Ágnes Kriza was an external fellow at the Warburg Institute, supported by the Hungarian Research Fund, between 2011 and 2013. Her article, The Russian Gnadenstuhl, published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, jointly won the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies Women’s Forum Article Prize in 2018.
The Russian Gnadenstuhl investigates a curious Western iconographical detail on the famous Four-Part Icon in the Moscow Kremlin Annunciation Cathedral: the winged Gnadenstuhl. In this blog post, Ágnes tells us more about her research, discoveries, and how she utilised the Warburg Institute’s resources:
The Warburg Institute and Renaissance art
The Warburg Institute possesses one of the best libraries in the world for researching Renaissance art. It is less known, however, that the collection is particularly strong in Byzantine and, surprisingly, also in medieval Russian art and culture. There is little doubt, therefore, that the Warburg Library is the ideal place if someone wants to investigate cultural interactions between Western Europe and Russia.
Soon after the coronation of the first Russian tsar, Ivan the Terrible, in 1547, an icon was painted for his private church in the Moscow Kremlin. The icon is called Four-Part Icon, as it consists of four parts which represent the whole history of the Redemption of mankind from the Creation (upper left), through Christ’s Incarnation (lower left), Passion and Resurrection (lower right), to his Second Coming (upper right). This large, highly inventive icon demonstrates a novel approach to the visual, creating a new relationship between text and image through its very complex, dense and sometimes hardly comprehensible allegorical content and through the use of numerous iconographic innovations, some derived from Western themes.
The most curious of these is a Trinitarian image showing the Father who holds the winged crucified Christ (see image below). This unique detail, which combines the Western Throne of Mercy (or Gnadenstuhl) and the Crucified Seraph, is a long-standing conundrum of Russian art history: what was the source of this image? Why did it appear on a Russian icon? Was this combination a Western or a Russian innovation?
Utilising the Institute’s resources
Between 2011 and 2013 I pursued research at the Warburg Institute to discover the secrets of the Russian Throne of Mercy. I wanted to use the Library’s and Photographic Collection’s unparalleled resources to explore the history of these iconographies across Western Europe, including its peripheries, Poland and Lithuania with which Russia had direct connections. I also consulted the Library’s rich collection on Western prints and woodcuts which were, as we believe, also widely disseminated in sixteenth-century Muscovy. But the mystery of the icon remained unsolved.
The clue was not on the First Floor of the Library (Image), neither on the second (Word), but on the Third and Fourth (Orientation and Action) which contain primary sources and literature on theology and history. Medieval Russian texts on this iconography provide invaluable information on the medieval interpretation of the Russian Gnadenstuhl. A philological and theological research revealed an Orthodox Eucharistic*meaning behind this image. Furthermore, the analysis of medieval Russian textual evidence suggested that this curious iconography has an anti-Western polemical agenda : it visualizes the theological position of the Orthodox formulated during their controversy against the Western use of unleavened Eucharistic bread. This disagreement about the ingredients of the bread of the Last Supper led to the mutual excommunication of Rome and Constantinople in 1054, the so-called Great Schism of the Christian Church. Consequently, it became clear that the iconography of the winged Throne of Mercy was invented by the Russians themselves who combined emblematic Western iconographic elements, the Throne of Mercy and the visionary image of the Crucified Seraph, in an innovative way.
The purpose of the appropriation from Western devotional art was to make the target of the visual polemics recognizable. That target was Western compassionate spirituality, which the Orthodox linked with the unleavened Host in Western liturgical practice. Acknowledging that Western appropriations in Russian art convey anti-Western message was surprising: so far, Western elements in Russian culture had been considered as signs of appreciation of Western culture. The case of the Russian Gnadenstuhl, however, has revealed that cross-cultural interactions between Christian East and West were stimulated not only by collaboration and recognition, but also by polemics and hostility.
by Ágnes Kriza