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Received: April 19, 2002

The Intercession Icon from Eastern Halychyna

Larissa Chlenova,
National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev

A small icon from Halychyna1 has no analogies and seems to stand apart from other subjects of the Intercession especially honoured and widespread in Russian and Ukrainian icon painting. Notable for the untraditional composition, non-canonical iconography and original painting modelling, it has already some elements that with time were developed and became "obligatory" in classical compositions of the Intercession iconography. The old age of the museum icon dated to the end of the 12th - beginning of the 13th centuries is evidence that namely this icon, the only one preserved and known monument, is one of the first prototypes filling in the period of the evolution of the Intercession iconography at its early stage. But some researchers put off the dating of the icon from the pre-Mongol period accepted in literature to a later period - to the 14th, sometimes even to the 15th centuries2 thus calling in question the old age of the icon from Halychyna; consequently disputing its role in the formation of the Intercession iconography.

So, when an opportunity arouse to make a radiocarbon analysis of an icon panel to define its age we chose this icon to verify its old origin. It is understandable that this method should go with the usual methods of physico-optical examination made earlier.

The first attribution of the icon belongs to the museum scholar Danylo Scherbakivsky who laid the foundation of the ancient collection. He paid attention to this icon and brought it to the museum during World War I, in 1914 when he was in one of his expeditions to Halychyna. Unfortunately, he did not specify the provenance of the icon. He defined its subject as "The Intercession of the Holy Virgin, the icon of the ancient type: angels raising the Blachernae mantle of the Virgin"3. Scherbakivsky's dating of the monument to the 14th century was not substantiated however. It was grounded, primarily, on the visual analysis: the icon had later layers and renovations, which prevented from getting an idea of its original aspect and painting characteristics.

The icon was "uncovered" in the 1950s by the well-known restorer N. Pertsev in the studio of the State Russian Museum in Leningrad. The restoration research showed that the icon was renovated three times: one layer belonged to the 15th - 16th centuries, the second to the 18th - 19th centuries and the third was not complete and lay on separate sections. The attribution of the icon was hampered by its untraditional and simplified painting form and because its original layer of paint lost its structure in many places.

N. Pertsev, on the basis of the thorough and detailed investigation of the monument, inferred that the icon might be attributed to the pre-Mongol period4. His conclusion was very important, as N. Pertsev was reputed one of the most recognized authorities and experts in ancient icon painting; he wrote a fundamental research on technological devices of painting images in icons of the pre-Mongol period. In the Halych icon he found features characteristic of the icon painting of that period: the carnation of images with ochre without flesh coater, the use of reddish brown on borders and a black line on the bevel, in the panel proportions. The paleographic analysis of the ancient inscription on the icon made by the Hermitage scholar M. Sotnikova, who dated it to the first half of the 13th century, supported this inference.

L. Miliayeva5 summed up the researches in her article on the icon published in one of Moscow jo starting points that gave the basis to the formation of the iconography and its figurative embodiment are, for the time being, hypothetic as they are not based upon the monuments that could support their surmises and assumptions. It is quite possible that in the future the sources will be found to substantiate these conclusions and theories, while now they come to nothing more than mental deductions.

Persistent searches for an ancient prototype of "The Intercession" in art of Byzantium or Old Kiev have brought V. Putsko6 to bold and unexpected conclusions. It is hard to identify the image of the Virgin Hagiosotirissa with the early composition of "The Intercession" which bears no direct relation to the Intercession theme. This conception seems to be unconvincing and rather arbitrary. But he did not refer the ancient icon of the Intercession executed in Halychyna to its early types considering it to be a later variant of the 14th century. We can't agree to this argumentation of the later dating of the monument that is based on the outward signs, disregarding the peculiarities of the painting system and technological devices. Another researcher, V. Aleksandrovich, also asserts the Byzantine origin of the Intercession iconography and its further formation in Ukrainian lands. The Intercession from Halychyna has taken a pivotal place in the system of his arguments. He correctly noted that "it is the most ancient Ukrainian icon insufficiently investigated and underestimated"7, but his dating of the monument to the 14th century is illogical. In that case it should lost its status of "the most ancient icon" and would be an anachronism in comparison with the elaborate and detailed Intercession compositions formed in the 14th century.

The work on the monument attribution done recently by the radiocarbon method has turned to be one more weighty argument for identifying the time of the icon creation8. There is no reason to disregard the result, the more so as this dating does not differ much from that accepted at the museum. Even variations in the determination of the age of the panel and the time of the icon painting in 30-50 years, admissible in this case, serve as a quite acceptable guide. Thus, the date of the icon creation has turned out to be older than the date defined previously. It is really "the most ancient Ukrainian icon." Thus its special role and place in the evolution of the Intercession iconography was fully confirmed, without refuting conclusions made by N. Pertsev and L. Miliayeva during the restoration of the icon. The icon is still referred to the pre-Mongol period, though to the earlier time of the consolidation of Christianity in Halych lands. The difference in dating is slight but important for establishing the sources and evolution of the Intercession iconography.

The icon is of special interest in this aspect because previously it was not paid serious attention to. Now, when "the antiquity" of the icon is indubitable and it is proved to be one of the early variants of the Intercession subject, some corrections should be introduced and theories revised concerning the formation of the iconography. As no more ancient monuments of the Intercession subject are known, then the Intercession icon from Halychyna approximates with the greater probability to the primary source or early prototype that could originate in Byzantium or Old Kiev. It is hard to prove because of the absence of the sources, but logical deductions lead to this inference.

It is extremely difficult to retrace the origination of the iconography. An argument for the Byzantine provenance of the subject, possibly not yet formed in the concrete icon form, is the legend of the "Miraculous Appearance of the Virgin" in the Church of Blachernae in Constantinople "witnessed" by St. Andrew the Fool in Christ and St. Epiphanios. In this church before its ruination there was an especially revered representation of the Virgin Orans, called Blacherniotissa in honour of the church, and a holy relic, the mantle of the Virgin, was kept there. The medieval written sources mention also an icon in the church representing the sitting Virgin with the Child Christ, that was covered by a purple veil-curtain raised "miraculously" during the divine service from Friday to Saturday9. This phenomenon was considered by the eyewitnesses as "a miracle" and had been preserved in memories and legends for a long time. The Halych icon could be an echo of that phenomenon. The representation of the Virgin with the raised hands in the Orans attitude, sitting on the throne and keeping Christ Emmanuel on the ends of her maphorion, over whom the curtain rises, allows to make such a conclusion. The presence of St. Andrew the Fool in Christ and St. Epiphanios also directly relates the icon to the Intercession subject. A similar type of the Virgin is near to the representations from the early Christian period and is found more often in the monuments of the post-iconoclastic period. Its close analogy is the well-known portrayal of the Virgin in the miniature of the Echmeadzin Gospel of 989 (Kondakov considers it to be an inserted miniature of Syrian provenance from the 7th - 8th centuries10. Typological representations of the Virgin can be found on coins, lead stamps, and small plastics of the 10th - 12th centuries.

Special significance in the icon composition is attached to the veil soaring over the figure of the Virgin. We mean the dimensions of this veil-curtain held by two angels, associating with the curtain rising over the Blachenae icon as a reminder of the miracle that took place in that church. All this will have a continuation in the more detailed chancel compositions with the maphorion spread over the prayers. But it is more important for us to trace a semantic relation with an ancient prototype taken as a foundation of the iconography. The symbolic imagery of the Halych icon shows this relation with the Byzantine original. The cult of the Virgin had been existing in Byzantium since olden times and the idea of the Intercession meant the idea of spiritual protection characteristic of this cult. Its figurative formula has the theme of the Virgin's maphorion also connected with the Church of Blachernae where this holy relic was preserved. In this church the idea of the Intercession could be also incarnated in the image of the Virgin Orans with the raised maphorion11. Here, we think, the sources of the iconography should be searched, from here goes the line to our monument which more corresponds with the early treatment of the subject and differs from the later variants developed in Russian and Ukrainian icon painting.

The subject in that early variant penetrated to Kievan Rus that had direct and close contacts with Byzantium and became a local cult. Kondakov advanced an opinion that the Intercession churches existed in Kiev in the 12th century12 though we have no confirmation of the fact. The Intercession churches have been found in neither chronicles nor materials of the latest archaeological research. And more, the reliable data on the construction of the Intercession churches in the Halych Principality, the western outpost of the Kievan state, have not been found as well. Still, we can suppose that the appearance of the Intercession icon in these lands could not be accidental and was not an isolated fact. All that suggests an idea that the formation or evolution of the iconography in Halych lands had been taking place in the 11th - 12th centuries.

At that time the Halych Principality under the reign of Prince Rostyslav, grandson of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, and his sons became a strong and fortified union on the west of Kievan Rus, which European states took into consideration. Halych also maintained contacts with Byzantium, adopting successfully new artistic ideas and tendencies. Besides, it felt some influence of the Romanesque West. Unfortunately, the monuments of that period are very scanty, but chronicles mention the construction of churches painted with frescoes and the development of icon painting. Though yielding in scope and grandeur to Kievan monuments, they were nevertheless marked by high mastery. Our icon does not belong to high artistic achievements of that period as it refers to another, the so-called "lower" cultural layer. This fact possibly accounts for the stylistics of the icon, which inherited Byzantine principles of symbolic imagery while in the simplified modelling and rather coarse painterly form we can feel the echoes of the Romanesque culture that penetrated from neighbouring European countries. The Halych icon contrasts the ideally refined and exquisitely harmonious classical icons of the Comneni epoch, being executed in the primitivist spirit and principle. Its simplified style, built on the linear basis and rhythmics, presents another layer of artistic culture based on folk interpretation of a tradition. Most probably it is the work of a Halych icon painter of the time when the postulates of Byzantine aesthetics were only assimilated and transformed by local culture. Some crudeness of painting and technical devices marked by the restorers while cleaning the icon, schematism of the composition and modelling of figures can be "justified" by the principles of artistic primitivism with its firm plastic basis and integrity of form. Energetic, rather sharp contours of figures, expressive faces, deliberate flatness of shapes - all "had been pressed" in a single rhythmized system, which lends the icon untraditional, special expressiveness. It is very difficult to judge of the original colour composition of the icon because of numerous lacunae and renovations. But it is clear that the master did not strive for the colour abundance limiting his palette to red-brown, greenish and blue tones. Thickly laid mat colours have no luminosity and refined beauty of the iridescent tones peculiar to Byzantine icons of the period. Here everything is simpler and more austere, this strict colour scale has its own harmony and special colouristic sonority. The composition is schematic, with the limited number of personages whose identification presents problems through bad preservation of the colour layer in the lower part of the icon. Nevertheless, we can see how the formation and interpretation of the subject was going on at that stage.

It is very important to define the extent of spreading of the Intercession cult in Byzantium, and on Kiev and Halych lands. Previously, its Byzantine provenance was categorically refuted by many scholars. Nowadays only some researchers dispute the fact. There are sufficient reasons for that. In particular, we can read in Ye. Lazarev's article: "Turning to the sources we see that there is no complete clearness concerning the time and place of introducing of the Intercession feast. Most likely in the 12th century this feast had already existed on Kiev lands (as a local one, adopted from Byzantium). But its large-scale celebration belongs to the epoch of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky" (12). He also raised a quite essential question relevant directly to our theme: "Did the Intercession icons exist before the time of Prince Andrei Bogoliubsky?" Answering in the affirmative he cited as an example the Halych icon. He was the first to do this.

If the consolidation and dissemination of the Intercession cult throughout all Rus lands is associated with the name of Andrei Bogoliubsky then a question arises: what was the basis for the first representations on these icons and what patterns they used. Taking into consideration Andrei Bogoliubsky's devotion and piety to Kievan holy relics, which he transferred to his capital city, we can suppose that the continuity of Kievan traditions in the cultural environment of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality was organic. Hence, the supposition that the evolution of the Intercession subject could have taken place before Andrei Bogoliubsky's introduction of the feast seems to be quite probable.

The further deepening and development of the Intercession iconography on the Rus lands had led to the most complete and detailed compositions formed in the 14th century and known by two basic versions. They became canonical for all subsequent Russian and Ukrainian icon painting and were widely spread. Ukrainian icon in the 15th and 16th centuries also adhered to the canon, though there were certain deviations and variations. In the late 17th and 18th centuries the Intercession subject underwent changes, deviating from traditional forms and acquiring features of secular interpretation under the influence of the West-European Baroque. Secular ideas favoured the penetration of portrait images, sometimes - historical personages, into the Intercession icons.

Thus, the formation of the subject of the Intercession so important for Ukrainian icon painting was going on from ancient versions, like the Halych icon of the late 11th - early 12th centuries (according to its latest dating), and developed into an original and interesting section of icon painting.

Turning to our monument, "underestimated" according to the Ukrainian scholar, we should emphasize that there are a number of problems waiting for their solution. It only slightly lifts "the veil" over the "enigma" of the appearance of the iconography, which still intrigues academic circles. We think that now it is impossible to disregard our icon in this connection. It must take its place in the historical process of the development of the Intercession subjects. In this respect the radiocarbon dating of the icon panel has substantiated its place and role in the process.


1 The Intercession. Tempera on gesso-grounded softwood panel. 79.5 x 47. Eastern Halychyna. National Art Museum of Ukraine. И-14.
2 Смирнова Искусство Новгорода XII-XV веков. І кн.; Пуцко Василь. Найдавніші ікони Покрова // Родовід. 1994, №8, с. 33-34.; Александрович В. Иконография древней украинской иконы "Покрова Богоматери" // Byzantinoslavica Lix. 1998. P. 127-131.
3 The author's inscription on the label stuck at the reverse of the icon panel.
4 Перцев Н.В. Каталог реставрационных работ. - Санкт-Петербург, 1992. С. 49-52.
5 Миляева Л.С. Памятник галицкой живописи XIII века // Советская археология. 1965, №3, с. 249-258.
6 Пуцко В. Ibid.
7 Александрович В. Ibid. C. 127.
8 Conclusion of radiocarbon laboratories in Kiev and Groningen (Netherlands).
9 Кондаков Н.П. Иконография Богоматери. Том II, 1915. Санкт-Петербург. С. 100-101.
10 Кондаков Н.П. Иконография Богоматери. Том I, 1915. Санкт-Петербург. С. 169-170.
11 Кондаков Н.П. Иконография Богоматери. Том II, 1915. Санкт-Петербург. С. 93.
12 Лазарев Е. Покров над Сечью // Наука и религия. 1994, №10. С. 9.


Larissa Chlenova. The Intercession Icon from Eastern Halychyna / Byzantine Studies, (

© 2002, Byzantine Studies