Received: April 19, 2002
Byzantine Relief "St. George with the Scenes of His Life"
National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev
The wooden relief icon "St. George with the Scenes of His Life"
belongs to the rare Byzantine monuments whose number does not exceed a dozen.
Its uniqueness consists not only in the fact that it is executed in such "fragile"
and short-lived medium like wood but primarily in its perfect artistic
plasticity. Though the accepted date of its creation - the 12th century -
remains insufficiently reasoned and ascertained.
"St. George"1, as a fact, is "a discovery" of a
comparatively recent time, though the interest to it was shown back in the 19th
century. Covered by a silver casing (in such a state it had been kept in St.
Harlampios's Church in the town of Mariupol for a long time), the monument was
practically inaccessible to research. When the casing was taken away in 18912, the conception of the icon turned out to be nevertheless inadequate. On its
single representation in the article by A. Berthier-Delagarde3, the relief
looked rough and distorted through numerous mastic additions filling in lacunae.
On these grounds, the scholar made an unconvincing conclusion: he referred the
monument to a provincial workshop in one of Byzantine's regions and dated it to
the late 12th - early 13th centuries.
More convincing was the opinion of a well-known Byzantinist Professor N.
Pokrovsky4 who had a possibility to study only the photographs sent to him in
1895. Analyzing the iconography, he established the ancient origin of the
monument that could be executed no later than at the end of the 11th - beginning
of the 12th century.
The well-known Czech scholar J. Myslivec5, who wrote a generalizing
fundamental work devoted to St. George's iconography, also paid attention to the
relief. But he also had to use a reproduction that did not give a true idea
about the relief's artistic merits and his interest was concentrated on the
iconography of hagiographical scenes. Myslivec's opinion coincided with the
dating by Berthier-Delagarde - the late 12th - early 13th centuries.
Through numerous tragic circumstances, "St. George" fell out of the
view of scholars. After the closure of St. Harlampios's Church in the 1920s, the
relief came, along with other Greek antiquities, to the Mariupol Museum of Local
Lore. The monument, remote from major centres of Byzantine culture studies, was
in danger of complete oblivion. But in 1995, "St. George" was
transferred to the National Art Museum of Ukraine that took care of the
restoration of this unique monument.
The restoration was carried out during 1965-1970 in one of the largest
restoration centres: the studio of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg under
the guidance of N. V. Pertsev6, a well-known specialist in ancient icon
At that time the state of the relief, through the long-term bad preservation
and numerous trials that fell to its lot, was recognized to be catastrophic:
urgent measures were needed to save it. The efforts of the restorers were
directed to the strengthening of the panel seriously destroyed by woodborers and
to the removal of all renovations and mastic additions that distorted the
original appearance of the work. The found incurable defects - traces of contact
with flame visible at many parts of the relief - do not prevent from getting a
clear conception of the artistic peculiarities of its plasticity.
In the restoration process polychromy was found that had been preserved
fragmentarily. The paint layer as research has shown was repeatedly renovated,
at some sections there were four layers, but in most parts two. Now it is
difficult to form an opinion about the original colour scheme because of its bad
preservation. In the wide colour gamut, bluish and red tones predominate, which
in the combination with the noble gold lend the relief harmony and clear
sounding. It was a peculiar synthesis of sculpture and painting, a frequent
phenomenon in Byzantine plastic art of that period.
The restoration cleaning of "St. George"7 meant a new stage in
its history that gave the monument a new life and fame. Only after the
reconstruction of its original aspect, the possibility appeared for its serious
scientific research and only then its role and artistic merits became clear. It
was "introduced" into the universal artistic process of medieval
culture and it drew attention of art historians who realized its unique
importance for Byzantology.
Naturally, the question of its attribution arose. But at that stage, the
scholars adhered to (in any case did not repudiate) first conclusions by
Berthier-Delagarde and Myslivec who dated the icon to the late 12th - early 13th
centuries. This date was fixed in many editions, beginning from the publications
by H. Lohvyn and L. Milyaeva in 19708 (it was they who rescued the monument).
This dating was accepted also by a well-known Byzantinist A. Bank9, this date
is in the catalogue of the exhibition "The Glory of Byzantium"10
held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1997 where "St. George" was
But with the more profound and detailed study of the relief, the date of its
creation became "older." In the museum editions, in particular in the
latest album11 on the museum collection of icons the date is defined as the
12th century. L. Milyaeva12, whose contribution to the study of the relief is
especially significant, in her report at the symposium at the Metropolitan
Museum advanced an idea about the correctness of N. Pokrovsky's opinion, who
dated the relief to the late 11th - early 12th centuries.
So, the amplitude of variations in the relief's dating was rather
considerable and additional research was needed to establish truth. The method,
used for the first time for a monument, was the radiocarbon analysis of the
panel made at special laboratories of Holland and Kiev Center for
radio-geochemical researches. This method was to put an end to the debates that
lasted for more than a century. The result of the research has shown: the date
of the creation of "St. George" is the mid-11th century. Any scholar
did not mention this date but, in my opinion, it is quite convincing. The entire
spectrum of the iconography analysis, of imagery stylistics and technical means
substantiates the accuracy of the dating established by an isotopic analysis.
The iconography of Saint George13 as a young warrior had been formed in
the post-iconoclastic period and was widely spread in all countries of the
Byzantine region. In the pantheon of the saint warriors who were of a great
significance in the Byzantine ideological system, St. George took one of the
major places. He represented an idealized embodiment of military valour and
courage. In the 11th century the representation of the saint is supplemented
with scenes and episodes of his legendary life, thus forming the type and
composition of hagiographical icons.
The museum relief belongs to early and rare variants of hagiographical icons.
Its shortened, "abridged" cycle of ten scenes showing main episodes of
the saint's life, his tortures and miracles, and their free treatment testify to
the fact that the iconography had not yet acquired a strict canonical system,
characterizing the period of its establishment and crystallization.
One of the early, known to us, hagiographical cycles of St. George - the most
popular saint in Georgia - is represented on the so-called Mestia silver cross
(vil. of Seti, Svanetia)14 of the first half of the 11th century. The chased
relief representation of hagiographical scenes (there are nine of them) is the
closest analogy to the museum monument. Also, we cannot but mention an early
hagiographical cycle reproduced on the walls of St. George's Chapel in the
Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev, also of the 11th century.
The first scene from the hagiographical cycle, "St. George before
Diocletian and Maximian," seems to be non-canonical. The representation of
the two Roman emperors-co-rulers, who carried out the last large-scale
persecution of Christians in 303-305, lent the legend of St. George some
historical meaning. In literary sources, in particular the Cappadocian version
of the legend, this duumvirate is mentioned on the eve of events preceding the
This very rare treatment of the subject goes back evidently to an early stage
of establishing of the iconography of thematic cycles that had not yet become a
"legitimate" dogma. In all later versions, the representation of
Diocletian only is traditionally used, and thematic cycles eventually expand
following a single iconographic scheme.
The dating of the relief to the mid-11th century becomes even more grounded
when analyzing its idiom and artistic devices. This important criterion has
always been basic in attributing one or another work of olden times, the more so
if it is confirmed by a complex of technical and physical researches.
While attributing "St. George," many scholars tried to find
analogies mostly among the monuments of wooden sculpture. This method turned out
to be ineffective, mainly through the absence of preserved wooden monuments.
Drawing in the wooden reliefs "St. George with the Scenes of His Life"
from Castoria (Byzantine Museum, Athens) and "St. George" from
Gallista (Greece)15 as analogies was untenable because of their complete
stylistic discrepancy. The both monuments dating from the 13th century present
artistic aspirations of a later epoch.
It is more logical, in my opinion, to examine the museum relief in the
general context of the development of Byzantine sculpture disregarding the
medium of sculpture but proceeding from major artistic tendencies of the time.
Byzantine plastic art of the post-iconoclastic period, notwithstanding the
ban on the round sculpture, experienced a new flowering evident in beautiful
reliefs executed in different media - marble, bronze, metal, ivory,
semi-precious stones, and wood. This heyday was based on the return to the
perfect forms of antique sculpture, to the epoch of the so-called Macedonian
Renaissance of the 10th - 11th centuries, imparting a new meaning to them.
The museum relief is also permeated with antique spirit that gives us a
reason to refer it to this period of Byzantine art. It blends with the epoch
when Hellenistic traditions enriched means of Byzantine plastic art, most
evident in sculpture. There is no doubt that our monument belongs to the
classicizing trend covering the period of the 10th - 13th centuries. This gives
grounds to search for more close analogies in the art of that time, as well as
starting moments for the attribution and more correct dating of the monument.
Towards the 11th century, the image of St. George acquired typological
features, accumulating in itself qualities of a young warrior and being embodied
not only in art of Byzantium but Georgia, Serbia, and Old Rus as well. The
figure of St. George on the museum icon does not deviate of this traditional
typical representation of the saint. In this treatment however a sensual element
still prevails, so the representation lacks canonical severity. The Hellenistic
beauty of the type, slender classical proportions and flowing lines of his
silhouette create a feeling of free treatment not bound by tradition, which has
still retained principles of ancient plasticity. It is quite evident in the
relief despite lacunae and other damages.
The three-dimensional modeling of figures, the freedom of their distribution
in space, their gestures and movements - everything in the relief is permeated
with the sense of reality that Byzantine masters had retained being inspired by
In search of stylistic analogies, I have turned to works of ivory that had
attained the peak of perfection at the turn of the 11th century, embodying
ideals of antique plasticity. Perhaps this comparison may seem to be unexpected
and even daring, but the analysis of artistic peculiarities and technical
devices of carving, more similar than in other media, gives grounds for such a
A wide cohort of Byzantine saint warriors was portrayed in ivory reliefs in
famous triptychs "The Deesis with the Saints" of the late 10th -
mid-11th centuries from Venice, Vatican and the Louvre16. St. George from the
famous Harbaville triptych (Louvre, 11th c.), set in the upper register to the
right of the Deesis, is notable for a peculiar beauty of his antique type and
belongs to the early portrayals of the saint which could be the prototype of St.
George from the museum relief. Among numerous relief representations of the
saint dating from that time and made in different media - marble, chasing, and
especially in small plastics - wooden reliefs are more comparable with the
articles of ivory by the technical devices of carving and softness of the
medium. Their comparison nevertheless should not be taken straightforwardly.
More simple and laconic manner of the wooden relief ranks below the refined and
exquisite technique of ivory carving in fine filigree details. Nevertheless,
this permits to see the stylistic and typological affinity of representations
derived from the common artistic and aesthetic ideal. This is of great
importance for the attribution of the museum monument.
Everything mentioned above refers also to the borders with the hagiographical
scenes. Made in high relief and situated on both sides of the central figure,
they are an integral part of the icon. They characterize that early period of
formation of the hagiographical icon when an iconographic scheme and
compositional structure had already been principally established. The
compositions of hagiographical scenes representing episodes of the saint's
martyrdom and miracles are worked out according to the iconographic scheme but
they have retained certain freedom - the surface is filled with moving and
gesticulating figures presented in classical proportions. Reproducing volumes of
the figures, their movement, foreshortening and space, the master followed those
principles of constructing the relief where antique reminiscences were still
alive. He was probably familiar with ancient sculpture judging from the
treatment of the scene "Overthrowing of the Idols." A high round
column serving as a pedestal for the sculpture is treated in three dimensions,
in later variants and compositions this is not repeated any more.
So, the all-round analysis of "St. George" with the use of the
radio-carbonic method has permitted to draw a convincing conclusion concerning
its dating. The significance of this discovery is quite evident. Incorrect
opinions about its being influenced by Romanesque art, which was not
characteristic of that time, arise no longer. This icon has retained more lively
plastic principle in much of that, which eventually took a strict dogmatic and
flattened treatment in Byzantine art.
"St. George" comes from the medieval Crimea. It got its name of the
"Mariupol relief" much later, in connection with the last place of
keeping. The version of the place of its original location - St. George's
Monastery in Balaklava - is the most reliable for the time being and has not
been refuted. Attempts to identify it with the miracle-working icon that saved
Greek sailors who suffered a shipwreck near Cape Fiolent, at the site of which a
monastery was later built, seems to be very doubtful. But the legend associated
with it favoured the popularity of the relief as one of the major and most
revered holy relics of the Crimea. This, however, did not save the monument from
"the banishment," it shared the fate of the Greeks exiled in 1778-1779
to the coast of the Sea of Azov, where they built the town of Mariupol.
The subsequent fate of the monument can be traced rather schematically.
Sources mention that firstly it was kept at the residence of the Greek
Metropolitan Ignatios and later it was set above his burial place. In 1848, it
was transferred from the old Cathedral of St. Harlampios into the newly built
one where it was clad in a silver casing and stayed there till the closure of
The Crimean provenance of the relief does not rule out but quite the contrary
supports its Byzantine basis. Balaklava, a suburb of Sevastopol, situated also
near to old Korsun (Chersonesos) - the main stronghold of Byzantine culture -
has an indisputable significance for defining its sources and roots. That is why
it is not so important whether the relief was created in one of Constantinople
workshops (which seems to be most likely), or made by a visiting Greek master in
the Crimea. In any case, it is an excellent example of Byzantine plastic art,
having a unique importance.
No records have survived of where and how the relief was placed in St.
George's Cathedral. Through the lack of literature, it is doubtful whether we
can clear up the question. Still it is known that despite the priority of
monumental painting and icons the sculpture also played a certain role at that
time. Relief polychrome representations of the saints approximated icons in
their significance and were a part of the general ensemble of the church
decoration. Beginning from the 9th century, medallions with the representation
of saints made in marble, bronze or in other metal17 decorated architraves of
altar barriers in Byzantine churches. The latest researches confirm the
existence of not only marble but also wooden templons, prototypes of later
In the 11th - 12th centuries large relief plates were either placed between
columns of altar barriers attached to the architrave or on pillars; as the
iconostasis had been formed they were supplanted by icons. In the Crimea,
however, like in medieval Greece, the tradition to decorate churches with
sculptured reliefs turned out to be more durable and had been retained to the
14th century. No one of the representations of St. George, rather revered and
popular in the Crimea, resembles our monument; the saint is more frequently
represented mounted. This monument stands apart in Byzantine art as well,
because no analogies to it have been found.
The relief belongs to the period when sculptural representations played a
notable part in the artistic decoration of the church before the introduction of
Its significance is fully evident in the grandeur of artistic ideas that
characterize art of one of the most brilliant epochs in the development of
1 Saint George with the Scenes of His Life. Polychrome and gilding on the gesso-grounded panel; bas-relief. 107x82x7.5 (in casing). National Art Museum of Ukraine.
2 As one of the most revered holy relics of the Crimea, the icon was brought to Simferopol during the jubilee celebrations on the millennium of Christianity in the Crimea in 1891.
3 Бертье-Делагард А.Л. К истории христианства в Крыму. Мнимое тысячелетие. Вымысел и реальность в истории Георгиевского Балаклавского монастыря. // Записки Императорского Одесского Общества Истории и Древностей. - Одесса, 1910 - т. XXVIII. С. 1-71; addendum с. 72-108.
4 Археологические известия и заметки, изданные Московским Археологическим Обществом. - Москва, 1895 (IV хроника). С. 224-226.
5 Myslivec J. Svati Jiri ve Vychodokrst. nskem Umeni // Byzantinoslavica, rocn. V (1933-1934). S. 304-375.
6 Перцев Н.В. Каталог реставрационных работ. - Санкт-Петербург, 1992. С. 54-56.
7 Міляєва Л. Реставрація візантійської ікони "Св. Георгій з житієм" // Родовід, 1994, № 8. С. 90-96.
8 Міляєва Л.С., Логвин Г.Н. Унікальна пам'ятка // Образотворче мистецтво, 1970 - № 1. С. 31, іл. Миляева Л.С., Логвин Г.Н. Новое о древнем украинском искусстве // Наука и человечество - Москва, 1970. С. 31-32. Логвин Г., Міляєва Л., Свєнціцька В. Український середньовічний живопис. Альбом. - Київ, 1976. С. 6, табл. ХІ. Пуцко В. Мариупольский рельеф Св. Георгия. // Зборник Радова Византолошского института. - Београд, 1971 - Кн. ХІІІ. С. 313-331. Факторович М.Д., Членова Л.Г. Художественные музеи Киева. - Москва, 1977. С. 21.
9 Bank A. L'art Byzantin dans les musees de l'Union Sovietique - Leningrad, 1985. Р. 264-266, il. 322-323.
10 The Glory of Byzantium. Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era AD 843-1261. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. - New York, 1997. Pp. 299-300.
11 Шедеври українського іконопису ХІІ - ХІХ ст. Альбом. // Compiled and introduced by L.H. Chlenova. - Київ, 1999. С. 8, 18.
12 Report at the symposium "The Glory of Byzantium" made at the Metropolitan Museum, May 23, 1997. Published: Міляєва Л. Маріупольська ікона "Св. Георгій з житієм". // Хроніка 2000, № 33. С. 305-319.
13 Лазарев В. Н. Новый памятник станковой живописи ХІІ века и образ Георгия-воина в византийском искусстве. // In the book Лазарев В.Н. Русская средневековая живопись. - Москва, 1970. С. 56-102.
14 Чубинашвили Г.Н. Грузинское чеканное искусство. Исследование по истории грузинского средневекового искусства. - Тбилиси, 1959. Ил. 36. Кения Р.И. Предалтарные кресты Верхней Сванетии. // Средневековое искусство. Русь. Грузия. - Москва, 1978. С. 223. ил.
15 Lange R. Die Byzantinische Reliefikone. - Recklinghausen, 1964. S. 121-122, il. 49, 50.
16 The Glory of Byzantium. Nos. 79, 80. Pp. 131-132, 133-134.
17 Лазарев В.Н. Три фрагмента расписных эпистилиев и византийский темплон. // In the book Лазарев В.Н. Византийская живопись. - Москва, 1971. С. 110-136.
Larissa Chlenova. Byzantine Relief "St. George with the Scenes of His Life" / Byzantine Studies, (http://archaeology.kiev.ua/byzantine/icon/chlenova1.htm).