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Received: April 19, 2002

Byzantine Relief "St. George with the Scenes of His Life"

Larissa Chlenova,
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 painting.

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 exhibited.

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 cruel action.

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 antique patterns.

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 comparison.

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 cathedral.

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 iconostases.

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 the iconostasis.

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 Byzantine culture.


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, (

© 2002, Byzantine Studies