In 988, the prince of Kievan Rus, Vladimir, ordered the destruction of all idols in his lands, and converted his kingdom to Christianity. He had sent emissaries to the known world to decide under what religion to unite his people. Western Christianity was underwhelming. Islam prohibited alcohol. If the Jews were chosen people of God, why did they rule nothing? But Byzantium blinded with its splendour and Vladimir chose Orthodox Christianity as the faith for the Russians. Almost his first act thereafter was to reproduce Constantinople in Kiev with the construction of the Cathedral of St Sophia.
The Cathedral was built and decorated by an army of master craftsmen sent from Constantinople to realise Vladimir’s great plan. How did the new and unfamiliar deity, Jesus Christ, arrive in front of newly converted? Well, he did so in a glorious blaze of golden mosaic, Christ Pantocrator, at the very summit of the central dome of the Cathedral. He is surrounded in a circle by all the colours of the rainbow, and he gazes upon the faithful with his solemn, awe-inspiring expression on his face, holding the Book, and making the gesture of blessing.
He has his angels with him, four extraordinarily severe and brightly patterned Byzantine archangels. When Vladimir’s emissaries had first beheld the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they exclaimed ‘We knew not if we were in heaven or on earth!’ and that is exactly the feeling that the Byzantine master-craftsmen had set out to create in Kiev.
The focal image of the church is not the Pantocrator in the dome, which is only fully visible to the priests at the altar. Instead, it is the great Madonna Orans, who, by containing God himself within her, became the manifest representation of the Church, itself the abode of God. The Madonna has been placed in the apse that itself feels like an enclosure and looks like a womb. Mary is not only the Mother of God, but also a healer of pain, and a telling detail is a handkerchief on her person that, tradition has it, she uses to wipe away the tears of the wounded and the suffering who have come in supplication. This image has also become the representation of Kiev as the mother of the old Christian church in Russia.
Vladimir had not just imported a religion, he had also brought Russia into the orbit of the Christian culture that had been forged over centuries in Byzantium. The impact on the people was immense.
They leapt from stone and wood pagan idols to these glittering visions of gold and colour. It must have been like travelling a thousand years in a day. But there was one Byzantine art-form that the Russians would take to their heart, perhaps because it had a simplicity that spoke directly to them. For Russian Christians, it would become the most powerful symbol of their faith and their nation: the icon, a painting on wood of a saint or a prophet or Jesus himself.
Our Lady of Vladimir is one of the most famous of icons, the founding icon of the Russian tradition, the holy of holies. Stylistic analysis suggests that it was painted around the year 1130, by a Byzantine master in Constantinople, and it was brought to Russia as a great treasure. But to the Russians, it has never been presented as a foreign import; rather, they believe it was created by St Luke himself, almost like a photograph taken in the Virgin’s home of her with her son. Christ is an innocent babe in arms, tenderly clasping his mother’s neck. Mary’s lovely almond-shaped eyes are sad, filled with foreknowledge of his death. The artist puts great stress on the vulnerability of Jesus’ body, his foot presented as if to prepare us for the torment of a nail piercing it at his crucifixion. The icon is full of pathos and humanity, and perhaps that is why it struck such a deep chord in the Russian imagination.
In the Western sense, icons are not realistic; they are spaceless, shadowless; yet they were held in esteem in the Eastern tradition because they were supposed to capture the likeness of saints in heaven. The Russians loved their icons with a fervour not seen elsewhere. The icons strengthened their souls and lifted their spirits, and touched and blessed their sufferings away.
(From Alexander Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Russia, BBC Four, 2011)