From Image to the Salvation of Mankind: Discovering Differences in Theology and Culture in a Comparison of Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Sacred Art

Published: December 4, 2011

Hans Belting begins his discourse on the medieval imagery of Europe, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art, with the statement: “A history of the image is something other than a history of art.”[1] A history of the image is a history of not only the images displayed in what may be considered “art,” but also the development of a particular religion and the culture that surrounds it. The style, subject, and form of the sacred art of a specific era communicates much more than aesthetic principles; it has the power to contribute to the understanding of the values and traditions, indeed the very way of life, of that bygone age. The timeline of history is thus illuminated when viewed through the lens of images.

Scholars frequently point out divergences in Christian iconography as it has developed in the East (Orthodoxy) and West (Catholicism). Some, like Michel Quenot, use progressive examples to demonstrate the differences in a specific representation over time[2] (Figure 1)[3]. Others follow Leonid Ouspensky’s model and engage in lengthy discussions on the nature of the differences in theology as they work themselves out in iconography in general, without reference to time or location. The goal of this essay is to fuse these two methodologies and show particular visual examples that illuminate underlying differences in theological culture. These divergences will be examined as they progress during the period which is considered the Renaissance or Golden Age of sacred art, the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries.

Note: this article makes frequent references to images and figures. To download these as a PDF appendix, click here

Background of Icons – Pre-Fourteenth Century

There is much scholarly debate about the origins of Christian images. While both Orthodoxy and Catholicism teach that images were produced from the time of Christ, many believe that icons only appeared in large quantities between the third and fourth centuries AD.[4] Before this, and even during this early period, there was a lingering fear of producing images because of the text set forth in Exodus 20:4: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”[5] When representations did begin to proliferate it was to a large extent because of a change in state, rather than doctrinal, policies, such as the landmark event of Christianity becoming the official religion of the Byzantine Empire in 313. While little remains of this early Christian art, enough remains for scholars to discern that Christians integrated an assortment of pagan elements, likely in order to appeal to potential converts from pagan faiths, into their early religious depictions.[6]

Despite an increase in images after this period, doubts continued to linger concerning the theology surrounding them until the period of Iconoclasm began in 726. Leading this movement to destroy icons, Emperor Leo III and the group of Christians who followed him argued that the making of images led to the heretical separation of the dual nature of Christ into a purely material object and to the worship of the image itself. However, St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore of Stoudios wrote treatises defending the value of images. Their arguments were based on the Dogma on the Two Natures of Christ and the Doctrine of the Incarnation which state that Jesus has two natures, one human and one divine, and both coexist without confusion and without separation. Thus, Iconoclasm was not just a controversy over the production of religious images, but also about specific doctrines that were seen as vital to Christian belief. The official defeat of the movement in 843 is still celebrated by Orthodox Christians today on the first Sunday in Lent. Known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, it enumerates not only the defeat of those adverse to icons, but the triumph of the religion and its canons as well.[7]

In the centuries that followed, the rise and development of Christian images flourished even while controversy arose again in an age that is now known as “The Great Schism” (858-1204). Despite the East and West’s agreement on the issue of iconoclasm and their united efforts to defeat it, less than two decades later, ruptures began to appear that would eventually lead to the spilt between the two Christian Churches. Timothy Ware indicates how:

…the schism, as historians now generally recognize, is not really an event whose beginning can be exactly dated. It is something that came about gradually, as the result of a long and complicated process, starting well before the eleventh century and not completed until some time after.[8]

He describes the many varied reasons for the schism, including barbarian invasions, the rise of Islam, the iconoclast controversy, language problems, the “monarchy of the pope,” the Crusades, and the Filioque dispute.[9]

Interestingly enough, the complete and final rupture into two divided Churches with the sack of Constantinople in 1204 corresponds to some extent with dramatic changes in Christian art in Western Europe. Within a century after this event, Italian artists such as Ducchio and Giotto began to deviate from the norms of iconography. They began to make changes in style and technique that would forever alter the course of visual history. While Orthodox Christians continued to practice traditions of iconography that had existed since its inception, Catholics in the West began to innovate in such areas as perspective, psychology, and artistic imagination.

The manifestations of these differences can be seen in nearly all works of a religious nature, regardless of subject or artist. In the past, scholars like Quenot and Ouspensky have used certain iconographic “types” in their comparisons. These include the Virgin and Child (Figure 2 and 3)[10] and the Crucifixion of Christ (Figure 4 and 5). [11] These motifs are available in wide abundance in the art of both the East and West. While artists in Western Europe began to use a wide variety of biblical narratives for the subject of their works, the East continued to represent only certain key subjects. Whereas in Western Europe by the seventeenth century, one can find many representations of Susuanna and the Elders (Figure 6 and 7) or Adam and Eve (Figure 8 and 9), Orthodox believers do not reproduce these narratives in their icons. More research needs to be done to understand the reasons behind this specific development, but for the purposes of this study, we will examine some of the subjects that were represented by both cultures and expound on the possible reasons why they were chosen.

Differences in Style: East and West

One of the most striking differences between Eastern and Western European religious art of the Renaissance and Baroque is in the depiction of human features. Icons in the East have a specific style of non-naturalistic representation which differs greatly from the West. This tradition begins in the features of the human sense organs and then extends to surrounding elements in the picture plane. Upon first viewing an icon, one might suppose that the artists simply did not possess the skills necessary to depict figures and faces in a life-like manner. However, many have argued that this is not a lack of skill, but a direct effort to look outside the constraints of the natural world to a realm which exists beyond this one. Saints and other religious figures are not meant to be marveled at by viewers of icons for their physical beauty, but rather for their inner state of spiritual purity. As Ouspensky, for example, states:

The non-naturalistic manner of representing the sense organs in icons conveys deafness, impassiveness, detachment from all excitation and, conversely, the receptiveness to the spiritual world by those who have attained holiness. [12]

Whereas Renaissance paintings began to represent nature as closely as possible, icons use different formulations to display the unseen beauty of the spiritual world. Icons use symbols to represent the unrepresentable. They impart to the viewer a vision of the world not as it has existed in its sinful state of the past and present, but in the future of the perfect universe to come.

In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti, one of the leading Florentine humanists of his time, wrote an intellectual treatise for art, entitled On Painting. Unlike manuals written by Orthodox artists and thinkers, On Painting deals not at all with the material aspects of the technique, but rather with the intellectual basis of painting. Nowhere are the humanist foundations for the tradition of painting in the Renaissance more evident than in Alberti’s work. From the very first page, he states that “no one will deny that things which are not visible do not concern the painter, for he strives to represent only things which are seen.”[13] He even repeats, “painting aims to represent things seen”[14] and “the painter is not concerned with things that are not visible.”[15]

In Book II, Alberti describes how body members should be composed: “…sketch in the bones…then add the sinews and muscles, and finally clothe the bones and muscles with flesh and skin.”[16] However, he quickly sees how this leads to a contradiction of his previous statements to only represent things which are seen: “But at this point, I see, there will perhaps be some who will raise as an objection something I said above, namely, that the painter is not concerned with things that are not visible.” Eric Cameron explains this problem in terms of a duality between the artist’s studies from nature and his ability to create from compositional theory in a way which elucidates the changes that were occurring in Western art at that time:

[Alberti’s] explanation compounds the contradiction, and it cannot be resolved within the logic of the formulation. It is the inevitable outcome of the sort of tasks painting was called on to perform in the 15th century and also in classical antiquity, the twin points at which Alberti’s understanding is anchored. Elaborate compositions of figures in action cannot be painted all-of-a-piece from life, nor can subjects from history or mythology. So the empirical principle will not suffice. At a certain stage a synthetic-constructive principle must take over.[17]

While Alberti could not have been clearer about the aim of a painting in the West to be naturalistic to the utmost degree, artists in Russia, it seems, could not have disagreed more. In his defense of images, St. John of Damascus writes, “an image is a likeness depicting an archetype, but having some difference from it; the image is not like the archetype in every way.”[18] Thus, the icon was to be a deviation from an abstracted model of the physical world and well removed from that physical world.

For Alberti, the goal is to rid the image of any difference from the archetype as it exists in the natural world, not to preserve it. After its publication, the ideas expounded in On Painting could be seen at work in nearly all paintings of the time, whether of a religious or secular nature. Alberti’s legacy has been great; his ideas continue to be of immense value to scholars’ understanding of Italy in the fifteenth century and the influence of this viewpoint on artists throughout Western Europe in the centuries that followed.[19] However, for Orthodox artists in Russia there was no place for imagination or idealization as described by Alberti in sacred art. Icons do not represent the physical beauty of a person or a direct, uncompromising imitation of nature, because this would deprive them of their otherworldly holiness. If nothing in nature is of the spiritual purity that we are seeking when we reach the next world, then why should it be used as a model of perfection in our churches?

St. George

Let us now begin to examine a specific subject that was often represented in both Russia and Western Europe during this time and see how the differing ideals behind style and theology are at work. One of the most complicated and frequently studied hagiographies of medieval times was that of St. George. Extremely popular over several centuries, George was considered a “national champion embodying the moral and social characteristics of a Christian… civilization.”[20] One of the most important Western written sources for the story of St. George and his encounter with the legendary dragon comes from the Legenda Aurea, a collection of hagiographies which includes traditional lore about saints’ lives, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine around 1260. The essential story is that a city is besieged by a dragon, which kills inhabitants of the city. After feeding the dragon all of their livestock, the people develop a lottery to determine who will be fed to the dragon. The king’s daughter soon draws the lot and is sent to be killed. George happens upon the scene, saves her, and orders the people of the kingdom to convert to Christianity or he will let the animal loose within the city walls. The kingdom converts and George beheads the dragon. This and stories like it were an important blend of ecclesiastical literature and folklore, two dominant traditions of the time. This genre, known as religious folk verse, provided a vital link between the two cultural institutions.

There are two main iconographic renderings of St. George shared by the Catholics and Orthodox Christians. In most, he is pictured in the midst of the battle with the dragon (Figures 10-12). In Western depictions, the figure of George is represented in a variety of different poses and landscapes. Most take place at the moment just before George strikes the final blow—essentially the climax of the story, which would have the greatest impact on the viewer. One can feel the intensity and strength of George’s action. The dragon writhes and fights back and the princess waits calmly praying. The figures exist accurately in space, with linear and atmospheric perspective and a foreground and background. The scene is not just naturalistic and believable, but dynamic and exciting—the epitome of Alberti’s instructions.

The Russian icons, however, show something emotionally altogether different (Figure 13-16). In these, George is presented almost as a passive participant in the action. His hand barely seems to hold the instrument of murder. Time seems suspended. A calming rhythm is produced by the curving bend of George’s head, which is mirrored by the bow of the horse’s neck. Circular shapes abound in the halo and the sun. The horse George rides does not seem a part of the space he inhabits, but rather to float above it. There is no logic to where the dragon and horse actually stand on the ground. There is no perspective, no sense of proportion – only a mystical harmony among the participants in the scene. The only evidence of action at all is George’s cape, which stretches out behind him as the horse rears backward. But even this detail seems to hover in space rather than energetically pulsate behind the hero.

These icons show several insightful differences from the traditions of Alberti and Western sacred art. Alberti states “the first thing that gives pleasure in a ‘historia’ is plentiful variety… the mind takes great pleasure in variety and abundance… I do not like a picture to be virtually empty, but I do not approve of an abundance that lacks dignity.”[21] This explains why so many of the paintings of the West contain the princess, even at the expense of compositional sense, as in Rubens’ (Figure 12). Even the landscape plays the role of a character in these paintings; it is clearly detailed and represented thoughtfully. Meanwhile, the landscape depicted in the Orthodox icons could be virtually anywhere. Only some of the icons contain the princess; sometimes she is eliminated altogether to further simplify the “historia.”

Likewise, Alberti seems to be directly referring to Orthodox icons (as in Figure 15 and 16) when he states:

Another thing I often see deserves to be censured, and that is men painted in a building as if they were shut up in a box in which they can hardly fit sitting down and rolled up in a ball. So all bodies should conform in size and function to the subject of the action.[22]

Indeed in Western paintings men are usually depicted in appropriate proportion to the architecture. However, Orthodox icons purposefully depict architecture as defying all logic. Ouspensky explains how this abstraction of architecture is a manifestation of the idea that the events depicted should not be limited by representing them as occurring at a specific location or time. Then the events are not restricted by the “laws of earthly life” or “rationalistic logic.”[23]

The icons which follow the motif of “St. George and the Dragon” exemplify perfectly what Ouspensky names as the essential impulse of Orthodox sacred art: peace and harmony in creation. Everything around the saint changes in aspect the same way he does. The horse, the landscape, the buildings all are penetrated by the divine order and tranquility of the saint himself.[24] It is hoped that he will impart this divine harmony on to the viewer as well. The saint and his actions remind us that there exists another order, other than the action and chaos that intrigues our sinful minds in this world. It is as though the grace of God is being revealed to us in the graceful action of the scene.

In another motif of St. George, he is pictured alone, with the accoutrements of his life as a knight (Figures 17-20). Many of the discrepancies between the details of the paintings can be explained by the wide proliferation of sources for the story across cultures and centuries. In his book, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition, Christopher Walter elucidates the many different legends and hagiographies in which George is mentioned. He discusses the fact that the story of George can perhaps be traced back before Christianity, in the sense that the saint may be originally just a reincarnation or reinterpretation of a pagan god or hero. Walter determines that the story of George rescuing the princess from the dragon, which is the subject of the Christian iconography, dates back no earlier than the eleventh century. Among the many different early representations of the saint, including George on a processional cross, on horseback attacking serpents wrapped around a tree with St. Theodore, as a warrior saint enthroned, or even the depiction of him killing a man, the dragon motif is actually a fairly late development. Not until the twelfth century did the rescue of the princess come to be George’s characteristic scene.[25] Walter also points out how the story had great appeal for the people who lived in the time of the Crusades.

While Walter provides valuable sources for many of the early George types and explanations as to their development, he does not explain why there are certain differences in varying cultures. It is clear that one of the most important sources for St. George’s iconography in the West is the Legenda Aurea. It is easy to see how textual discrepancies and differences in translation could have led to slight differences in the visual renderings of the scene, as exemplified by some depicting George as holding a sword and others a spear or lance. In fact, the most common English version of the Legenda Aurea states:

Thus as they spake together the dragon appeared and came running to them, and Saint George was upon his horse, and drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross, and rode hardily against the dragon which came towards him, and smote him with his spear and hurt him sore and threw him to the ground.[26]

As to a more obvious and important difference such as the Western images containing the body of the dragon at George’s feet, whereas the icons do not, one must perhaps again examine the sources for the imagery. One must look to the religious folk verses of Russia, which greatly influenced the story, in order to understand why the iconography differs. While these folktales contain many different verses on St. George, the most popular and by far most complicated of the verses is that which details his slaying of the dragon. Like the story in the Legenda, the religious folk verses describe the battle between man and beast, but:

The conflict [of the Russian verses] is unusual in that it does not present a direct confrontation between the hero and the antagonist. Rather the conflict is between the populace and the king as a result of the lottery.[27]

Whereas the Legenda story tells that the princess drew the lot to be killed, the folk verses tell that the king himself drew the lot and offered up his own daughter in his place. This may help to explain the lack of emphasis on George’s physical heroics in Russian icons. He does not stand victorious over the dragon, but stands proud with the symbols of his battle and inner purity as evidence of his greater victory over disbelief through the defusing of an unjust act by an evil ruler and the conversion of an entire kingdom.

Similarly, art historian Alison Hilton discusses George’s iconography in terms of the saint’s folk heritage. She explains how George played an important role in Russian culture as a patron of herds and farming before he was considered a great chivalric warrior saint. In fact, St. George’s feast day, or Yurief Den, on April 23, is celebrated by sending the flocks and herds out into the open fields for the first time after winter—entailing a greater cultural legacy in Russia for George as a pagan character who was later adapted into a Christian hero. The oral tradition even preserves stories in which George, here known as Yegory the Brave, is locked in a dungeon by his pagan foe, King Demianishche, who orders that he should lay in utter darkness and silence. After thirty years, Yegory is able to come out and see the sun again, at which point he fights many battles, including one with a serpent/dragon and one in which he kills the evil king who imprisoned him.[28] W.R.S. Ralston discusses this oral folk tradition and concludes:

All this… is nothing more than a poetic representation of the struggle which takes place between Perun and the dark storm-clouds, which are crushed beneath his mace, or pierced by the shafts of his lightning. For a time the demon of wintry storms may hide the sun, keeping him, as it were, imprisoned, but the spring comes, the sunlight bursts out again in its glory, and the thunder-god once more goes forth conquering and to conquer.[29]

Thus, in Russian icons, George is not simply a warrior who rescued a princess, but also a protector of farmers, a pagan nature god, or a Christian saint, all at once. Hilton states, “The many aspects of St. George… gave his icons many different emphases, depending on period, region, or worshippers for whom they were made.”[30] The same holds true for images of George in the West. By taking into account the many variants of culture, as well as the source information, differences in iconography become illuminated.

St. John the Baptist

The iconographic motif showing St. John the Baptist was also popular in both Orthodox and Catholic sacred art. Representations of John are for the most part very similar between the two sides of Christianity. Both usually represent him as a gaunt, disheveled, bearded adult dressed in animal skins and sometimes holding a reed cross (Figure 21-25). This is the John described by Matthew in 3: (1) “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea…(4)And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”[31] The reed cross may refer to a passage later in Matthew 11:7 and repeated in Luke 7:24, “…Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken in the wind?”[32]

One motif of John that is completely unique to Orthodoxy is the winged messenger (Figure 26 and 27). This is based on the belief that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets as prefigured in Malachi 3:1: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts,”[33] and confirmed in Matthew 11:10-11: “For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee…among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist…”[34]

Scholars since the seventh century have argued that John is compared to an angel not just because the original Greek word for messenger was angellos, which can also mean “angel,” but also “because of his mission and announcement, and because of his accurate imitation of an angel’s method of life.”[35] The mission referred to is John’s announcement in John 1:36 that “…looking upon Jesus as he walked, [John] saith, Behold the Lamb of God!”[36] Thus John fulfills his role as a messenger with the announcement that Jesus is the son of God. A notable writer on this subject, Walter Haring, goes on to suggest that the angel motif reflects a wider tendency within the Byzantine and Russian Orthodox world to represent the supernatural images in the Bible in a literal manner.[37] This explains the lack of a winged St. John the Baptist in Western art.

Western artists also had unique depictions of John. Scattered among traditional representations (as described in the first paragraph of this section) are those that correspond virtually not at all to scripture or liturgy. They are amalgamations of accepted symbols of John’s life, such as the lamb and reed cross, and complete inventions of the artist’s imagination. Depictions of John as a youth or adolescent (Figure 28 and 29), and those in which John is nearly naked and assumes a playful, even sexual pose (Figure 30 and 31), are for the Orthodox the worst kind of “Italian style” paintings because they introduce a “falsified understanding of spiritual experience, of holiness.”[38] Not only is the presentation of holiness alluded to in a way foreign to Orthodox believers, but it is completely destroyed by rousing impure thoughts in the viewer. Thus, works like these, which were created by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci for private patrons and not meant to be seen by the general public, take Alberti’s calls to select “excellent parts…from the most beautiful bodies, and… perceive, understand, and express beauty”[39] quite literally even at the risk of falsifying Biblical literature. In fact, Alberti begins Book II of his treatise by stating that “painting possesses a truly divine power” and “the man who, in modeling or painting living things, behaved like a god among mortals. The virtues of painting… are that its masters see their works admired and feel themselves to be almost like the Creator.”[40] He gives artistic imagination the same license as a god who creates nature.

For an Orthodox believer, nothing could be more blasphemous or a greater deviation from the purpose of the artist and the sacred image itself. The fundamental aim of religious art in Orthodoxy is not just to teach specific truths or narratives within the faith, but to educate people on how to achieve a life of spirituality and prayer. The icon serves one main purpose: to strip our entire human nature of all emotional adulation and orient it to transfiguration alone. The hope is that the viewer will be redeemed by the contemplation of images of people who have achieved holiness. By contrast, Alberti claims:

The function of the painter is to draw with lines and paint in colours on a surface any given bodies in such a way that, at a fixed distance and with a certain, determined position of the centric ray, what you see represented appears to be in relief and just like those bodies.[41]

This statement does not apply only to secular art; Alberti describes religious subjects and their compositions in the most impersonal way:

They also praise in Rome the boat in which our Tuscan painter Giotto represented the eleven disciples struck with fear at the sight of their colleague walking on water, each showing such clear signs of agitation… that their individual emotions are discernible in every one of them.[42]

Surely any Orthodox believer who has ever written about art, from John of Damascus to Dionysius of Fourna, would never refer to Jesus Christ as the apostles’ “colleague” as if he was nothing more than one ordinary man among many. Thus, looking at specific representations of religious subjects in the East and West may elucidate the theological differences which underlie Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

The Nativity of Christ

Another biblical narrative represented in great abundance by Christian artists in both Eastern and Western Europe is that of the nativity of Christ. In the earliest representations of this theme, one can see similarities between Eastern and Western conceptions of the narrative (Figure 32 and 33): Mary’s pose and dress; the child placed in a bower behind the mother and slightly above; the inclusion of animals and angels; and the depiction of the scene after the birth, in a moment of calm respite. Giotto’s version of the Nativity (Figure 34) marks the first deviation from the traditional way of representing this scene. In this work, one sees the first introduction of new elements formerly lacking: correct linear perspective and arrangement of figures realistically in space, with a variety of poses (especially the twisting of Mary to look at and hold the child); interaction among characters; and a certain vitality in the narratives which were previously so static. One gets the sense that this is an evolving story, and there is motion, conversation, and a dynamic that did not exist in previous scenes of the same subject.

Giotto opened the doors to a continual progression of elements that would be included in Nativity scenes in the West in the centuries to come. Once again where the Orthodox stayed true to the roots of their traditions of representation, the West became only more imaginative and realistic as time progressed. Later Western depictions provide hardly any congruency to the location of the scene, the pose or dress of the Virgin, or the placement of the Christ child. Some take place in front of a wall with an awning or roof that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere (Figure 35), others in a semi-dilapidated building (Figure 36), and in others a location that is not identifiable at all because the surrounding space is engulfed in darkness (Figure 37).

The account of the birth of Christ is set forth in Matthew 2: 1-23 and Luke 2:1-38. These accounts share certain details, many of which seem to have been completely neglected by the artists of Western Europe after the turn of the thirteenth century. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2: 7).[43] And later: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2: 13-14). Swaddling clothes, the manger, and the multitude of angels tend to be left out of Western paintings (such as in Figures 36 and 37).

However, the swaddling clothes, manger, and angels all remain in the icons of the Russian Orthodox. In no other religious subject does the intricate iconography stay so unchanged over the centuries (Figures 38-40). Russian icon artists traditionally divide the complicated elements of the different parts of the story into several compartments within the icon. In this way, even a scene which could easily become too detailed with too many figures and separate areas of action retains its simplicity and organization. The central focus is Mary, who is the largest figure and is dressed in dark, saturated colors. She reclines away from Christ, who lies wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. In the upper tier of the mountainous landscape are several angels. The three magi are entering the scene from a distance, usually on horseback. On the bottom left, Joseph sits, hunched over, with his head resting on his hand, listening to an old man. On the right, two young women are washing the baby in a round basin of water. These details are evident in nearly every composition of the nativity. .

The Nativity of Christ also, like other icons, shows several important aspects of theological culture. Here, one can see exactly how Orthodox believers sought to make images work with the Gospels to provide a complete teaching for the life of mankind. Ouspensky states:

The strange and unusual character of the icon is the same as that of the Gospel. For the Gospel is a true challenge to every order, to all the wisdom of the world…The Gospel calls us to life in Christ, and the icon represents this life.[44]

Just as there is no place for idealization in Scripture, there is no room for it in sacred art either. The inclusion of as many details as possible from the Biblical narrative shows the artist’s desire to remain true to the word through the image.

Interestingly, the Nativity of Christ also shows the inclusion of narrative details from New Testament Apocrypha writings and their use in iconography. These stories are not considered accepted canons of Scripture, but instead reflect a genre that survived outside of the Church’s official sanctions. In Nativity images of both the East and West before the fourteenth century one can see many instances of the appearance of Apocryphal details, such as the midwives washing the infant Christ. Nowhere in the canonical New Testament are midwives mentioned in relation to the Nativity of Christ. However, the Gospel of James, otherwise known as the Infancy Gospel of James or the Protevangelium of James, details how, as Mary goes into labor, “[Joseph] found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem.”[45] Joseph obtains a Hebrew midwife, who assists with the birth and believes in Christ after seeing a great light shine in the cave. She then brings another midwife, Salome, to the scene. Salome does not believe that Mary is a virgin and decides to check for herself, at which point her hand drops off as if burnt by fire and she too believes Jesus to be the King of Israel[46].

After the fourteenth century, Apocryphal details like the midwives disappear from Western art. However, these iconographic elements continue almost without fail to be essential to the visual narrative in Nativity scenes of the Orthodox Christians. This reliance on the precedent of tradition is another important divergence from Western religious conventions. Where innovation is prized by the culture of Roman Catholics, it is sacrilege to Orthodox believers. Thus, an examination of the Nativity of Christ shows how Orthodox artists managed to organize the complicated events of Christ’s birth in such a manner as to remain faithful to Scripture in ways that images of the same subject in the West did not.

Dormition of the Virgin

Much like scenes of the nativity of Christ, the subject of the death of the Virgin Mary was frequently depicted in both Eastern and Western art. It is one of the few narratives that is not included in any part of the Bible or in the Deutero-Canonical Books, but is still depicted in the West. Scholars have pointed out the complexity of the mass of early sources for the Dormition narrative. One of these historians, Stephen Shoemaker, states:

In fact, its origins seem to have been primarily Eastern… the earliest accounts of the end of the Virgin Mary’s life, first come into historical view around the year 500, when they almost simultaneously appear in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. From these ‘origins,’ these legends spread rapidly throughout the early medieval world, with the result that we currently possess over sixty different accounts from before the tenth century, preserved in nine ancient languages, ranging from Old Irish to Old Georgian.”[47]

This proliferation of writings may be the reason that this subject was so frequently depicted in the West, despite its existence outside of the official realm of sacred writings.

Like the Nativity scenes, representations of the Dormition were largely similar between Christians in Western Europe and Russia up until the fourteenth century (Figure 41-44). Both contain a large number of saints and angels crowded around a bed on which the dead or dying Virgin lies. Above her stands Jesus, holding the symbol of her soul, a childlike version of the Virgin wrapped in white cloth (see details of Figure 41 and 42). The latter element comes from one of the first extant Greek homilies on the subject (by John of Thessalonike), in which “Jesus and the archangel Michael come to [Mary’s] house, and Jesus takes her soul—which John describes as human in form but lacking any features to distinguish it sexually, and…wraps it in veils.”[48] This sermon, and others like it, not only synthesize earlier accounts into one clear story, but emphasize that Mary was “allowed to share in the full reality of the eschatological resurrection”[49] as her body and soul were united by Jesus in heaven.

Brian Daley argues that the Dormition story itself was meant to give Christians a model for dying well and hope for the transition into a second life. He describes it as a “direct and immediate realization of the deliverance from death promised to all human beings.”[50] It was meant to assuage the fears of early Christians concerning the time after death, and to reassure them that the transformation into the afterlife can be peaceful and even beautiful for a person filled with complete holiness like the Virgin Mary. This may also help to explain the proliferation of images of the Dormition in the West. Obviously, teachings about eschatology would have been as important and necessary for Christian believers in Europe as in Russia. If fear of dying and what occurs after this event are universal to all mankind, then both versions of Christianity would find it necessary to deal with these issues for their believers.

As in the Nativity scenes, however, the commonality of the motifs up to the fourteenth century quickly disappears and is replaced by many artistic variations in the West (Figures 45 and 46), while in Russia they remain static. In Western paintings, there is no consistency in the location, figures present, or even the position of the Virgin when she is dying. The desire for variety discussed by Alberti and mentioned above in regard to the depictions of St. George and the Dragon is also at work here. The aspiration for uniqueness in compositional arrangement even leads Hans Holbein the Elder to illogically feature Mary sitting up in a chair in the last moments of her life (Figure 47). One common feature that is not always present, but is often seen in many Eastern and Western paintings, is the inclusion of a palm branch and lamps or candles. John of Thessalonike describes the scene when Mary is informed of her impending death by an angel and given a palm branch which symbolizes her coming funeral procession, but which is also an established emblem of victory. The lighted lamps or candles in many of these scenes are visual markers of the vigil held by the apostles and Mary while she awaits death.[51]

The most complete departure from the typical Western European iconography exists in Caravaggio’s depiction of the Dormition (Figure 48). Gone are the palm branch and candles, which are replaced by an overwhelming sense of psychological realism. Alberti states that “a ‘historia’ will move spectators only when the men painted in the picture outwardly demonstrate their own feelings as clearly as possible.”[52] Where is this sense of loss, heaviness, and intense anguish over the Virgin’s death more apparent than in Caravaggio’s depiction of the subject? The symbols which might take the viewer away from these feelings disappear. We are only meant to be affected by the suffering of those close to the Virgin, and not to be distracted by details or thoughts of the coming funeral procession. It is this manipulation of the “fictive environment, its furnishings, and its natural effects” which “generates an empathetic response in the viewer,”[53] rather than a spiritual connection prompting hope for the afterlife. This may have been one reason the painting was rejected by the Cherubino Chapel in S. Maria della Scala in Rome. The Church did not believe that the painting gave an optimistic enough view of the Virgin’s death or fatality in general.[54] This is evidence that a limit exists to the Western Church’s ability to accept deviation from the iconographical norms.

Turning back to Russia, we see that while the Orthodox iconographers do not always use the symbolic elements of the palm branch and candles or emphasize emotional realism in their Dormition paintings, they do have a series of motifs of their own which they consistently use. We have already discussed the inclusion of Jesus holding the soul of Mary in the art of both the East and West up until around the fourteenth century. In fact, this theme continues to be represented, albeit very rarely, in the West for about another century (Figure 49 and 50). However, by the beginning of the sixteenth century it has disappeared altogether. In Russian icons, conversely, it is the most consistent motif across the centuries, other than the fully reclining pose of the Virgin herself. Whereas the number of apostles or angels present in the scene changes somewhat and the inclusion of architecture in the background is not completely consistent, there is always the figure of Jesus holding the childlike Mary wrapped in white cloth (Figure 51-53).

Two different but parallel themes are at work in this image. On the one hand, the viewer is struck by the similarity of this compositional arrangement to images showing the Virgin and Child, which are so popular and abundant in Christianity (Figure 2 and 3). The reversal of roles at work here, where Jesus holds the infantile Mary instead of the typical image of Mary holding the Christ child, is evidence of the ecclesiastical theology concerning Mary’s role as the one who held Christ in her womb and who gave Him flesh. Now, at the end of her life and in the future afterlife, the roles are reversed; God holds her and she is given flesh by God as her soul and body are reunited in heaven. This motif symbolizes her role as the embodiment of the transfiguration itself. On the other hand, some argue that Christ does not hold her in a motherly manner, but as if he was showing her to everyone. Her soul, dressed in the purest of white, symbolizes her life of purity and prayer. Christ displays this holy soul to the viewer as if to show the path to sacredness.

In Orthodox versions, the bier on which her body rests often represents one of the most interesting and distinct elements of Orthodox iconography’s desire to include the viewer in the religious icon—inverse perspective (Figure 54). In Western art of the Renaissance, space is logically constructed according to linear or one-point perspective, whereby parallel lines that recede into the distance appear to get closer together or converge. The rules of this system, first written down by Alberti, involve the determination of a vanishing point where all the parallel lines, or orthogonals, meet on the horizon line, where the sky appears to meet the ground. In icons, this system is reversed so that the vanishing point exists somewhere outside of the painting, usually where the viewer would stand a few feet away. In this way, the spectator becomes an integral part of the scene. He or she is incorporated into it. Thus, in almost all images of the Dormition, the spectator’s path to or view of the dying Virgin and the figure of Christ with her soul are never blocked by obstructions such as other figures as they often are in the West. Nothing is to hinder the sacred process of transmission of holiness from Mary to us, as presented in the motif of Christ holding the soul.

Indeed, there is only one thing that ever seriously impedes our direct sight line to the Virgin in this type of icon, and that is the heavily symbolic narrative account of the encounter between the Jew and the angel (Figure 55-57). Notably, only one of the over sixty accounts of the Dormition omits the scene in which Jews plot to seize and burn Mary’s body during the funeral procession[55] or an impious priest seeks to overturn the bier.[56] In the story, all are struck with blindness except Jephonias, who rushes the body and tries to grab it; at which time his hands are cut off by an angel with a flaming sword. Only by praying to the Virgin are his hands restored, at which point he converts to Christianity. These various accounts contain only minor changes in detail; all identify the Jews as stern adversaries of the Virgin Mary:[57]

The strong connection in the Dormition traditions between Mary and anti-Judaism seems to have roots in the (actual) disagreements between Jews and Christians over the question of Mary’s virginity in late antiquity…many of the earliest narratives of Mary’s Dormition portray the Jews as hostile to certain developments of late ancient Christian piety, most notably the veneration of the saints, relics, and, in later narratives, images.[58]

Thus, the Dormition tradition arose as a reaction to the direct challenge of Jewish rejection of Christianity, and as an endeavor to reinforce Christian identity by marking the Jews as socially and religiously different. This convention makes its way naturally from the literature to the iconography by means of the closeness between Scripture, the Liturgy, and images as described above in regards to the Nativity. The threat that Jews posed to Mary in the Dormition narrative attains a feel that is contemporaneous to the time of the Renaissance when analyzed in images which contain it. Not only is the physical corpus of the Virgin literally threatened by the Jews, but the viewer is separated from a direct connection with the holiness of Mary and Jesus by their disbelief.


A comparison of the holy images produced during the Renaissance era by Orthodox Christians in Russia and Catholics in Western Europe clarifies how each expresses theology in art differently due to variations in religious culture. The history of the image is indeed something other than just a history of art. It is an account of the differences in teaching the truths of faith and of how images shape society’s spirituality. It shows how the secular concerns of humanist learning could invade the sacred image as in the West, and how a strict reliance on tradition could nonetheless provide a wide abundance of beautiful and varied art as in the East. Despite their origins as one common belief system, the two Christian traditions produced art that looks vastly different and produces immensely dissimilar feelings in the viewer. While the followers of Alberti painted in order to impress the viewer with their perfect imitation of nature and derive an emotional response via psychological realism, the Orthodox artists hoped that their images, by the nature of the holy figures they depict, would serve as a spiritual guide for daily life. The differences in the European and Russian conception and presentation of holiness show us how different the purposes of their art became in the centuries after the Schism. Only a comparison of specific paintings can illustrate the essential difference in their goals. For Orthodox Christians the image is not just an icon, but a means by which to achieve the salvation of all mankind.


Works Cited

Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting trans. Cecil Grayson (New York: Penguin Books, 1972).

Charles Barber, “From Image into Art: Art After Byzantine Iconoclasm,” Gesta Vol. 34, No.1 (1995).

H. Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art , trans. E. Jephcott (Chicago, 1994).

Eric Cameron, “The Depictional Semiotic of Alberti’s On Painting,” Art Journal, Vol.35, No. 1 (Autumn 1975).

The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, intro. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Brian E. Daley, “‘At the Hour of Our Death:’ Mary’s Dormition and Christian Dying in Late Patristic and Early Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 55 (2001).

Walter Haring, “The Winged St. John the Baptist: Two Examples in American Collections,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1922).

Alison Hilton, Russian Folk Art, (Indiana University Press, 1995).

St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images trans. Andrew Louth (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003).

Peter Kirby, “Infancy Gospel of St. James,” from Early Christian Writings (2006).

Edward R. de Kurko, “Alberti’s Theory of Form and Function,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 1957).

Maria Lunk, “Towards a New Thematic Structure of the Religious Folk verses about St. George,” The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring 1998).

Yoori A. Olsufiev, “The Development of Russian Icon Painting from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Dec., 1930).

Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978).

N. Randolph Parks, “On Caravaggio’s ‘Dormition of the Virgin’ and Its Setting,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol.127, No. 988 (July, 1985).

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

W.R.S. Ralston, The Songs of the Russian People: An Illustrative of Slavonic Mythology and Russian Social Life, (Ellis and Green, 1872).

Stephen J. Shoemaker, “‘Let Us Go and Burn Her Body:’ The Image of the Jews in the Early Dormition Traditions,” Church History, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Dec., 1999).

Alfredo Tradigo, Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, (Getty Publications, 2006).

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton University Press, 1995).

Christopher Walter, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition, (Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 140.

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 30-35


[1] H. Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art , trans. E. Jephcott (Chicago, 1994), 9: quoted in Charles Barber, “From Image into Art: Art After Byzantine Iconoclasm,” Gesta Vol. 34, No.1 (1995): 5.

[2] Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 75.

[3] Ibid., reproduction of p. 75.

[4] Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 40.

[5] The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, intro. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 89-90.

[6] Ouspensky, 39-58.

[7] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 30-35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 43-60.

[10] Ousepensky, reproduction of figure 26 and 27, referenced on p. 216.

[11] Quenot, reproduction of figures 31and 55.

[12] Ouspensky, 208.

[13] Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting trans. Cecil Grayson (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 37.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] Ibid., 72.

[17] Eric Cameron, “The Depictional Semiotic of Alberti’s On Painting,” Art Journal, Vol.35, No. 1 (Autumn 1975), 26.

[18] St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Pine Images trans. Andrew Louth (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 25.

[19] Edward R. de Kurko, “Alberti’s Theory of Form and Function,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 2 (June 1957), 142.

[20] Maria Lunk, “Towards a New Thematic Structure of the Religious Folk Verses about St. George,” The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring 1998), 25.

[21] Albert, 75.

[22] Ibid., 75.

[23] Ouspensky, 223.

[24] Ouspensky, 220.

[25] Christopher Walter, The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition, (Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 140.

[26] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton University Press, 1995), 239.

[27] Lunk, 35.

[28] W.R.S. Ralston, The Songs of the Russian People: An Illustrative of Slavonic Mythology and Russian Social Life, (Ellis and Green, 1872), 229-233.

[29] Ibid., 229-233.

[30] Alison Hilton, Russian Folk Art, (Indiana University Press, 1995), 162.

[31] The Bible, 5.

[32] Ibid., 15.

[33] Ibid., 1038.

[34] Ibid., 15.

[35] Walter Haring, “The Winged St. John the Baptist: Two Examples in American Collections,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Dec., 1922), 36.

[36] The Bible, 115.

[37] Haring, 38.

[38] Ouspensky, 216

[39] Alberti, 90.

[40] Ibid., 60-61.

[41] Ibid., 87.

[42] Ibid., 78.

[43] The Bible, 73.

[44] Ouspensky, 226.

[45] Peter Kirby, “Infancy Gospel of St. James,” from Early Christian Writings (2006).

[46] Ibid.

[47] Stephen J. Shoemaker, “‘Let Us Go and Burn Her Body:’ The Image of the Jews in the Early Dormition Traditions,” Church History, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), 776-777.

[48] Brian E. Daley, “‘At the Hour of Our Death:’ Mary’s Dormition and Christian Dying in Late Patristic and Early Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 55 (2001), 84.

[49] Ibid., 80.

[50] Ibid., 87.

[51] Ibid., 84.

[52] Alberti, 76.

[53] N. Randolph Parks, “On Caravaggio’s ‘Dormition of the Virgin’ and Its Setting,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol.127, No. 988 (July, 1985), 448.

[54] Ibid., 443.

[55] Shoemaker, 789.

[56] Alfredo Tradigo, Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, (Getty Publications, 2006), 154.

[57] Shoemaker, 777.

[58] Ibid., 777-778.

About the author

Allison Leigh-Perlman

Allison Leigh-Perlman received a BA in Art History with a minor in Russian Studies from American University in 2005 and has since been engaged in intensive full-time translation studies focusing on Russian, French, German, and Latin. She is applying to graduate programs in Art History where she hopes to continue her study of Russian art.

View all posts by: Allison Leigh-Perlman