The teachings of the blessed Efrosin are key to understanding the meaning of the Pskov icons. The saints depicted on these icons look manly, integral and good-hearted. The icon-painters sought to represent in these characters the human features that they considered to be most important in the earthly life – tolerance and dignity, such as those represented on the icon of Selected saints (illustration 1). The figures of Nicholas the Wonderworker, saint martyrs Blaise and Clement and Archdeacon Stephan look resolute and simple. A strictly symmetrical positioning of their figures is likened to church pillars as if reminiscent of liturgical glorification of the saints as pillars of the Christian church.

Spiritual life in Pskov is noted for its exclusive integrity. The surviving Pskovian icons, frescos and miniature paintings of the 14th – 15th century can be easily distinguished from the production of other Russian icon-painting workshops of that time. Due to a narrow circle of artists, who trained with the same masters, it was possible to maintain the consistency of iconographic techniques. First, a preliminary sketch was applied in liquid black paint to a specially prepared board, which is additionally underlined by a dashed line without tints. Then, while painting the faces, the iconographer applied a thick layer of dark-blue sankir, which was modeled in small pasty highlights. At the final phase of the painting, white paint was applied in thin lines. They could equally underline a shape of the highlights, repeating its outlines and crossing it in different directions.[1] By using diverse paints, Pskov’s iconographers created images, complex in color nuances but similar in palette, based on the combinations of deep-red and goldish shades. The same features can be found on a 14th century icon of the Martyr Juliana (illustration 2). At the same time, nine icons dating from the late 14th – 15th centuries (illustration 3– 4), found in 1978 in a church of Pskov’s convent of John the Baptist, belong to different stylistic directions. One of them – The Savior Pantocrator – was painted in the late 14th century. Perfectly drawn shapes, a golden background, the nature of the assist and ideal proportions suggest its Byzantine origin. Another icon of the Savior from the same group was executed by a local painter somewhat later, in the late 14th – early 15th century. Similar in iconographic style, the icon is distinguished by individual painting manner, palette and color composition. In later centuries, local iconographers would bring in the interpretation of traditional Christian themes new intonations and accents. In terms of iconographic techniques, carefully maintained for a long period of time, and consistent painting approaches, the local icons created in the 14th-15th centuries can be classified into a group of art pieces that are considered “classic” for Pskov. They are best represented by the icons of the Deesis row of the first half of the 15th century from the church of the Dormition at Paromenye (illustrations 5-7). They are noted for a broad painting style: the contrast modeling of faces, the characters’ vestments imitating the traditional Pskovian combinations of cinnabar, dark emerald-green colors and gold.

In the iconostasis, the Deesis symbolized the idea of the forthcoming Final Judgment and patronage by the praying saints of the human race. A Pskovian icon-painter portrayed the Archangels Michael and Gabriel as humble interceders standing by the Divine Throne in heavens. Along with the Theotokos and John the Baptist, the Deesis from the church of the Dormition at Paromenye includes the icons of the twelve apostles. While the tier’s composition reproduces the well-known Byzantine traditions, it has no analogies amongst the surviving Russian icons of the 15th century in demonstrating the Apostles’ patronage of Pskovians. Despite stylistic features, characteristic of the local iconographic school, soft concentration of characters on the icons is reminiscent of Moscow art of the Rublev circle.

Although individual, Pskov culture was not isolated from the ideas that determined the spiritual life of the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world. Some historical events – a pilgrimage of Evfrosin of Pskov to the Patriarch of Constantinople for support in theological debates, and the entry into the Athos monastery of the most renowned Pskov hermit Savva Krypetsky – is the evidence of unceasing contacts between Pskov and Byzantium. These contacts help to explain the stylistic proximity of some Pskovian icons of the 15th century to the icons of Mistra and Athos.

In the 16th century, Moscow put an end to its centuries-old dependence on the Tartar khans and incorporated isolated principalities, having finally become the main political force. As far back as 1478, the Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan III subjected once independent Veliky Novgorod; decades later, in 1510, his son Basil conquered Pskov. The prince’s policy in Pskov was thought-out and energetic. The prince deported from the town 300 noble families but provided support to those social groups that proved loyal to him. A manorial land property system was established, while the army structure was reconstructed. Thinking about the western border defense system, Moscow’s princes, through their representatives, fortified strategically important monasteries, built new churches and erected fortifications. According to medieval chronicles, as many as 38 churches were built in Pskov and its vicinity from 1514 to 1564.

The largest spiritual life centers in the 16th century were two Pskov convents – Spaso-Eleazarovsky and Pechersky. The monasteries produced icons and literary works that would later gain national importance. Monks of the Pecher hermitage were writing chronicles. The convent, founded in 1473, one century later would turn into a unique, even by European standards, fortress with impregnable walls and towers. The Pechersky monastery, a powerful stronghold of the Moscow principality on its western frontiers, symbolized the power of the Grand Prince. According to a local chronicler, this hermitage was famous “not only in Rus, but also in Latin, in German land, and even as far away as the Varangian sea”[2].It was in Eleazarovsky monastery, founded in the 15th century by Evfrosin of Pskov, that staretz (monk) Philoteus formulated his doctrine “Moscow is the Third Rome” justifying the legitimacy of the Grand Prince of Moscow.

These years saw the building in Pskov of two St. Vladimir churches and the painting of St. Prince Vladimir with sons Boris and Gleb, first in the local iconography (illustration 8). This two-tier icon comprises an image of the Dormition of the Holy Virgin (above) and full-length figures of the saints (in the bottom). This composition is probably based on the idea that Prince Vladimir and his sons bestowed the pagans with enlightenment through a new faith.

The ideas of ongoing Christian history, “God’s choice” and hence the legitimacy of Moscow princes are equally important for understanding the symbolic conception of an icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin with the Akathist (illustration 9). A special feature of Akathist hymns, illustrated in the border scenes, represented the conceptions of Russian statehood of that time. The features of the Pskov iconography, so clearly manifesting themselves in the border-scenes, go well together with stylistic features representing Moscow’s artistic influence. The central image of the Holy Virgin, soft and lyrical, is unlike the earlier Pskovian images of the Theotokos. Most likely, it is associated with Moscow’s iconography of the late 15th – early 16th centuries, and, largely, with the works of Dionysius. Coloristic approach and painting system of the central part of the icon, with its soft passages of color and light, fine tintage and smooth volumes underline this proximity. The icon came to the museum from the Holy Trinity cathedral, which had been central in the local church hierarchy and the main conductor of Moscow’s state policy in Pskov. The Holy Trinity cathedral is also known as a place where highly professional iconographers worked.

Since 1510, one of the key figures in Pskov was a Moscow deacon Misyur Munekhin, who was put in charge by Basil III to undertake fortification and construction works in the city. It was Misyur Munekhin to whom were addressed some of staretz Philotei’s messages. It is very likely that the icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin with 24 border scenes of the Akathist – a programmatic and very expensive work – was executed for Pskov’s Holy Trinity church at the commission of Misyur Munekhin or his close associates.

A considerable part of Pskov’s museum icon collection is 16th century festival tiers from the local churches. Among them are icons from Pskov’s church of St. Nicholas of Usokha, dated to the 1540s (catalogue No 10–12). Similar in style to Our Lady of Tikhvin, they are noted for the same exquisite and smooth lines, perfect faces and clear color schemes. The artistic refinement and aristocratism of these works is, to a great extent, determined by the fine rhythmical organization of the composition. Like Our Lady of Tikhvin, the icons from the St. Nicholas church are distinguished by amazingly luminous colors that make a golden background, the white vestments of the characters and ochrous hills look luminous. Such an airy and light palette lacking sharp color contrasts had not been known in the Pskov iconography before.

Some details of iconographic schemes and artistic techniques make the icons from the iconostasis of the St. Nicholas church look particularly solemn. Thus, in the icon of the Annunciation, the Theotokos enthroned is portrayed as a majestic queen to whom Archangel Gabriel is appealing with words “...радуйся, престоле огнезрачный” (“rejoice, fire-looking throne”) (sticherons sung at a liturgy). The luminescent colors of the icon are reminiscent of the comparison of the Mother of God and Christ with light, widespread in liturgical hymns “Разреши мглу прегрешений моих, Богоневесто, светом твоея светлости, свет родшая Божественный и превечный» (Dispel the darkness of my sins, O Bride of God, by the radiance of thy splendour, for thou hast borne the Divine and Eternal Light).[3] The ornamentation decorating architectural details makes the composition look like a blossoming garden, one of the symbols of the Holy Virgin.

Pskovian culture of the second quarter of the 16th century retained the traces of efforts by the Archbishop of Novgorod and Pskov Macarius, the future Metropolitan of all Russia. The focus of Macarius’s cultural policy in Pskov became evident as far back as the early 1530s. It is exactly to this period of time that we refer the creation of a number of local icons that are considered programmatic artworks of the second third of the 16th century. Among them is the iconostasis from the church of St. Nicholas of Usokha we have mentioned above, and the icons of the Ressurection (1542)[4] and Saint princes Vladimir, Boris and Gleb (1545) with border-scenes (illustration 13). These icons are common in face painting style, fine color palettes based on half-tones and lacking sharp contrasts, and, finally, high professionalism of the masters. Some iconographic motifs and stylistic features of the icons from the St. Nicholas of Utokha church suggest that the painters were familiar with Western European art. Notably, the Crucifixion, with the figure of Jesus Christ sagging under his own weight, and the figure of the Mother of God suffering and falling from sorrow, can be compared with similar paintings by Italian artists (e.g. Peruggino) and are noted for the special sincerity and frankness in the representation of mournful feelings. But for Pskov icons, the theme of human suffering, the weakness of the flesh and the greatness of the spirit is not a central one. It carries a shade of tragedy, emphasizing the sorrowful meaning of the Gospel story.

Despite some innovation, the role of tradition, which in iconography is equal to law, remains the leading one. In the first half of the 16th century, appealing to the old examples was so widespread that it was approved in 1551 by the resolution of the Stoglavy Sobor (The Council of One Hundred Chapters). It prescribed to depict the Holy Trinity in the way “the Greek iconographers painted and so did Andrei Rublev.”[5] Rublev’s painting, harmonic and perfect in form, best represents a 16th century Russian idea of the establishment of a powerful Orthodox Christian state.

Pskovian icons from the festival row of the iconostasis in the church of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in the village of Lubyatovo, executed in the late 1830s – early 1840s (illustration 14) suggest that the local masters were involved in the process of interpreting contemporary aesthetic and theological issues. The Lubyatov festival icons are noted for flexible and precise composition lines and rich and intensive color scheme. However, the color palette is distinguished by mixed shades of pale-green and red colors. Plastic freedom of face modeling, the roundish shapes of the characters’ faces and a well-balanced composition expressing the state of peace suggest a stylistic connection of the festivals with traditions of the Moscow iconography in the second half of the 15th century. Thus, in the icon of the Nativity of Christ, a Pskov master used the circular rhythm, making the icon look particularly solemn.

The scene of the Nativity of Christ in the Pskov iconography of the 15th century is known from a fresco-painting in the church of the Dormition of the Theotokos in the village of Meletovo (1465). A large-scale scene and the numerous characters on the icon convey a feeling of exaltation, the terrestrial and heavenly worlds are experiencing at the sight of the miracle. The same principle was applied to an icon from the village of Opochka, painted in the late 15th – early 16th centuries (illustration 15).

The icon of the Nativity of Christ from Opochka is composed of several registers, like in a church iconostasis. The bottom row of the icon represents the saints, most popular in Pskov. In the central part, their half-figures are painted en-face, and in a three-quarter turn on the sides. In the upper register of the composition is a host of angels shown as if they are walking from the two sides to the Bethlehem star. Uncommon and outstanding painting style of the Opochka master is fairly archaic for the 16th century. The icon-painter scantily uses iconographic techniques that were widespread at that time, chiefly, the compositional ones. With the icon’s proportions being schematic, its characters lack dramatic effect, while their poses sometimes look irregular. Thus, the Mother of God, seated on the throne in the bottom right corner of the icon looks as if she is sliding off it.

Correspondence between Dmitry Gerasimov[6] and the representative of Moscow in Pskov deacon Misyur Munechin contains references to debates between Gennady, the Archbishop of Novgorod and local iconographers. The letter quotes a Pskovian master Bolshoi Pereplav, who, advancing his point of view, says: “...образы пишем с мастерских образцов старых, у коих естя учимся, а сниманы с греческих” (We copy icons from the old masters’ icons from which we learn, the latter having being copied from Greek [originals])[7]. Such words could be equally said by the icon-painters who executed festival icons from the iconostasis of the church of Nicholas the Wonderworker at Lyubyatovo. Most of the icon compositions are based on traditional Byzantine schemes.

Other Pskovian icons that don’t have such evident parallels with Byzantine art are nonetheless distinguished by theological nuances and consistent iconographic programs. One such example is an icon of Archdeacon Stephan and the Apostle Matthew painted in the first half of the 16th century. Formerly a temple icon of the church of St. Stephan in Pskov (illustration 16), it would traditionally have portrayed the saint’s image without any other characters. This icon, however, represents the archdeacon together with the Apostle Matthew. According to the Acts of Apostles (Acts, VI, VII), St. Stephan was first of the seven deacons of the Jerusalem Church and the first martyr. The first of four Gospels – the Gospel of St. Matthew – was, according to legend, written earlier than the three others. The images of Archdeacon Stephan and the Apostle Matthew, who died a martyr’s death, emphasize the idea of sacrificial service for Christ, symbolizing a succession of Christian history ascending to the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ he made for people’s sins. Even an unusual depiction of pozyom (the earthly ground) is included into the symbolic system. Decorated with exquisite floral ornamentation, it is reminiscent of the fascinating beauty of the worldly life that St. Stephan and the Apostle Matthew abandoned to choose a martyr’s death – the death of the Savior.

Artistic features of the 16th century Pskovian festival tiers are noted for stable painting techniques on the one hand, and artistic pursuits in representing Gospel scenes, on the other. In this sense, it would be interesting to compare two cycles – the one from the Lyubyatovo church we mentioned above, and a tier from the church of the Myrrh-bearing Women in Pskov, executed somewhat later, in the late 1540s (illustration 17–19). Despite a principled similarity of some iconographic schemes (the Annunciation, the Presentation, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Dormition), they do have certain differences. The concept of the festival row from the Church of the Myrrh-Bearing Women is very individualistic and is largely guided by the dedication of its main throne. Ordinary mortals, the myrrh-bearing women accompanied Christ through all his sufferings and witnessed His Death and Resurrection. The power of the Savior’s words that the myrrh-bearing women heard, and the power of their faith is the theme of the Gospel reading in the week of the myrrh-bearing women revealing the meaning of the church’s dedication.

In the festival row of the Church of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, for the first time among surviving Pskovian icons, were included icons of the Raising of Lazarus, the Washing of the Feet, the Myrrh-bearing Women at the Lord’s Tomb. These scenes emphasize the Gospel story and a didactic meaning of the whole tier. Other icons, through additional iconographic details, to the fullest extent illustrate mission of the worldly Church, embodied by the Theotokos. Such is an icon of the Annunciation where She is portrayed standing by a domed building which could be understood as a symbolic image of Holy of Holies. Between the Theotokos and the Archangel Gabriel is a column rising against a wall. It is possible that in the episode, dedicated to the end of the Old Testament story and the beginning of the New Testament story, this column served as a reminder of the ancient temple of Solomon, at the entrance of which stood two copper columns (I Kings. VII; 15–23; II Chron. III; 16–17). Besides, according to pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land, in Nazareth, at the entrance of a church built on the place of the former house of Joseph, there stood a column that remained from the ancient portico. According to legend, it was by this column that the Archangel appeared to the Holy Virgin to tell Her the Good News. By adding to the canonic story more symbolic details, the iconographer made it more convincing and easier to understand. The icons executed in such techniques are reminiscent of preacher’s lectures and betray the client’s inclination for theological rhetoric.

It is well-known that the Church of the Myrrh-Bearing Women was built by prikazchiki with donations from Metropolitan Macarius. Next to the church was his residence where the Metropolitan stayed during his visits to the city. These facts and other features of the icons from this church suggest that Metropolitan Macarius was the ideological mastermind behind this iconographic program. In addition to the building of the church, dating back to 1546, actually preceded the beginning of massive restoration works in Moscow’s kremlin after the 1547 fire, in which the Metropolitan played a leading role. Icons from the festival tier in the Church of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, to a great extent represent the theological issues Macarius was concerned about, was conceptually associated with and created in about the same time as were the icons from the Moscow kremlin’s Cathedral of the Annunciation, authored by Pskovian masters Ostanya, Jacob, Michailo, Yakushko and Simeon Vysoky Glagol. Iconographic proximity between them can be traced in some traditional images (compare, for example, icons of the Descent into Hell in a border-scene In the grave with the body on the Four-part icon from the Moscow kremlin’s Cathedral of the Annunciation and icons with the same themes from the Church of the Myrrh-Bearing Women).

By the 16th century, in Pskov, there had been several variants of iconographic schemes of the Ressurection – Descent into Hell. One of them is noted for a dynamic three-quarter image of Christ in an almond-shaped halo pulling out with both hands Adam and Eve from hell. Other distinctive features of this variant are red vestments of Jesus Christ, “transparent” mandorla with the figures of the seraphim on the external border and a large-scale scene of hellhole with angels chaining Satan (illustration 20). In the second iconographic variant, also known from the icon of the Ressurection – Descent into Hell from the Lyubyatovsky festival row, Christ is represented in a less dynamic pose. But His battle with the satanic host doesn’t seem to be finished: here we see angels defeating Satan and the righteous dressed in white clothes extending their hands toward the Savior. The icon from the Church of St. Nicholas of Usokha represents the third variant of the iconographic theme. Like the Lyubyatovo festival rows, the icon represents a very detailed depiction of hell. But the outcome of the battle is foregone – Christ has gained a sweeping victory over Satan lying chained under His feet. An image of the Savior on the icon from the Church of St. Nicholas of Usokha is solemn and peaceful. He puts out his right hand to the kneeling Adam and holds in his left the Golgotha cross – the symbol of victory over death. A round halo between two hills, smoothly flowing folds of the robe and the measured rhythm of the attending figures convey the feeling of solemnity of the event.

The author of the Ressurection – Descent into Hell from the Church of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, and the master of the Four-part icon follow the third iconographic variant. Both icons are noted for similar types of faces, head contours and figure proportions, particularly, with main characters – Christ, Adam and Eve. Also similar are other compositional details, such as the images of three-color shining of the halo, silhouettes of the hills and shapes of the graves with the raising figures of the forefathers of the human race. But common for these icons is the image of the Savior embodying the peak of spiritual and moral ascension. Christ is shown holding a scroll in his left hand, slightly inclined to Adam, who seems to be saying: Cause me to know the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul to you.” (Ps. 143, 8).

Among Pskovian iconostases of the 16th century stands out an iconostasis from the Church of Demetrius the Myrrh-Streamer, built in 1534 (illustration 21-22). Each board, quite narrow and small in size, represents one icon of the Deesis tier and a festival scene. The iconographic program illustrates the theological originality of conception of its authors, while the painting is distinguished by its precise composition and drawing.

A festival tier of the St. Demetrius tier traditionally begins with the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, behind which there would have to be an icon of the Entry into the Temple. But in this iconostasis this scene is last in the row going after the Dormition. Thus, the two proto-Gospel episodes seem to “frame” the traditional set of icons constituting the festival tier that began from the Annunciation and ended with the Dormition. A possible reason for that is that the conclusive part of the twelve feasts cycle, from the Resurrection to the Dormition of the Holy Virgin, in line with theological interpretations and hymnographic texts, was dedicated to the history of the Church, founded by the Savior upon the termination of his sacrificial service. Close to this episode is the scene of the Entry into the Temple, evidence of which we find in liturgical books: the entry of the young Mary was viewed as a glorification of Her devotion to the Church. By changing the traditional sequence of the festival scenes, the author of the iconographic program of the St. Demetrius row obviously sought to put a special emphasis on the perception of the Theotokos as a symbol of the New Testament Church.

Another feature of the iconostasis of the Church of Demetrius the Myrrh-Streamer is the inclusion in the composition of the Deesis row of the icons of the blessed Evfimy the Great and his disciple Savva the Sacred. Both saints, who lived in the 5th century, were revered as examples of monastic virtue and spiritual perfection. Evfimy was also famous as an uncompromising extirpator of heresies. Like other Deesises, all the saints represented on the tier’s icons (Theotokos and John the Baptist, the apostles, saints, martyrs St. George and Demetrius) represent an integral image of the Heavenly Church, incessantly praying to the Savior for the salvation of the humankind.

Based on our analysis of the vast number of icons, we can assert that the icons created in the first half of the 16th century represented key aspects of ideology of that time. On the other hand, the contribution of the Pskovian iconographers to the national iconographic process enriched Pskovian icon-painting with new iconographic variants and nuances it had not known before. As a convincing example of our thesis let us refer to a 16th century icon of Our Lady of Mirozh with the attending saints Timothy-Daumantas and Martha-Maria (illustration 23). According to legend, its iconography imitates the ancient image, strongly revered in Pskov, which, along with the veche bell, was brought to Moscow in 1510. A 16th century Pskovian iconographer preserved a composition of the ancient sanctity portraying the prince and his wife who had lived in Pskov during the second half of the 13th century as attending before the Holy Virgin. While the proportions of the saints’ figures and ornamentation of their robes clearly imitate the ancient icon, soft manner in which the faces of the Holy Virgin and the Infant Christ are painted, their solemn images, more complex drapery of their vestments and smooth rhythm of the folds betray iconographic traditions of the 16th century.

Pskovian iconography of the first-half 16th century left us a great deal of painted iconostases. Political stability and the active building of churches contributed to the flowering of art. Given all conventionality of periodization of culture depending on historical events, it is clear that Pskov’s policy and culture changed immensely in the second half of the 16th century. One way or another, the events of that time were caused by the burden of the Livonian war. Pskov again became the main defender of the Russian state from Western invasion, while the sentiments of its citizens changed depending on military victories or defeats.

While Pskov still largely depended on Moscow, in the second half of the 16th century its attitude toward Muscovite rule changed, becoming more critical, if not negative. The Pechera monastery, the outpost of Russian lands and example of a strong Christian faith, turned into a stronghold of “anti-Muscovite wrath”. A probable author of the Pskovian third chronicle – prior of the monastery Cornelius, executed by Ivan IV (the Terrible) in 1570, describe in fulsome detail the offences caused to Pskovians by Moscow’s namestniki (governors). He denounces ruthlessness of Grand Prince Ivan Vassilyevich, who led the devastating raids of oprichniki (life-guardsmen), describing them as unfair and greedy: “Прииде царь Иван Васильевич со опалою опритчиною... и многия люди погубил различными смертьми и муками” (Here came Tsar Ivan Vassilyevich with his oprichniki… and killed many people by murdering and torturing them) [8]. Hopes for Moscow as Pskov’s protector gave way to disillusion, when in 1583 the city, long besieged by the enemy, received no military support from the Tsar. “...а на выручку бояр своих не послал подо Псков, ни сам не пошол, но срахом одержим бе”[9] (“…he neither sent his boyars to rescue Pskov, nor came himself, being possessed by fear.”) Pskovians, who bravely defended Rus’ grumbled: “Царь Иван не на велико время чюжую землю взем, а помале и своеи не удержа, а людеи вдвое погуби” (Tsar Ivan didn’t capture alien soil for long nor did he keep his own but killed twice as many people) [10].

In these historical circumstances rose the cult of the locally venerated icons – the miracles they performed supported Pskovians and strengthened their faith. In 1567 an icon of Our Lady of Mirozh performed a miracle “...из очес ея изливались слезы... и болящие получили исцеление” (“her eyes shed tears… and the crippled were healed”) [11] Another legend has it that in 1569, an icon of Our Lady of Svyatogorsk appeared to a shepherd, Timofei, which was viewed by local citizens as a sign of Divine protection of the city. Amongst the icons of the second half of the 16th century are icons from the festival row, formerly kept in the church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin in Ozersky monastery (catalogue No. 24). Their iconographic schemes are very similar to those of the festival icons in the St. Nicholas church at Lyubyatovo. This similarity can be traced both in the general principles of the composition pattern of the icons such as The Entry into Jerusalem and the Dormition, and in individual details. Thus, by imitating the authors of the Lyubyatovo row, an iconographer copied architectural forms and a number of ornamental motifs and details. And yet the icon of the Dormition is a significantly reduced iconographic variant of an icon from the church of St. Nicholas Wonderworker of Usokha. Every Pskovian icon of the 16th century, to a varying degree, follows local the artistic traditions of the earlier centuries. Speaking of the festival row from a Pokrovoozersky monastery church, their imitation of more ancient icon patterns are noted for very high professionalism. However, this tier better than others demonstrates the characteristic features of the artistic style of the second half of the 16th century, with the planar arrangement of static compositions distinguished by a somewhat mechanical combination of forms and uniformity of individual groups. Balanced and symmetrical images create an impression of uneventfullness and immobility, the icon’s characters seem impassive and concentrated. Even the traditionally emotional themes such as the Transfiguration lack internal image dynamics, so typical of earlier Pskovian iconography. It gives way to a didactic intonation, getting the viewer less involved in spiritual compassion.

The subordination of the artistic solution of individual icons to the law of perception of the iconostasis at the Church of the Intercession, so typical of the festival tiers, was executed in a somewhat simplified and superficial manner. Particularly notable in this sense is the manner, in which the characters’ faces are painted. Regardless of age and the specific features of the characters’ images, the iconographers applied the same set of artistic techniques. All characters have high foreheads, predominantly with two transversal folds, somewhat elongated noses, whose shape is outlined with two parallel lines, and typically raised brows.

The features noted, also typical of some other icons of the second half of the 16th century, represent general cultural trends of that time. Thus, on the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir with scenes from the lives of Joachim, Anna and the Theotokos (illustration 25) smooth silhouettes, subdued color scheme and a delicate combination of color shades of the characters’ vestments create an impression of solemn peace. In the central part of an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir vestment colors are laid in smooth layers lacking half-shades or modeling. A subtle hint to salient shapes is achieved by the graphic drawing of the folds. The border scenes, while big in size, are distinguished by miniature and fine painting. Owing to this, and its wrought-silver icon case, Our Lady of Vladimir is perceived not only as a solemn veneration image, but also as an artwork striking by its exquisiteness and the excellence of the forms.

The size and artistic features of an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir suggest that it might have been executed in one of the leading local workshops. The icon was formerly kept in a Pskov’s Church of the New Ascension that had been built circa 1467 and belonged to a large nunnery. The composition of the icon’s border scenes and its iconography, rarely encountered in the local art, obviously reflected the client’s wishes. The scenes representing main episodes from the lives of saint Joachim and Anna, St. Mary’s and the Holy Virgin’s parents are interlaced with scenes from the history of the veneration of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. They include the icons of the Prayer before the St. Vladimir icon on the rescue of Moscow from the Tamerlan invasion and the Meeting of the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir in Moscow. A unique feature of this hagiographic cycle is the inclusion of a very rare symbolic episode The Unsleeping Eye of the Lord. And finally, instead of a more habitual icon of the Dormition, the border scenes cycle closes with the Theotokos Says Farewell to the Women of Jerusalem.

Two icons take a special place in Pskovian iconography of the 16th century – the Fiery Ascent of Prophet Elijah (illustration 26) and the Miracle of St. George and the Dragon (illustration 27). These are highly professional artworks, whose internal power brings to mind some of the earlier Pskovian icons and ancient folklore characters. In terms of conceptual and moral ideals, they are sympathetic with the famous literary work of that time, The Tale of Peter and Fevronia.

The 17th century, even for Medieval Rus’, regularly shattered by crises, was a time of serious breakdowns. Radical changes occurred in all spheres of life. The collision of medieval traditions and reforms pre-determined controversies in almost all spheres of life and, largely, in people’s consciousness. Having hardly recovered from the wounds incurred by the Livonian War, Pskov became involved in the events of the Times of Trouble. The city survived the reign of Boris Godunov, False Dimitriy I, the Bolotnikov Rebellion and the Polish invasion, the loss of Smolensk and Sweden’s blockade of Russia’s access to the Baltic Sea. According to a chronicle, “а во Пскове ...нелюбовное житие стало” (in Pskov… life became adversarial) [12].

Documentary evidence from that time reflects some changes that were taking place in the public’s consciousness. While in earlier times the troubles were associated with different sorts of premonitions, visions and miracles, now the public consciousness became more rational[13]. Notably, it is only hope for patron saints that is invariably encountered in Pskovian chronicles – the citizens still put their trust in the mercy of “the Holy Trinity and the revered princes Gavriil and Timofei”[14]. An indication that the local saints were diligently venerated in Pskov is an icon of the Saint princes Vsevolod-Gavriil, Boris and Gleb (catalogue No 28). Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich, represented on the icon, ruled in Pskov for merely four months (1138 г.), being revered as the builder of a stone Holy Trinity church and the successor of Saint Princess Olga. The icon-painter obviously used a traditional iconographic scheme of Saint Vladimir with sons Boris and Gleb but replaced Vladimir with Vsevolod, whom he regarded as a key figure in the history of Russian holiness.

A shining example of the continuity of artistic traditions in Pskovian iconography of the 17th century is the iconostasis of the Church of the Dormition at Paromenye. Its icons, dated 15th – 17th centuries, demonstrate the ability of local icon-painters to create artworks meeting new aesthetic requirements and not breaking with the integrity of the existing iconostasis at the same time. The first Pskovian church of the Dormition at Paromenye was built in 1445 where, according to legend, Prince Igor and Princess Olga met.[15]. In 1521 a new stone church was built on this place, which would be burnt in a fire in the Times of Trouble and restored in 1613. This date, a key one in Russian history, marked the end of the Times of Trouble and the enthronement of the new Romanov dynasty that sought to provide stability across the country. The restoration in 1613 of the Church of the Dormition, associated in local legends with the birth of the Russian Orthodox faith, could have a deep symbolical meaning for Pskov. The church and its iconostasis were obviously perceived by Pskovians as symbols of the unshakable creation they could appeal to in case of troubles. A willingness to normalize life that made people appeal to the “old life” and its laws, combined with a specific task to create a uniform architectural ensemble made of time transgressive artworks, to a great extent determined their artistic features

A color scheme of the festival (catalogue No 29) and the prophets’ (catalogue No 78– 91) tiers of the iconostases, executed after the restoration of the church in 1613 is focused on the 15th century icons. They are distinguished by, traditional for Pskov, contrast combinations of dark-green and red colors with ochra, and rich golden assist and ornamentation. Nevertheless, compared with the images of the apostles on the icons of the 15th century iconostasis of the same church, they seem highlighted (especially the faces), while ornamentation motifs look more complicated and fractionary.

Peaceful and harmonic icon images from the Church of the Dormition at Paromenye are congenial to the Lyubyatovo festival icons of 1530–1540. Particularly remarkable in this sense is a Holy Trinity icon, where the peace and mutual love of the angels conveys the essence of their spiritual conversation. According to the Old Testament story about the appearance of three angels to forefather Abraham in the oak forest of Mamre, who told him he would have a son, the father of the God-selected people. (Gen. XVIII, 1– 22). In the writings by the holy fathers, the Holy Trinity was often compared with the “building of love”[16], the origin of “Abraham’s root of faith.”[17]. The righteous Abraham and Sarah are represented attentively listening to the Divine Word rather than serving the angels. The icon’s composition with one compact group of angels and Abraham with Sarah represents their single spirit “in accordance with the word of the Lord”.[18] A “good sacrifice” theme, which is significant in understanding the Holy Trinity iconography symbolically representing the Trinitarian dogma, is emphasized on the icon with two details: a cup on the table and a vessel in Abraham’s hands, reminiscent of the traditional perception of the episode as a prototype of Eucharist.

Other festival icons from the church of the Dormition at Paromenye have retained a similarly precise symbolism of the images.

Of particular interest among the 16th century icons is an icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos (illustration 31) from the festival tier of the church of the New Ascension, whose iconography contains the wealth of details taken from liturgical books. Thus, a picture of a spring depicted as a fountain with a cistern around it is perceived as a reminder of one of the most popular images of the Mother of God, known as the Life-Giving Spring. This image first sounds in the samoglasny singing [a canticle with an independent melody] opening the festival service on the Nativity of the Mother of God, and is repeated many times in the service texts. The images of the birds surrounding the cistern, is associated with Anna crying about her childlessness, this episode being sung in one of liturgical canticles: «Анна, поистине богомудрая, увидев на дереве птичье гнездо и вспомнив свое бесчадие, восклицала: “Увы мне, Господи! Я одна лишена Тобою плодотворения”. Тогда человеколюбец Бог даровал ей плод — Деву, славнейшую всякого творения» (Anna, being most God-minded, saw a bird’s nest and, remembering her childlessness, exclaimed: ‘Oh, my Lord! I am the only one to have been left childless by Thee. And then the human-loving God gave her a fruit – the Virgin, the most glorious of all other creation’)[19]. Besides, birds as images of the flourishing land (pozyom is abundantly decorated with various flowers and plants) reminiscent of the universe rejoicing and glorifying the Theotokos, repeating in hymnography: “fertile land”, “the divine rose” that “filled all countries with fragrance and ceased evil odor of our sin”[20]. In the meantime, the icon details arouse associations with poetic images from Russian folklore traditions.

Pskovian icons of the 16th century are particularly noted for invariable artistic features that have remained intact for the whole century. New stylistic features are available only in several icons such as the signed and dated icon of St. Antonius of Rome (illustration 32), painted by Semen Nikitin in 1680. Its particularities are, to a great degree, bound with traditions of the 16th – early 17th iconographers, who worked at the Russian royal court. Among their most famous clients were the Stroganov family and wealthy manufacturers from Russia’s north, which caused all artworks belonging to this artistic circle being called Stroganovsky. The small size of the Pskovian icon portraying St. Antonius of Rome in a three-quarter turn, a division of space into three levels (land, architecture and landscape) and thorough draughtmanship of the details are reminiscent of the Stroganovsky artistic traditions.

On the reverse side there is an inscription reading “1694... painted this icon at the commission of Semen Lisitsyn”. One may suggest that the icon of Antonius of Rome was commissioned by the Lisitsyn family mentioned in the 16th century Pskovian records[21] and city church death records. Semen Nikitin created an exclusively authentic image of St. Antonius monastery in Novgorod, which has no analogies in Russian medieval art. The precision with which the buildings on the icon are painted suggests that the iconographer had a perfect knowledge of the location. The icon-painter represented the monastery from the river Volkhov, where the main entrance to the monastery was located. Decorated with arch, columns and an icon of the Savior Not Made with Hands, the cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin, from which began construction of the Church of St. Antonius of Rome, was the conceptual and compositional center of the complex. The church had three domes, on one of which was mounted a round tower. The specific feature of its construction and two side-chapels, built in 1671 and 1680, was not left unnoticed by the painter.

The second half of the 17th century saw an increase in the number of icons, whose manner of painting, while having typically local features, is based on national iconographic traditions. Notable in this regard is an icon of Selected saints with twenty two scenes from life of Savva Krypetsky (illustration 33). The central part of the icon, apart from John the Baptist and Savva of Serbia, portrays Evfrosin of Pskov with his disciple Savva Krypetsky. In the bottom border of the icon there is an inscription reading that the icon was painted in 1702.

In the Life of Savva Krypetsky, his coming to Pskov, the town of the Holy Trinity, is compared with the coming of forefather Abraham to the oaks of Mamre where he “сподобися видети святую и нераздельную Троицу” (was honored to see the Holy and Indivisible Trinity)[22]. This comparison explains why it was exactly in this place that the meaning of monastic exploit was revealed to the saint. In his commandments, Savva Krypetsky calls to follow the testaments of ancient hermits. “Why do we consider ancient hermits to be our fathers if we don’t live the lives they lived and as should their children”[23]. By “tears, fasting and abstinence” the saint showed he was a true follower of John the Baptist, Savva of Serbia and Evfrosiny of Pskov portrayed together with him in devotional poses before the image of the Mother of God with the Infant.

In many respects, the Pskovian saint repeated the life of Savva of Serbia, who had become a monk of the St. Panteleimon monastery on Mount Athos after meeting a Russian monk. The meeting of Savva Krypetsky with Evfrosiny of Pskov marked the beginning of his spiritual ascension. “Блаженный же Савва, приимаше в сердце своем учение, от учителя своего, преподобного Евфросина” (The blissful Savva accepted by heart the teaching of his teacher, the venerable Evfrosin)[24]. Notably, the Life of Savva Krypetsky, authored by Presbyter Basil during the reign of Ivan IV, mentions the Prince of Kiev Vladimir, who «всю Русскую землю просвети святым крещением, и тако прозвася второй Константин» (Baptized the whole Russian land and was called Constantine the Second) [25]. The manuscript also puts emphasis on the fact Prince Vladimir and his grandmother Olga were ancestors of Tsar Ivan IV, who reigned “во всей вселенной, якоже вторый великий Рим и царствующий град” (in the entire universe, like the second great Rome and the reigning city) [26]. It seems that the ideas of the dominant role of the Russian state and the church were relevant for Pskov up to the 18th century.

An icon of the Presentation of the Mother of God to Smith Dorothei (illustration 34), created in the first half of the 18th century, when Russia embarked on the course of reforms initiated by Peter the Great, can be seen as the evidence of the steady artistic traditions in Pskov and loyalty of its citizens to old ideals. It represents Pskovian saints – heavenly protectors of the city Antonius of Pechera and Cornilius of Pskov, princes Daumantis-Timothei and Vsevolod-Gavriil, holy fool Nicholas Salos and Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, and St. Prince Alexander Nevsky.

The transition from the medieval era to culture of the New Times in Pskovian iconography was very slow and almost inconspicuous. The traditionalism of ideology and artistic solutions seem particularly mysterious in the city that in the 17th century lived a very energetic and open life. Therein lays a special appeal and magnitude of the late Pskovian art.


Custodian of pictorial and graphic arts

at the Pskov State United

Museum of History, Architecture and Art


1. Icon of the Selected Saints. PKM 1718. X Y.

2. Icon of the Martyr Juliana. PKM 1402. XIY.

3. Icon of the Savior Pantocrator. PKM 25350 (1), the end of the 14th century.

4. Icon of the Savior Pantocrator. PKM 25350 (2). The 15th century

5. Icon of the Archangel Gabriel. PKM 1509, the end of the 14th century - the 15th century.

6. Icon of the Apostle Paul. PKM 1554, the end of the 14th century - the 15th century.

7. Icon of the Apostle Matthew. PKM 1558. the end of the 14th century - the 15th century.

8. Icon of St. Prince Vladimir with sons Boris and Gleb, PKM 1722, XVI век.

9. Icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin with the Akathist. PKM 4777. The 16th century.

10. Icon of the Annunciation. PKM 1414. The first half of the 16th century.

11. Icon of the Crucifixion. PKM 1417. The first half of the 16th century.

12. Icon of the Entry into Jerusalem. PKM 1662. The first half of the 16th century.

13. Icon of St. Prince Vladimir with sons Boris and Gleb 1545, with border-scenes, PKM 1713.

14. Icon of the Nativity of Christ. PKM 1597. The first half of the 16th century.

15. Icon of the Nativity of Christ. PKM 26524. The early 16th century.

16. Icon of Archdeacon Stephan and the Apostle Matthew. The first half of the 16th century.

17. Icon of the Ressurection. The Descent into Hell. PKM 1590. The first half of the 16th century.

18. Icon of the Washing of the Feet. PKM 1592. The first half of the 16th century.

19. Icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women at the Lord’s Tomb. PKM 1594. The first half of the 16th century.

20. Icon of the Ressurection. The Descent into Hell. PKM 2731. The second half of the 15th century.

21. Icon of the Blessed Evfimy the Great and the Entry into the Temple. PKM 1370. The mid-16th century.

22. Icon of the Blessed Savva the Sacred and the Nativity of the Theotokos. PKM 1364. The mid-16th century.

23. Icon of Our Lady of Mirozh. PKM 1727.The second half of the 16th century.

24. Icon of the Transfiguration. PKM 3886. The second half of the 16th century.

25. Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir. PKM 1547. The second half of the 16th century.

26. Icon of the Fiery Ascent of Prophet Elijah. PKM 1716. The second half of the 16th century.

27. Icon of the Miracle of St. George and the Dragon. PKM 1719. The second half of the 16th century.

28. Icon of the Saint princes Vsevolod-Gavriil, Boris and Gleb. PKM 2817. XVII век.

29. Icon of the Old Testament Trinity. PKM1416.The first half of the 17th century.

30. Icon of the Prophets Zachariah and Balaam. PKM1638.The first half of the 17th century.

31. Icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos. PKM1619.The first half of the 17th century.

32. Icon of St. Antonius of Rome. PKM 1723.1680.

33. Icon of the Selected saints with twenty two borders scenes from the life of Savva Krypetsky. PKM1721.1702.

34. Icon of the Presentation of the Mother of God to Smith Dorothei. PKM936. The first half of the 18th century.

[1] Ovchinnikov, A.N. O sankire // Drevnerusskoe iskusstvo: issledovanija i restavratsija. М.: 1985. P. 14–39.

[2] Pskovskie letopisi. Prigotovil k pechati A.Nasonov. Vyp. 1. M., L. 1941 (reprint: PSRL. Vol. V. Isssue 1. М. 2003). p. 101.

[3] Akathists. Mogilev, 1698. P 240

[4] The icon is currently kept in the Novgorod State Museum.

[5] Quoted from: Vzdornov, G.I. Troitsa Andreya Rubleva. Antologia. M., 1989. P. 3.

[6] Dmitry Gerasimov was a Russian translator and diplomat. Educated in Livonia under the guidance of Misyur Munekhin. He was a representative to many foreign courts.

[7] Kalugin, F. Zinoviy Otenskiy St. Petersburg, 1894. P. 255–256.

[8] Pskovskie letopisi... Vyp. 1. P. 115; Pskovskie letopisi... Vyp.. 2. P. 261.

[9] Pskovskie letopisi... Вып. 2. P. 263.

[10] Ibid. P. 262.

[11] Poselyanin, E. Zemnaya zhizn Bogomateri. Opisanie svyatykh chudotvornykh eya ikon.. St. Petersburg, 1910. P. 603.

[12] Pskovskie letopisi... Vyp. 2. P. 267.

[13] The former phenomenon was recorded in 1637, while the latter in 1642 (Pskovskie letopisi... Vyp. 2. P. 284–285).

[14] Pskovskie letopisi... Vyp. 2. P. 275.

[15] Proskuryakova, G.V., Labutina, I.K. Nachalo istorii Pskova // Drevniy Pskov. Ocherki istorii. L., 1971. P. 13.

[16] Istolkovanie o svyatoi Troitse i o vsei tvari. Otdel redkikh i staropechatnykh knig Pskovskogo museja; fond F.V. Morozova, №110. P. 16.

[17] Ibid. P. 16.

Ibid. P. 16.

[18] Ibid. P. 16.

[19] Ibid. P. 122.

[20] Ibid. P. 116, 118, 121.

[21] Manuscript department of the State Public Library. Fond. 120. Schedule 2. File No108b.

[22] Zhitiya Savvy Krypetskogo v literaturno-agiograficheskom sbornike. 1800–1810 гг. (manuscript). Fond redkikh knig Pskovskogo muzeja-zapovednika, № 229. P. 303.

[23] Ibid. P. 307.

[24] Ibid. P. 309.

[25] Ibid. P. 311.

[26] Ibid.