In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (reign 980–1015) was baptized and imposed Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the official religion of Kievan Russia. At first the visual culture of Orthodox Russia followed the model developed in Byzantium, which was characterized by the icon, a flat panel painting depicting a holy being or object. Following the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Russian churches were dominated by the iconostasis, a wall of painted images that divides the sanctuary where the Eucharist is celebrated from the congregation. By the fifteenth century, a distinctly Russian Orthodox art emerged with its own types, subjects, and style, and by the sixteenth, the Russians had developed a five-tier format for the iconostasis. It incorporated not only the traditional triptych of Christ, the Virgin, and St. John the Baptist (the central panels of the Deesis tier, from a Greek word denoting an entreaty to God), but also tiers for the Patriarchs, Prophets, Holy Feast Days, and Worship.
In December 1237, a nomadic Eurasian empire known as the Mongols, or Tatars, invaded Russia and captured, pillaged, and burned fourteen cities, including Vladimir, the capital city of the powerful Vladimir-Suzdal region and home to the most holy icon of Russia, the Virgin of Vladimir (also known as Our Lady of Vladimir), which depicts Mary tenderly embracing the infant Christ. This icon came to Russia from Byzantium as a gift in 1131. Numerous copies of the icon were made, including one from the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Moscow Kremlin.
Under the 243-year Mongol rule, the grand princes of Muscovy emerged as the dominant political force in Russia. In the fourteenth century, the Moscow princes increased the reach of their territory, partly through the establishment of monasteries north of their capital, such as the one founded in 1397 by St. Kirill, or Cyril, at Belozersk (the “White Lake”). Kirill’s monastery became the first in Russia dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin. One of the most important subjects in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Dormition recounts the end of the earthly life of Christ’s mother, the ascent of both her body and soul of into heaven, her birth into eternal life, and her role as everlasting intercessor for humankind. In 1497, an iconostasis was created for the newly rebuilt Cathedral of the Dormition at the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery. This exhibition features the five central panels of the Deesis tier of this famous iconostasis, as well as three icons from the Holy Feast Days tier and select textiles depicting St. Kirill. This period marked a high point in Russian icon painting, producing the famed icon painters Andrei Rublev and Dionysii, the favorite painter of Grand Prince Ivan III (Ivan the Great, reign 1462–1505), who threw off the so-called Tatar-Mongol yoke in 1480 and unified Russia under his sovereign rule.
In the seventeenth century, icons began to exhibit the influence of Western religious art with a new sense of naturalism. This prepared the ground for the emergence of secular Russian art, when Peter I (Peter the Great, reign 1682–1725) actively sought to diminish the role of the Russian Orthodox Church.
ABOVE: Christ in Glory, From the Deesis Tier in the Cathedral of the Dormition at the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery, ca. 1497. Tempera on panel, 192 x 134 cm. Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk. Photo: © Museum of History, Architecture, and Art, Kirillo-Belozersk.