Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


St Nicholas, 1495-96, Dionisius, fresco from the Ferapontov Monastery.
It's amazing the little tidbits of trivia one picks up in researching art and artists of the past. For instance, would you like to take a guess as to the patron saint of Russian merchants? It's St. Nicholas (above). Ironically, you might argue that he's the patron saint of all merchants. As painted around 1495-96, as a fresco by the Russian icon painter, Dionisius, this mural in the Church of Nativity of the Virgin in the Pherapontov Monastery, bears only a passing resemblance to our iconic Santa Claus. Only the beard is similar, though the image might suggest that our patron saint of merchants might look good in a halo.
The Pherapontov Monastery today, home of Dionisius' St. Nicholas.
Seriously, of all the eras in art, there is probably none so revered as the Renaissance, most generally the Italian Renaissance, but also the Northern Renaissance including Germany and the Flemish painters and sculptors. However, neither of these had a monopoly on art or artists. Although it might be going a bit too far to call it a Renaissance, at about the same time the art and artists of the far north--Russia--were coming alive with their own iconic images. Today, in fact, we call their religious paintings "icons."
Dionisius icon representing Christ's Harrowing of Hell,
from the Pherapontov Monastery.
I mentioned to my wife a few minutes ago that today I was writing about the Russian icon painter known as Dionisius. She of course, cared little about the artist, but asked instead, "what are icons?" The only icons she was familiar with were found on her computer screen. Icons, as related to art, are the religious paintings associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, and in this case, the Russian Orthodox branch of the Church. They are usually fairly modest in size; painted on plaster-laden wooden panels; and heavily enhanced by gold leaf overpainted with oils (above). The most common subject is the Virgin Mary, usually with the Christ child, but also Christ, His apostles and local saints are often depicted.
The Crucifixion. ca. 1500, Dionisius from the Trinity Cathedral
of the Pavlo-Obnorsky Monastery. The panel currently resides
in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Dionisius (there are at least a half-dozen spellings of his name) was born around 1440 (God only knows where, probably someplace in Russia). He died in 1502. Although it's doubtful he knew any of them, or even knew of their work, those years make Dionisius a contemporary of virtually all the early Renaissance painters as well as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael (in their early years). Of course, being a major artist of the Russian Orthodox Church, his work has much more in common with Byzantine painting than that of the Catholic artists of the West. As the acknowledged head of the Moscow school of icon painters at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, his style of painting is sometimes termed "Muscovite Mannerism." That's a confusing reference as it in no way correlates in appearance or chronology with the Mannerist period which followed the Italian Renaissance.

Ceiling mural in the Church of Nativity of the Virgin, Pherapontov Monastery, ca 1470, Dionisius.
The Cathedral of the Dormition
in the Moscow Kremlin
Sometime around 1467, or as late as 1477, Dionisius got his first commissions, when he was hired to participate in the decoration of the Church of the Virgin Nativity in the Pherapontov Monastery. There he worked under the super-vision of the painting master, Mitrophan. Even then his individuality and talent attracted the attention of his contemporaries. Working on his own, Dionisius' first important commission came around 1481, a series of icons for the Cathedral of the Dormition within the walls of Moscow's Kremlin. The figures on his icons are char-acteristically elongated. The hands and feet are diminutive; the faces serene and peaceful. The patrons were quite pleased with the results whereupon Dionisius got the reputation as a great master of fine arts and the leader of the Moscow icon painters. Thus Dionisius repre-sented the official academic tradition in art. His compositions were strict and solemn, his colors light, his figures always gracefully elongated, his faces always beautiful and tranquil, even in pain.

St. Alexius, Metropolitan of Moscow, with Scenes from His Life, late 15th century, Dionisius, from the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.
Dionisius completed works for the Volokolamsky and the Obnorsky Cathedrals. But it was for the latter one, he created the Crucifixion. However, the most important were his monumental works, frescos of the Virgin Nativity Cathedral in the Pherapontov Monastery (1495-96), completed with the help of his sons and apprentices. The Cathedral is decorated with scenes of the life of the Virgin in a light and joyful mood glorifying the Virgin. The colors, green, with gold and white prevailing, are in harmony with emotional mood of the characters. Pherapontov Monastery is situated in the north of Russia. It was not rich, because pilgrims did not often visit it. Over the years, they had no money for restoration of the frescoes. Thanks to this fact, we can see Dionisius' works close to their original coloring while studying his technique. Dionisius' icons of saints with scenes from their lives were quite popular in Russia, featuring the figure of a saint in the middle of the panel surrounded by small pictures of his/her life, as seen in the St. Alexius, Metropolitan of Moscow, with Scenes from His Life (above).

St. Gregory the Theologian.

ca. 1502, Dionisius, from the
Church of Nativity of the Virgin
in the Pherapontov Monastery.


  1. Thank you for this post and your interest in Russian art!

  2. Thank you for reading and writing. Hope I got the detail right.