Russian icon | Triptych with the Guardian Angel

Icon: Triptych with the Guardian Angel T-18

Russia, Volga-region, late 17th century (dated 1688), signed painter Nester
Tempera on wood, 43.7 x 65.5 cm (open)

The icon in the centre of the triptych, representing the Guardian Angel and his Good Deeds, could be taken out of the casket for worship on special occasions. The guardian angel is depicted holding the Arma Christi with one hand and a large sword in his other hand. He turns to the left, the side where life is lived in imitation of Christ. At the bottom left, the guardian angel appears at the table of a pious man. The man is sitting at the table together with his wife and his son, who is reading the Bible. A servant brings in a large cup. In this house moderation and the bible prevail. In the scene above, the pious man is gasping out his last. He lies on his deathbed, his hands clasped, and surrounded by his wife and children. The guardian angel takes care of his soul, which emerges from his mouth like a small, white spirit. At the top left of the icon, the angel, the man’s soul in his hands, floats on a cloud up to heaven.
To the right side of the angel, the opposite of a pious man is shown. This man lives in opulence. He is dressed in costly clothes and sits under a luxurious canopy at a table, in the company of his buddies and a musician. The guardian angel is not present. A big, terrifying devil appears from behind the two drinking man. In the scene above, the man is lying on his deathbed, just like the pious man, but after his sinful life there is no one unfortunately to take care of him, except for an old man, who is reading aloud from the Bible. The guardian angel is present as well, but he is not able anymore to do anything for the lost soul. The only thing that is left, is a scroll with the few good deeds of the man, which is taken by the angel to heaven in the top right corner of the icon. The scroll serves as a final chance for the sinner at the Last Judgment, to obtain forgiveness for his sinful life.
On the upper border of the icon, Christ is represented in a segment of heaven. He makes a blessing gesture towards the two angels appearing on his left and right side, the one with a white soul and the other one with a scroll.
The Slavonic text on the lower border of the icon reads:
In the year 1688 (7196) on 16 February this icon was painted by the icon painter Nester'
The casket with the two wings of the triptych possibly is of slightly later date. The left panel of the triptych represents: the Angel Gabriel of the Annunciation, the Exaltation of the Cross and the saints Makari of Kaliazin, Savvati, Nikon and Sergei of Radonezh. The right panel of the triptych represents: the Mother of God of the Annunciation, the Pokrov of the Mother of God and the saints Aleksandr Svirski, Makari, Boris and Gleb.
At the top of the middle part of the triptych, the New Testament Trinity is depicted, showing God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (represented as a dove), with in the middle the celestial sphere. They are enthroned on fiery red seraphim and are surrounded by a dark band of cherubs.
The triptych was most likely used as a travelling icon, intended for private devotion. Large triptychs were made in Russia for rich merchants and the nobility. One could close the triptych for transportation from the summer to the winter residence and vice versa. As a rule, the triptych was not painted on the outside, because the paint could easily be damaged when transporting the icon. Mostly the exterior was covered with dark leather, as is the case with our triptych too.
The icon is painted in a characteristic style in deep, warm earth colors. Red, ocher and green dominate the colour palette. The iconography and style of the painting indicate the influence of the cities along the river Volga, of which Yaroslavl and Kostroma are most famous. In the 17th century, these cities became important cultural centres. While in Moscow the high nobility and clergy were the main patrons of the icons painters, in Yaroslavl and Kostroma this role was fulfilled by wealthy merchants too. The Baroque cartouches and the rich architecture on the icon discussed here, clearly point in the direction of the Volga-region. The triptych can be considered a classic example of this style.