Russian icon | Annunciation

Icon: Annunciation T-1

Russia, probably Trinity Monastery, Sergiev Posad, mid-16th century
Tempera on wood, 25.5 x 20.5 cm

The Annunciation scene is set against an elaborate architectural background. To the left stands the Archangel Gabriel, holding a messenger staff and making a gesture of blessing towards the Virgin Mary with his right hand. The Virgin who bows her head in reverence, is sitting on a stool to the right. She holds a thread of wool in her hands, a detail which alludes to a passage from the apocryphal Proto-Evangelium of James: the moment the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her, the Virgin Mary was spinning purple thread for the new curtain of the Temple in Jerusalem, which had to be made by eight virgins from the house of David. The Holy Spirit descends on her, represented as three fine rays coming from a segment of heaven. In a recessed area in the upper border of the icon, the Trinity is depicted against a dark blue background with clouds. The three angels all sit behind a set table, holding a messenger’s staff and making a blessing gesture. On the left border the metropolitan of Rostov, St Leontii and the monk St Nikon, pupil and successor of St Sergei of Radonezh, are depicted. St Sergei, the founder of the Trinity Monastery near Moscow, appears on the right border, represented half-length just like the other two saints.  

The representation of the Trinity and of the saints Sergei and Nikon point towards a link with the Trinity monastery in Sergiev Posad. This monastery was founded in 1337 by St Sergei of Radonezh, one of the most venerated Russian saints, who had built a wooden church in honour of the Trinity on Makovets Hill. About six months before his death in 1392, St Sergei named his pupil Nikon his successor as the abbot of the monastery. Before the end of 1392, the monastery was attacked by Tatars and devastated. Nikon quickly worked to restore the buildings but in 1408 the monastery was again attacked by the Tatars and burned down. Once again Nikon led the reconstruction of the monastery, which continued over the next several years. During the construction of the new Trinity Cathedral in 1422, the abbot came upon the relics of St. Sergei in the ruins of the earlier, destroyed church. He placed  the relics in the new cathedral and commissioned the famous icon painters Andrei Rublev and Daniel Cherny (the Black), to paint the interior of the cathedral, which was finished in 1425, and the now world famous Trinity-icon. Nikon died the following year, on November 17, 1426. He was buried near the southern wall of the Trinity Cathedral and canonized in 1547. The following year, a church was built over his grave and dedicated to him. It seems likely that the present icon was painted not long after the saint’s canonization.

Another interesting iconographic detail on the icon is the palm tree painted in the background to the right of the left building. The only other known Russian Annunciation-icon showing a palm tree (in fact two palm trees) in the background, is the Annunciation from the Feast-row of the iconostasis of the main church of the Kirillov monastery in northern Russia, painted at the end of the 15th century. The Kirillov monastery was founded by another of St Sergei’s pupils, St. Kirill of Beloozero.     

Stylistically and technically our icon is very similar to the 16th century icon of the Hodegetria Mother of God from the Rostov Church in Vologda (now in the Vologda Museum).  Both icons might have been painted by the same master. This painter of the Vologda-icon in all probability used the Annunciaton-icon in the Kirillov monastery as an example for the composition of our Annunciation-icon.