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The Nativity of Christ
Russian Icons of the Late 15th to 17th Century in the Hermitage Collection

5 January 2001 - 30 September, 2001

Christmas is the day of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, when Mary gave birth to the Divine Infant. This has been celebrated on 25 December (7 January - N. S.) starting from the 4th century A.D. With fixing the celebration day that commemorates the birth of Christ, this event finds its embodiment in arts. The subject is based on the stories by the evangelists Matthew and Luke supplemented by Apocrypha.

The iconographic scheme of the subject of The Nativity appeared in the early Christian times and exists with minor alterations till today. In the course of time Byzantine art worked out a long-lasting canonic pattern combining together all the episodes of the legend about the birth of Christ. The Russian iconography of this subject originated from the Byzantine canons and the earliest of the Russian icons demonstrate this tendency. In the times to follow both incomplete Byzantine scheme was still popular and some deviations from the canon were traced at the same time.

An example of the early Russian icon is The Nativity (late 15th or early 16th century) representing the Moscow School. Its has laconic composition with the main persistent iconographic elements which makes it typical of the early Russian icon-painting.

Starting from the 15th century Russian iconography manifests itself particularly vividly. The central place in the icons The Nativity occupies the image of the Virgin lying on the bright red bed in front of the entrance to the cavern ( from the 17th century the Virgin starts to be represented sitting near the animals' den). The Virgin is the main character in this scene and her posture is the basic element when iconographic types are distinguished. The den with the swaddled Infant is shown in the cavern. Over the head of Jesus there is a cross-nimbus, His usual iconographic attribute. There is a bullock and a donkey standing near the den; the angels and the shepherds are gloryfying the Nativity of Our Saviour.

Both Byzantine and Russian icons often depict the scene of The Ablution of the Infant with two, sometimes one, women represented near Jesus. There are no written records of this event in the Holy Writ or other literary sources, but frequency of this scene on the icons and persistent features of the image say that it was quite typical.

The compositions on the subject of The Nativity usually includes two or three shepherds, an old shepherd and young ones. The figure of the old shepherd was one of the most attractive for the Russian icon-painters. On the icons dating from the 15th and 16th centuries he is called ‘the pastor', on some icons of the 17th century he is referred to as Anen. The scribe Anen (Anna) accused Joseph and Maria of the sin before the Nativity of Christ but after they had had ‘the water of accusation' and there was no sin on them the high priest let them got home.

High over the cavern there is the star of Bethlehem shining over the den with the Infant (often depicted with the three rays of light similar to the symbol of the Trinity). The Adoration of the Magi is another subject usually included in the composition of The Nativity . The star of Bethlehem led the Wise Men, an old man Gaspar, a young man Melchior and a man of middle age Balthasar, the first pagans who came to worship the Infant and brought Him gifts.

In the late 16th and in the 17th centuries, as a result of the tendency to the more detailed illustration of the event, in icons depicting The Nativity of Christ were added scenes of the infancy of Christ. Each scene is arranged separately on the icon and the neighbouring scenes often are not linked with each other. As a tying element in this complicated iconography performs the main scene of the birth of Christ.

The Nativity , the icon of the Novgorod School dating from the late 16th century, is notable for a multifigured composition and individual iconography. Though the icon depicts the events in details and bears many additional scenes (the journey to Bethlehem, the apparition of the angel to the Magi, the flight into Egypt, the massacre of infants, the salvation of the infants John the Baptist and Nathanael) it lacks other often met scenes: the angel announcing to the shepherds, the adoration of the Magi and bringing gifts to the Infant. Refined way of miniature painting reflects the stylistic peculiarities of the icon.

Presumably to the Moscow School refers the small tablet icon of the 17th century with images on both sides painted in the refined, subtle manner on the grounded canvas. In the old days such icons were called ‘polotentse' (the diminutive from the word ‘polotno' for a piece of the linen cloth). The name ‘tablet icons' appeared in the early 20th century. Two icons dating from the 17th century are typical examples of the Yaroslavl School. Bright colours of the icons resemble the colourscheme of the smart frescoes in the churches of Yaroslavl built in the late 17th century.

The rest of the icons, all dating from the 17th century, refer to the North Russian School of icon- painting famous for the most peculiar works of the Northern Russian masters. These include one icon The Nativity dating from the late 17th- 18th century. The icon quite distinctly demonstrates elements of the Western iconography: complicated architecture, the Infant Jesus without swaddling clothes, the Virgin bending over Him. Of interest are two lines with the text of the troparion placed below the image.

The composition on the subject of The Nativity is one of the most important in the Orthodox iconography. It was taken as a pattern for the composition on the subject of The Nativity of the Virgin and The Nativity of John the Baptist. Icons representing The Nativity of Christ are an integral part of the decoration of all churches and are of necessity present in the row of the iconostasis devoted to the icons with the feasts.

Of special notice among the icons representing Annunciation is The Virgin Hodegetria (the late 16th century, Kostroma), The Virgin of Incarnation - the altar-piece used for bearing out during the services that is bearing on the back side the image of St George and the Dragon (the first half of the 17th century) and the Royal Gate with the icons depicting the scene of Annunciation and St Basil the Great and St John the Gold-Mouthed (the late 16th or early 17th century, North Russian School).


The Nativity of Christ
The Moscow School
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The Nativity of Christ
The North Russian School (?)
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The Nativity of Christ
The North Russian School
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The Nativity of Christ
(detail)
The North Russian School
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