Back to 'icons' index

An iconostasis

I now want to leap forward about 600 years (or perhaps 1100 years).

I don't know how many people here might have seen the film Andrei Rublev by the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. The film was made in 1966 soon after the end of the great persecution of the Russian Church launched in 1958 by Khrushchev and continued until his fall in 1964. Although the story of the film is largely fictional it concerns three well-known icon painters - Rublev himself, his friend and collaborator Daniel Chorny (Daniel the Black), and his master, Theophanes the Greek. Rublev was active at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The end of the previous century had seen in 1380 the Battle of Kulikovo, won by Dmitry Donskoy, Grand Prince of Muscovy, generally regarded as the beginning of the end of the Tartar domination of the area and also the beginning of the process of unification under Moscow. In the middle of the fifteenth century, Constantinople fell to the Turks. The fall was preceded by a remarkable flowering of spiritual thought and of art and, with the weakening of the state, the dispersal of the artists, Theophanes himself being an example.

The scene from the film you are looking at here is set in Vladimir, a powerful city state at the time of the Tartars that might have rivalled Moscow for domination. We have just experienced a long, almost unbearable sequence in which Vladimir is sacked, an event that took place in 1410. In the film, a large part of the population have taken refuge in the cathedral but the Tartars break the door down and engage in a massacre. At the end, only Andrei and a girl he has taken under his protection are left alive.

The cathedral had been painted by Rublev and Theophanes. In the film, Theophanes, who is now dead, visits Andrei and they converse together, surrounded by a scene of utter desolation and massacre. At one point Theophanes, whom we have seen earlier, while still alive, protesting against the cruelty of the age, raises his eyes to the paintings in the cathedral and says: 'But oh! How beautiful it is!' 

Solzhenitsyn has accused Tarkovsky in this film of falsifying history. I haven't been able to read Solzhenitsyn's full argument and don't know the history well enough to be able to comment but the general force of the film's reflection on history (history in general, not just Russian history in particular) - the creation of something of unutterable beauty in the midst of destruction and despair - seems to me unquestionably, morally true, and profoundly Christian.

In the scene you are looking at, Andrei and Theophanes are standing in front of the iconostasis of the cathedral. The iconostasis is a screen that separates the main body of the Church, where the faithful are, from the sanctuary where, for most of the service, the priest is and where the bread and wine are prepared for the Communion. 

This is the relatively modest iconostasis in the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas in Oxford. The iconostasis will have three doors - one on the right, one on the left and what are called the 'Royal Doors' in the middle, in front of the altar. The Royal Doors will very often have icons of the four evangelists, and of the Annunciation - the Archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she is to become the Mother of a Son 'who will be called the Son of the Highest and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His Kingdom there will be no end.' (Luke 1:32-3)

The Royal Doors are usually flanked by icons of Christ on the right and of His mother, with or without the Child Jesus, on the left. Then there may be a series of Saints on either side, with the Archangels Gabriel and Michael on the right and left doors. 

Above this lower tier there may be a series of smaller icons showing the great events in the lives of Jesus and of His Mother, which are celebrated in the Feasts of the Church, and above that again there may be what is called a 'deesis' with, perhaps, the face of Jesus flanked by the Virgin and St John the Baptist.

It is the same principle, or something similar, as the English and Welsh 'rood screen' which also separates the nave from the sanctuary and which would normally have been surmounted by a crucifixion, flanked by the Virgin and St John the Evangelist. This is the reconstruction of a rood screen in St Teilo's Church in the St Fagan's Welsh Folk Museum.

The iconostasis in Tarkovsky's film imagines what the iconostasis in Vladimir would have looked like, with icons generally attributed to Theophanes and Rublev which are now, since 2009 (I think) installed in the Assumption cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin.

We might just pause at this extraordinary image of the Mother of God, from the iconostasis, attributed to Theophanes,

This is a 'portrait' of Christ the Redeemer, found in a woodshed in 1919 and attributed to Andrei.

And this, of course, is the most famous icon attributed to Andrei, the Old Testament Trinity.

This icon is a variant on an older icon, the 'Hospitality of Abraham', based on the passage in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 18) in which Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are visited by three angels, whom they receive as 'God':

1 And God appeared to him [Abraham] by the oak of Mambre, as he sat by the door of his tent at noon. 2 And he lifted up his eyes and beheld, and lo! three men stood before him; and having seen them he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and did obeisance to the ground. 3 And he said, Lord, if indeed I have found grace in thy sight, pass not by thy servant. 4 Let water now be brought, and let them wash your feet, and do ye refresh yourselves under the tree. 5 And I will bring bread, and ye shall eat, and after this ye shall depart on your journey, on account of which refreshment ye have turned aside to your servant. And he said, So do, as thou hast said. 6 And Abraham hasted to the tent to Sarah, and said to her, Hasten, and knead three measures of fine flour, and make cakes. 7 And Abraham ran to the kine, and took a young calf, tender and good, and gave it to his servant, and he hasted to dress it. 8 And he took butter and milk, and the calf which he had dressed; and he set them before them, and they did eat, and he stood by them under the tree.

The attribution of this icon to Andrei Rublev is rarely questioned but a recent article by Charles Lock ('The Space of hospitality: On the icon of the Trinity ascribed to Andrei Rublev', Sobornost, Vol 30:1, 2008) has pointed out that there is really very little evidence for it. It had lain unrecognised in the Trinity Saint Sergius Lavra (monastery) near Moscow. According to Irina Yazykova: Hidden and Triumphant: 'In 1904, a conservator named Vasiliy Gurianov performed a test restoration of a small portion of the icon and became convinced that under the layers of darkened varnish and soot, through which there were the barely discernible outlines of three figures, there lay hidden a timeless, priceless painting ... Soon crowds began making pilgrimages to the icon ... Frightened by the crowds the monks decided to postpone the icon's restoration and re-cover the icon with a metal setting. The icon remained untouched until 1918 when a restoration commission formed paradoxically by the new Soviet government again took up the task of research and restoration.' It came as a revelation. Previous to the restoration of the 'Rublev' Trinity, the wealth and beauty of pre-seventeenth century Russian iconography, was virtually unknown in Russia. The seventeenth century had seen the development of the new 'Italianate' style which was not only approved but made mandatory by the Church authorities. As an example, here is an icon dated 1774, of Saint Barbara:

Some time around 1770, indeed, the iconostasis in the Vladimir cathedral was removed on the orders of Catherine the Great and replaced by an Italianate iconostasis featuring a portrait of Catherine herself, as St Catherine. People like to think of the Russian (and similar things may be said of the Greek) icon as a continuous tradition stretching back into antiquity but in fact it went through a series of changes and a variety of different styles. The restoration of the Trinity icon may be taken as a convenient starting date for the appearance of 'the icon' as we think of it today and it is no coincidence that this coincided with the emergence, with neo- and post- Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, of a new idea of what art could be.

One reason why the earlier work was unknown was that the painters had often applied a drying oil to their work to preserve it against the damp and other accidents. In time. however, the drying oil had blackened and the icon had disappeared. Often when this happened the response was simply to paint a new icon on top of the old one, perhaps using what could still be seen of the original outline. This in turn would be preserved with drying oil and the same thing would happen so that some of the best icons could have as many as four or five layers of new painting laid on top of them.

(Another version of the Hospitality of Abraham, as it happens, with Abraham and Sarah killing the sheep at the bottom.)