A Ruthenian Icon in London
A Ruthenian Icon in London

By Georgi Parpulov | Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen


This large panel (107 × 74 cm) once formed part of an iconostasis screen in front of the altar inside an Orthodox church. Paired with a now-lost image of the adult Jesus Christ, it would have been placed next to a wooden door through which priests went in and out of the altar-space during the Divine Liturgy. A nameless artist has represented Jesus as a child held by His mother, whom an accompanying inscription terms “Mother of God” (compare the Ohrid Icon of the Virgin). Christ blesses us with his right hand and holds a rolled-up scroll that signifies His words and perhaps hints at the Gospel passage “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). Above are the archangels Gabriel (on our left) and Michael (on the right) with their heads bowed and their hands fully covered as a sign of utmost respect. Dressed in royal tunics under bright red cloaks, the two celestial beings pay homage to Mary whom church hymns praise as “more honorable than the cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the seraphim”.


The painting style suggests that this icon, now in London, was produced between roughly 1450 and 1500 in what was then Poland–Lithuania. Ever since the Queen of Poland married the Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1385, the two countries had been ruled by a single monarch. The royal house and much of the kingdom’s population stood under the religious authority of the Pope of Rome, but the easternmost part of the realm was inhabited by Ruthenians (ancestors of the present-day Ukrainians and Belarusians) who belonged to the Orthodox Church and were subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Circa 1316, the patriarch appointed a separate metropolitan bishop for Ruthenia; in 1467, this arrangement was reconfirmed. The patriarchal see also is, in a manner of speaking, the ultimate source for the London icon, because the latter reproduces a famous portrait of the Virgin and Child believed to have been painted from life and housed in one of Constantinople’s monasteries. The original, destroyed when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453, is known from surviving replicas (e.g. this 14th-century one), many of them inscribed with the epithet Hodegetria. Such Byzantine copies could have reached Poland–Lithuania by way of nearby Moldavia, and Ruthenian artists would have diligently reproduced them in the belief that they were based on an actual portrait of Mary and Jesus. That process of artistic transmission may be compared to translating the Gospel from the original Greek into another language: the compositional layout of the prototype was retained (note especially the exact position of the faces, hands, and feet) but details of execution were altered, perhaps unconsciously, in tune with the training of local painters and with the taste of local patrons. The deep, contrasting colors, the sharply defined folds and wrinkles (particularly on the necks), the dark shadows (such as the crescent-shaped ones under the figures’ mouths) are all peculiar to Ruthenian icon-painting.

Further Reading

Kruk, Mirosław Piotr. Icons from the 14th–16th centuries in the National Museum in Krakow. Vols 1, 2, and 3. Cracow: Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, 2021.

Entry no. 15 in this scholarly catalogue describes the closest known parallel for the London icon.

Kruk, Mirosław Piotr. Zachodnioruskie ikony Matki Boskiej z Dzieciątkiem w wieku XV i XVI. Cracow: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2000.

Kruk studies depictions of the Virgin and Child in Ukrainian and Belarussian icons of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Miljković, Bojan. Čudotvorna ikona u Vizantiji. Belgrade: Vizantološki institut SANU, 2017.

On pp. 169–209, Miljković discusses the miracle-working icon of the Virgin Hodegetria.

Parpulov, Georgi. “The Miraculous Icon of the Neamţ Monastery.” Revue Roumaine d’Histoire de l’Art: Série Beaux-Arts 54–55 (2017–2018): 119–121.

The Neamţ icon is a 14th-century Byzantine work reportedly sent as a gift from Constantinople to Moldavia. Its history shows how the image of the Virgin Hodegetria became known in northeastern Europe.

Konstantynowicz, Jarosław Bohdan. Ikonostasis: Studien und Forschungen. Lwów: Ševčenko-Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, 1939.

Pp. 233–265 contain a study of the oldest iconostasis screens from western Ukraine.

Milyaeva, Liudmilla. The Ukrainian Icon, 13th–18th Centuries: From Byzantines Sources to the Baroque. Bournemouth: Parkstone, 1996.

This illustrated survey is written by one of the foremost historians of Ukrainian art.

Nel’hovs’kyi, Urii Panasovych (ed.). Історія українського мистецтва. Vol. 2. Kyiv: Академія наук УРСР, 1967.

Pp. 157–336 of this collective work discuss the history of Ukrainian painting from the fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth century.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Georgi Parpulov, "A Ruthenian Icon in London," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023, https://mappingeasterneurope.princeton.edu.