Icon-folder of Ambrose (1456)
Icon-folder of Ambrose (1456)

By Ekaterina Solodovnikova | State Institute for Art studies (PhD student)


A three fold icon of the True Cross (stauroteca) (10.7 x 7.5 x 1.5 cm) carved in walnut and set in a gold frame originates from the treasury of the Holy-Trinity Lavra (monastery) which is located 70 km far from Moscow. The inscription in Russian wraps around the edges of the gold frame and reveals that the object was commissioned by the Abbot of the Lavra, Vassian Rylo, during the reign of grand prince Vasiliy II (1415 - 1462), and executed by monk Ambrose in 1456. He was a famous wood-carver in the second half of the 15th century.

Inside the object, the center panel has a recess intended for the cross, perhaps a relic of the True Cross (which is lost); on both sides of it the figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Theologian are represented as in a typical Crucifixion scene. They are depicted on a ground that carries a gothic-style ornament with circular motifs. Above the cross there are two mourning angels and the inscription "Царь Славы" ("King of Glory").

On the side panels there are images of the church feasts (which are preserved only on the left part): Candlemas, Baptism, Crucifixion, Descent into hell, the Pentecost, the Assumption of the Virgin. These compositions are made in a technique of open-work carving and set against a background of gold. Slavonic inscriptions run above the Church feast scenes and under the horizontal arm of the cross “Животворящи Крест Твоея благости его жа даровал (еси нам)...” (“The life-giving Cross of Your goodness which You bestowed to us”). The golden frame is topped with a small image of Christ “Not-made-by-human-hands”. The exterior of the object is decorated with a beautiful filigree lace.


The triptych, in this case, refers to “small format” artifacts (like breast icons, portable icon-folders, and portable iconostasis, panagias), which were objects for private devotion. Often they served as reliquaries as well. The triptych has a high importance for the stylistic conception of Russian art of its “Gold era”, which in Moscow school starts with Andrey Roubliov (early 15th century) and ends with Dionisius (end of 15th century). The most difficult problem for studying Muscovite art production of the 15th century is that few objects survive. One of them is the triptych of Ambrose, which was repeatedly the focus in scholarship. Among its researchers were Yury Olsufiev, Ivan Nekrasov, Viktor Lazarev, Gennadiy Popov. In their works these scholars used a very important method of analysis, which included a stylistic comparison of painting and embroidery with sculptural artifacts. The latter often have secure dates and help with chronology.

Despite the outstanding artistic quality and distinguished provenance of the three-fold icon, scholars considered its style to be old-fashioned for the 15th century. They found it more similar to the artistic style of the 14th century (works of Theophanes the Greek) because of the plastic sculptural shape of the figures, their heavy proportions, as well as impulsive and individualized movement. These views in Soviet scholarship were based on a very popular idea that Russian art separated from Byzantine art and began to develop independently at the beginning of the 15th century. According to this conception, the main achievement of Muscovite art, which it acquired thanks to Andrey Roubliov, is a rhythmical harmony of lines, in which sculptural shape is not so accentuated, the movement is less active than in Palaiologan art, and emotional expressiveness is replaced by contemplation. These peculiarities were believed to have remained stable throughout the 15th century from Roubliov to Dionisius.

Disagreeing with these ideas, we can notice the sculptural qualities of the triptych play a more important role than in the 14th c. art. There is much less space in the composition and the figures do not plunge into the background (as we can see in Palaiologan wood carving and painting), but seem to be in front of the composition. The figures are separated from one another - images of the Mother of God and John the Theologian are carved in “box-shaped” plates, which exclude the existence of a common space, one of the main characteristics of the late-Palaiologan art. This is also indicated by the absence of a free and equable composition. The figures form a rigid structure, grouping at the edges of the Christological scenes. The compositions are densely filled, active movement stops, and the postures are tense. Due to the recent ideas (Ostashenko) all these features perfectly characterize stylistic development of the middle of the 15th century when Russian and Byzantine artists searched for inspiration in Gothic traditions. Although analogies to this style do not exist among Muscoviet icons (they have not survived) we can find them in the monuments that derive from other centers of Russian art and date to the middle of the 15th century.

Embroidered images on textiles created between 1441 and 1444 in Novgorod demonstrate a weightiness combined with an underlined silhouette; similar to the decoration of the triptych. The static and tensely restrained figures are shown in strong reversals to the foreground, and the background is perceived as a solid wall not a free open space as evident in Late Palaiologan time. The number of analogies could be expanded with the monuments of Novgorod, Tver and Pskov (like the icon “Three hierarchs and Paraskeva”, 1440s, Tretyakov Gallery). But it is important that the same features are inherent to Byzantine monuments. This is evidenced in the icon of Angelos Akotantos - “Christ on the Throne” from Zakynthos museum dated to the middle of the 15th century. The composition gives the impression of a solid and an immovable structure, gestures are fixed, contours are rigid.

Similarity between the triptych and Greek and Russian icons from Pskov, Novgorod prove that its carved images characterize general stylistic tendencies in the art of the 15th century. The idea that its style was old-fashioned appeared due to a wrong conception of development of Muscovite art in the 15th century. The need to abandon it has been increasingly expressed by Russian scholars in recent years (esp. Elena Ostashenko, Lev Lifshits). They consider that Russian art continued to develop the same way as Byzantine art and the ideas conveyed by Roubliov could not be current during the 15th century. According to these new ideas, the characteristic of the second quarter of the 15th century is the strong impact of Western traditions.

Further Reading

Nikolayeva T.V. Plastic Art of Old Russia. Small carvings and castings 11th to 16th century. Moscow, 1968. 188–189.

A catalog of carving artifacts from Sergiev-Posad museum. (In Russian and in English).

Ostashenko, Elena. “The iconostasis of the Trinity Cathedral of the Holy Trinity monastery (Lavra) of St. Sergius c. the year 1425: style of the icons” (Summary). In Russian Medieval Art. Art of medieval Rus’ and Byzantium during the epoch of Andrey Roubliov. 160. Moscow: Art-Volhonka. 2012.

This article is dedicated to the stylistic problems of Russian and Byzantine art of the first half of the 15th century.

Ostashenko, Elena. "Western ‘influence’ in the monuments of Russian Painting of the middle of the 15th c." Moscow Kremlin Museums. Materials and Studies 24 (Moscow, 2014): 154–185.

This article is focused on the new composition schemes in Byzantine and Medieval Russian Art of the second quarter of the 15th century borrowed from western Gothic tradition.

Florensky P. A., Olsufiev Y. A. Амвросий – Троицкий резчик XV века [Ambrose – a wood-carver of the 15th century]. Sergiev, 1927.

A reflection on the style of the master Ambrose in the context of his contemporary art, noting some Western influence and belonging to a well-developed tradition. Researchers identify a circle of works from the treasury of the Lavra that could have been made by this master (except icon-folder, several crosses and panagia).

Popov G. V. Живопись и миниатюра Москвы середины XV – начала XVI века [Painting and miniature of Moscow of the middle of the 15th – early 16th centuries]. Мoscow, 1975, esp. 11–13.

G. Popov believes that the style of Ambrose corresponds to the artistic tradition of the North-East of Russia.

Solodovnikova E. B. “Произведения резчика Амвросия в контексте представлений о русском искусстве середины XV века.” Троице-Сергиева лавра в истории, культуре и духовной жизни России. Материалы IX международной научной конференции. 16 – 17 октября 2014 г. С [Artifacts of wood-carver Ambrose in the context of the ideas about Russian Art of the 15th c. Holy-Trinity Lavra in the history, culture and spiritual life of Russia. Materials of the IX international scientific conference. 16 – 17 October 2014]. 16–323.

The author believes that the style of the artifacts made by Ambrose – corresponds to the main trends of painting, both Russian and Byzantine. The difference in artistic features of icon-folder (1456) and panagia (1463) is explained by the fact that they belong to different stages of the development of style. The border between the stages passes at the end of the 1450s.

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

Ekaterina Solodovnikova, "Icon-folder of Ambrose (1456)," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023, https://mappingeasterneurope.princeton.edu.