Unlocking Our Collections: Deisis

Our guest curator, Philippe Malgouyres FSA (Conservateur en chef du patrimoine, Département des objets d'art, Musée du Louvre) explains the Society's Deisis (on display in the Fellows' Room).

The reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon in the Orthodox Christian liturgy from 1652 onwards were violently rejected by some elements of the Russian people, who were determined to keep the old ways of speaking, singing, writing or doing things (one of the bitterest conflicts, for instance, concerned which fingers to use when making the sign of the Cross). These people, named “raskolniks” (schismatics) termed themselves Old Believers. They were heavily persecuted, forced into exile in the northern regions of Russia. Casting small bronze icons was one way in which they could assert their belief in the constant and unchangeable character of Orthodox iconography. Traditional techniques were used to produce these tiny “travelling icons”, which allowed Old Believers discreetly to carry their own icons, when venturing into the outside, ideologically polluted world. Different kinds were produced: pendants, plaquettes, triptychs and folding icons. Though it is called a triptych, the icon in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries is in fact one of these portable folding icons, in which all the wings are of the same size. They share a common feature: when folded, the outer face presents Golgotha, with the empty Cross and some of the instruments of the Passion (“arma Christi”), here the sponge on the stick and the spear, and, in the background, Jerusalem.

Among the folding icons with three wings, the commonest is a type which features the Deisis (from a Greek word meaning prayer). Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary are depicted interceding with Christ, seated on a throne. This Byzantine iconography appears on every church iconostasis. Some of the folding icons display these three key figures, in bust form, one on each wing. Others, including the Antiquaries’ example, have a single scene in the centre, with John and the Virgin standing either side of Christ, whilst the icons in the side panels show other intercessors. There are in fact just two variant types. Here, the composition gathers miracle-workers and healers venerated by Old Believers: from the left, George, a great favourite in the Eastern Church; Antipas, bishop of Pergamum and martyr, mentioned in Revelations, and traditionally invoked as a protector against toothache; Blaise, physician and bishop of Sebastea. On the right wing the venerable John Paleolaurites, and saints Cosmas and Damian. The reason for the choice of the obscure 8th century hermit John “of the ancient monastery” is not clear. It may be because on his feast date (19 April) there took place a pre-Christian rite of fertility, in which a textile would be offered as a gift to the earth, to as it were dress the new spring. Collectively, these holy figures form a strong cohort against the evils of the world.

Among these icons there are considerable variations in the quality of production and materials, reflecting their likely original cost.  The simplest are just cast in brass. They can be enameled, using from one up to seven colours. Blue is the commonest and the cheapest enamel: here, it has been applied very carelessly, even on the figures. This lack of attention to the finish has hitherto been associated by specialists with modern forgeries, but here we have here clear proof that this is not always the case.  The date of these icons is very difficult to establish, this type usually being considered to date from the 19th century. But as it was given to the Society of Antiquaries by Dr Richard Rawlinson in July 1742, making it by a long way the earliest documented example of this type of icon, we have to revise our dating! Although it is not as such an outstanding example, its secure early presence in Europe makes the icon a capital document for the study of these fascinating objects, witnesses to liturgical conflict in the Russian Orthodox Church.

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