Art History Essay: Virgin of Vladimir Icon
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Do Miracles Exist?
Virgin of Vladimir Icon (probably from Constantinople), 11th -12th Century
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Virgin of Vladimir icon belongs to Byzantine period of art and believed to be painted between 11th and 12th century in Constantinople. The history of this icon and adventures that it experienced for the last eight centuries are not only interesting but have a veil of mystery and magic touch. From Constantinople to Kiev, from Kiev to Suzdal, from Suzdal to Vladimir, from Vladimir to Moscow; and, every time this icon protected the city in which it appeared. The performance of this icon’s miracles is well documented in historical papers. The image of this icon is well known. The subject matter is not just a Virgin and Child as we can observe in other icons of the same period; but, this work of art has very distinct features that became widely known in our days as Virgin of Compassion and Tenderness, Merciful Love, or even Loving Kindness *.
How is this image different from other images of Virgin Mary? In early icons of Byzantine period Virgin and Child are usually represented in straight position, directly looking at the viewers and Christ is usually has a ruling pose blessing the World. In Virgin of Vladimir we see the union of Mother and a Child. Their cheeks are pressed against each other. Jesus is looking at mother with love and faith. And even his body is out of proportions (the head is much smaller than the child’s head would be) and he is dressed in adult tunic that shines with gold, we still can see the child who is engaged in a very special moment of love and compassion with his mother. Mary’s head is tilted towards the Child. She is looking at us, but her facial expression is implying a loving mom who is protecting her son; yet it is showing awareness that she is the Mother of Jesus, Son of God.
The pallet of the unknown artist was very limited. We can see lots of dark colors for Mary’s veil and a lot of Gold colors that would distinguish a very special moment that is represented on this icon. The decorations of Mary’s clothes are beautiful and very ornate. Yet the gold does not disturb from looking at Virgin’s and Child’s faces as in my opinion appear as the main point of composition. The composition itself has triangular character, where the top of the triangle is Mary’s face and her eyes. The artist tried to show us ideally beautiful woman with Greco-Roman facial features. Her face is slightly elongated, she has very small mouth and big eyes; that exact features were considered to be ideal in 11th – 12th century. The composition of the painting is very simple. There is no background except the gold that is surrounding these two figures and the letters that represent what we see on the painting. Placing the symbols is a typical approach of Byzantine artist to compensate three-dimensionality. And even we can see attempt of the artist to give the clothing some 3D effect, we still can observe overall flatness of this image.
In spite of limitation of the pallet and a simple perspective we still can see the great dynamics in the Virgin of Vladimir icon.
The body of Jesus is leaned towards Mary. Virgin’s hands also play a very important role in the composition. If to draw imaginary lines from both hands (not arms) the lines will meet where Christ heart would be. I find it mysterious and incredible. Mary’s left eye is in exact line if we divide the painting in two parts vertically; yet, symmetry is broken down with the head tilt that brings the completion to the composition. Mary’s gesture is protective and loving. She holds her child with care. Her eyes are inviting us to be witnesses of her love and compassion. She will protect this child as she protected each city where she goes. Yet her eyes also show a deep sadness as if she knows that Jesus came to people to save them by his own suffering. There is no doubt that looking at this icon people believed in miracles; and, its famous endeavors, as well as legends around its performance would make this icon miraculous in return.
Do Miracles Exist?
This is just a thought for a brain; but, when I decided to write the paper about one of religious artworks, I had to choose from at least 100 plus images from different religious entities. The day I have decided to write paper was June 23. I was going through the papers of one book and Virgin of Vladimir attracted my attention. Thinking only one second the decision had been made. I have started research on-line and the fist information on this subject I picked that the celebration of this icon is performed in Russia during three days of the year: May 21, June 23, and August 26**.
June 23 !!! Miracle?! Coincidence?! I leave this question open..
How To Be A Woman in 18th Century
Digging through a lot of primary sources for my History class I found a story about one incredible woman who was actually not only earning money from her paintings: but, at some point of her life, selling her art was the only income source for her family. She was the first known woman artist here in America at the beginning of 18th century. And even though her primary medium was pastel, not watercolor; her portrait paintings are vibrant and fresh, which remind me an Old School watercolor art. Too bad there is no self-portrait that I could find (oy, I better hurry and make a few more self-portraits myself that couple of centuries forward historians don’t complain when digging up my watercolors :0)
The essay below is written in academic style (bibliography, cited work, etc.) and it has emphasis on American history; but, when I wrote it I tried to imagine how women artists lived in 18th century; and how they survived.
Portrait of Anna Cuyler Van Schaick by Henrietta Johnston, 1725 Pastels, NY State Museum Collection
Anna Cuyler’s (Mrs. Anthony Van Schaick) portrait by Henrietta Dering Johnston is dated 1725. Henrietta Johnston was noted first American woman artist who actually earned living by making art. When she painted this artwork at age 51 she was already an accomplished artist who made her name by painting portraits, mostly in pastels. Her style was well recognized and she had an established clientele among her friends and acquaintances. Being an artist at the beginning of 18th century was not an easy job even for men. Being an artist woman in the man-in-power dominated society was complicated task indeed.
Between the end of 17th century and the beginning of 18th century America is experiencing social and political turmoil. Although there was obvious expansion of English empire, the end of 17th century greatly disturbed already shaking European colonies. Variances between reach and poor, free and slave became more obvious. There was continues disagreement between settles and Indians. Religious movements tried to dominate each other. The beginning of 18th century returned stability to English North America together with economical growth and incoming immigrants seeking a better life in the New World.
It is interesting to note that Henrietta Johnston chose the portraiture and medium of her paintings as many other artists of 18th century not only due to a fashion but as well to availability, economical and commercial situation of that time:
As it was in painting, American draftsmanship before 1800 was
dominated by portraiture. Among the earliest examples of the
genre were in the medium of pastel, imported into the American
colonies as far back as the first decade of the 1700s and best
exemplified by the extensive production of one of this country’s
first notable female artists, Henrietta Johnston (ca. 1674–
At the time when photography was not invented the artists who made portraits were quiet popular. Henrietta’s talent was not only appreciated but as well in a big demand. Unlike many women of 18th century who were not seen working as in the modern sense of understanding, Henrietta earned making her art. She was able to make what she loved to become her profession. Her life was fulfilling yet not a trouble-free. Born in France, immigrated to England, and later moved to the New World, Henrietta’s life had some glory as well as some difficulties. After being married to her first husband for ten years she became widowed at age 30 with two little children on her hands. And even thought her first husband belonged to a high society of England; after his death Henrietta’s life had to have new turn:
In 1705 she married Reverend Gideon Johnston (1668-1716), a
graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, who was the vicar at
Castlemore. Appointed Bishop’s Commissary in South Carolina
by the Bishop of London, in April 1708 Johnston and his wife
arrived in Charleston. (Severens)
And even though at the beginning of 18th century South Carolina where Johnston’s moved in 1708 became one of the richest British colonies in North America; the family’s personal life faced a lot of economical difficulties. But there was one precious thing that could not be taken from Henrietta; and, actually helped family to survive difficult times, her talent:
Reverend Johnston became the Rector of St. Philip’s
Episcopal Church, and repeatedly wrote to the Society of the
Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts requesting payment
of his salary, which was often delayed. In one letter he states:
“were it not for the assistance my wife gives by drawing of
pictures…I should not be able to live,” indicating that Henrietta
Johnston was compensated for her portraits, making her the first
professional woman artist in America. (Severens)
Henrietta’s portraits are simple and show the great school although it is not known where she received her art education. We can only guess that the portraits resembled the subjects; but, they certainly have a character that the artist caught on the panel with her beautiful pastels. Her female portraits are very gentle; usually dressed in chemises and carrying feminine romantic mood. Portrait of Anna Cuyler represents Henrietta Johnston’s style in all its glory. The lady on the portrait is dressed in warm gold-toned-sepia silk gown. Her face is beautiful yet real. The artist did not simplify the features; instead, she presents the actual woman with the strong character. From New York State Museum online project we learn about Anna Cuyler that she was born in Albany in 1685 and she was the oldest daughter of Johannes and Elsie Ten Broeck Cuyler. Her father was a famous merchant and even was appointed a mayor of Albany and her mother was the daughter of one of the founders of the Albany community:
In 1712 twenty-seven-year-old Anna became the second wife of
thirty-year-old Anthony Van Schaick, Jr. He was a son of a faming-
based, early Albany business family. Over the next fourteen years,
Anna gave birth to at least nine of the previously childless Van
Schaick’s children – the last arriving as she passed her forty-first
Van Schaick family requested to paint Anna’s portrait in 1725 when Anthony Van Schaick was commissioned lieutenant and captain of militia by Governor Hunter. At the time when portrait had been painted Van Schaick family was well known and respected in the colony. Henrietta Johnston captured a young woman, a wife of the official figure, a mother of nine children in one small pastel painting. Just by looking at one portrait painted almost 300 years ago in America and by learning sources of information we can reveal the history of a country, the history of one person and her family, and the history of the artist’s life.
Avery, Kevin J. “Late Eighteenth-Century American Drawings.” The Metropolitan Museum Of Art. 2000-2011 The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, n.d. Web. .
Bielinski, Stefan. “Anna Cuyler Van Schaick.” The People Of Colonial Albany. New York State Museum, n.d. Web. .
Severens, Martha R. “Jonston, Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering.” South Carolina Encyclopedia. University Of South Carolina Press, n.d. Web. .
Perry, Lee Davis. Remarkable South Carolina Women (More than Petticoats Series); Globe Pequot; First edition; ISBN-10: 0762743433
Forsyth Alexander, ed. “Henrietta Johnston: Who Greatly helped…by drawing pictures.” Winston-Salem, N.C.: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, 1991. ISBN-10: 0945578032
Middleton, Margaret Simons, Henrietta Johnston of Charles Town, South Carolina: America’s First Pastelist. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1966. ISBN-10: 1135797714
Foner, Eric Give Me Liberty!, Volume I, Second Seagull Edition, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-393-93255-3