By Justin Willson | Princeton University
The Zyrianskaia Trinity is a large format icon (119.3 x 73.7 cm) painted in tempera on three conjoined wooden boards. Dating to the late 14th century, it was brought to Vologda (where it is currently kept) by the physician Ia. Friz in 1788 from the Church of the Trinity in the village of Vozhem, about 30 kilometers from Iarensk. The panel has undergone at least two restorations: in Vologda, by A. I. Briagin (1930); and in Moscow, by E. M. Kristi (1973); and in recent years the surface has been cleaned. In many places the paint layer is badly abraded, and everywhere suffers from craquelure. Numerous holes, where a revetment was affixed to the panel (as was traditional), speckle the face of the icon. Given the size of the panel and the Vozhem church’s dedication to the Trinity, the icon would have hung on the iconostasis, in the place reserved for the feast image.
The panel depicts the story of Abraham’s Hospitality of three visitors in the Book of Genesis 18:1–8. On the lower left, in front of the tall building, Sarah prepares food for the visitors, while Abraham, who approaches the table, is shown bringing a cup of wine to the angels seated in a circle around the table. Below, lying on the ground, is a calf, who alludes to Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, an event that Church Fathers interpreted as a prophetic reference to the Eucharist. In the background stands a giant tree, designating the Oaks of Mamre where Abraham was resting in the heat of midday when the angels appeared before him. The bottom of the panel includes the Biblical verses written in the Perm alphabet - a Cyrillic script in use between the 14th and 17th centuries.
For a century after its discovery in 1788, the Zyrianskaia Trinity was studied in the belief that it had been inscribed in the Perm alphabet by St. Stephen of Perm, who carried out a mission among the Komi people in the late 14th century. Described by the rhetor Epifanii the Wise (second half of 14th to first quarter of 15th century) as the inventor of the Perm alphabet, Stephen was a celebrated figure in Muscovite literature, lending a mystique to this panel. Other icons and crosses, detailed in late 19th-century inventories from Vologda, are known to have preserved the Perm alphabet, but none of them were as impressive and celebrated as this panel.
While it cannot be firmly linked to Stephen, the icon remains important for what it tells scholars about the medieval church’s means of evangelizing among un-Christianized groups in the hinterlands of Russia. Inscribing the Biblical passage on the panel’s base, the painter provided viewers with the textual source, in a local language, for the iconography. Over the course of the 15th-century, Russian bookmen were forced to defend the Church’s iconographic tradition from the charges of heretics who critiqued the scriptural basis of icons. Arguments along these lines were obviously being set forth by competing factions among the Komi people. Several 15th-century codices include glosses, in the Perm alphabet, denouncing icons and quoting verses from the prophets familiar from iconoclast miscellanies.
The Zyrianskaia Trinity shows the earliest stage in iconophile discussions. Depicting the image alongside the Biblical text, the painter takes for granted a close correspondence between text and image, a parallel that later heretics would critique. In the 15th century, Joseph Sanin, abbot of the powerful Volokolamsk Monastery outside Moscow, had to defend this very iconography against the charges that it was the invention of painters, and not based on scripture. In his Letter to an Icon Painter, delivered first as a series of homilies to the monks at Volokolamsk in the 1490s, Joseph explained not only the basic formula of the image – Abraham and Sarah serving a meal to their visitors – but long-established conventions, which an Orthodox believer would never have thought to question. Thus, Joseph addressed concerns about why the angels were shown with wings and haloes, held scepters in their hands and were seated on a throne-like bench. Responding to these questions, he explained the details through patristic literature, thus deepening the textual basis in which viewers needed fluency to understand pictorial forms.
The Zyrianskaia icon thus can be read as revealing a tension within the desire to design self-contained icons that commented on themselves through inscriptions. The medieval painter was never completely bound by the textual source, and a discrepancy could arise between what the ‘explanation’ (the inscription) said had been depicted and what the painter actually chose to portray. Depending on the audience, the Biblical text could suffice, for it accounted for the basic elements, but the text hardly exhausted the richness of a visual medium. That is, the painter’s repertoire of visual conventions left behind the verbal economy of most scriptural passages. In cases where the audience was unfamiliar with the conventions, such as in missionary efforts or disputes with heretics, Church bookmen could have made room for the concept of an artistic ‘tradition’ extending beyond textual guidelines. But intriguingly, as Joseph’s Letter to an Icon Painter makes clear, they often sought an equilibrium between textual and visual details, and searched out other texts to account for details painters included in their compositions.
Kazakova, N. A., and Ia. S. Lur’e. Antifeodal’nye ereticheskie dvizheniia na Rusi XIV–nachala XVI veka. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1955.
Kazakova and Lur’e published an edition of Joseph’s Letter to an Icon Painter as well as the Perm glosses denouncing icons.
Kriza, Ágnes. “Legitimizing the Rublev Trinity: Byzantine Iconophile Arguments in Medieval Russian Debates over the Representation of the Divine.” Byzantinoslavica 74 (2016): 134–152.
Kriza offers a subtle reading of Joseph’s defense of the Trinity icon, drawing attention to his knowledge of earlier iconophile literature.
Rybakov, Aleksandr. Vologodskaia ikona: tsentry khudozhevtvennoi kul’tury zemli vologodskoi XIII–XVIII vekov. Moscow: Galart, 1995.
Rybakov’s catalogue of Vologda icons places the Zyrianskaia Trinity within the larger context of local schools of painting.
Shestakov, P. “Chtenie drevneishei zyrianskoi nadpisi edinstvennogo sokhranivshagosia do sego vremeni pamiatnika vremeni sv. Stefana Velikopermskogo.” Zhurnal Ministerstva narodnogo prosvieshcheniia 153 (January, 1871): 29–46.
Shestakov published the first thorough study of the Perm inscription at the base of the icon.
Vinogradova, E. A. “K istorii ikony ‘Sviataia Troitsa Zyrianskaia’ v Vologde.” Vestnik tserkovnoi istorii 8, no. 4 (2007): 61–72.
Vinogradova’s study details the early historiography of the icon.