Creation of a new iconography was always considered as a difficult and great responsibility. Today we become witnesses of the creation of iconography of saints of new time. Every icon, regardless of its age, can be adopted by the Orthodox church as long as the icon’s composition and artistic execution satisfies canonical and historical iconography requirements. One of the most widely known representations of the Tsar as a martyr came to us from a foreign orthodox church. On an icon, Nikolay II is represented with a septor and sphere, in clothing worn by Russian Tsars in XVI and XVIIth century. The head of Nikolay II is covered by a tsar’s cap with a cross; on his chest is a massive cross. With more careful consideration of the icon it is not difficult to find out several minor as well as great contradictions. We will stop here and discuss the noticeable ones. It should be noted that the icon is painted with historical inaccuracy.
Firstly, this can be seen on clothing of the emperor. Nikolay II, as it’s commonly known, was crowned in 1896. Coronation was performed in accordance with a set tradition. During the ceremony, an emperor held the symbols of Tsar’s power – a septer and sphere, and he was dressed in official military form and an ermine mantle. First these attributes were used during the coronation of the emperor Peter I, and by the time Nikolay II inherited the throne, these attributes of the specific clothing had become an integral part of the coronation ceremony. During his life, Nikolay II never wore the attire of Russian Tsars from the XVI and XVII centuries. Secondly, we will examine the symbol of the cross. A cross in the martyr’s right hand is a frequently used image in iconography, that symbolizes the struggle is not present in this work.
Among others, one of the most well known icons depicting the Tsar’s family is the icon called ‘Cathedral on the blood of the martyrs and confessors of the Russian church’ from the temple of Christ the Rescuer. The middle part of this icon is very famous, due to a well known lithographic representation of it.
Recently, the icon called the “Holy Royal martyrs” has become widely known.
It is not possible to mix different styles in Orthodox icon painting.
There are examples in ancient iconography when martyrs are given the cross in their right hands (as, for example, on the icon of Saint Boris and Saint Gleb in the first half of XIV 4[4} Saints are represented with martyr’s crosses in their right hand and with a sword in their left hand. In the icon the “Holy Royal martyrs”, all members of the Tsar’s Family members have martyr’s crosses in their hands, and also note that the crosses in the hands of Saint Nikolay and Saint Alexandra are considerably larger, and Saint Nikolay holds his in his left hand.
It must be historically reasonable to represent certain clothings of saints. It is know that after renouncing the Throne until the time of his death, the Tsar wore a full military uniform (without shoulder-strap) and a George cross on a breast. Prince Alexsey was also dressed in the same manner.
Empress Alexandra wore simple and modest clothing and head-dress. The great princesses wore similar clothes but their Heads of great princesses were not covered. In observance of iconographic principles, to keep up historical accuracy it would be most reasonable to depict the Tsar’s family exactly in such attire. The portraits of each of the saints don’t have to be completely representational. Icon-painting has a more generalized, symbolic meaning. Every Saint must be given the martyr’s cross in their right hand, testifying to his personal sacrifice.
The image of jewels on a martyr’s crown is justified, both from an iconographic and historical perspective, and it is represented above the heads. In the act of renounciation Nikolay II said: “We confessed for the blessing and renounce from Throne of the Russian State and bow down before its sovereignty” – but this was only a loss for the official government. From the church point of view, the tsar’s renounciation of the sovereignty is not a canonical violation, because there were no such orders accepted by church for him.
Therefore, until the moment of his death, Saint Nikolay remained the only justly sovereign, and the only anointed sovereign. In Russia annointing the tsar with christened oil came from the tradition of the Byzantine empire, but ascended to times of old Testament History (we will remember that the tsar David was also annointed in this way (1 Steam. 16,112)). Since Tsar Nikolay was annointed, this day according to the church, Nikolay is seen as the rightful legal ruler of Russia, even though he voluntarily renounced his throne.
Author: Natalia Parenko, Director of St. Petersburg Art Academy in Florence
Museums and Cinema Workshop
Film Screening and Discussion Russian Ark
directed by Alexandr Sokurov 2002
5 December 2018