Elena Kashina (York), The Temple of Transcendent Wisdom: the Image of the Virgin Mary as an Agent of Russia’s National State

This paper proposes to examine the creation and use of state personifications in the context of the formation of the Russian centralized state, under Grand Duke Ivan III and Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible), drawing on a number of Marian iconographies, which became central to the political visual narratives of asserting sovereignty during the period.

Ivan III and Ivan IV were the two rulers during whose reign Moscow completed a transition from the capital of a principality to that of a centralised state. Ivan III (1462–1505) became the first ruler to assume the title of the Lord of All Russia, while Ivan IV (the Terrible) (1547–1584) was Russia’s first officially crowned and anointed Tsar.

These changes of status necessitated a new system of idiomatic representations, which would project the lineage, kinship and historic roots of the state and the sovereign, as well as demonstrate the sovereign’s command of contemporary cosmopolitan diplomatic pictorial symbolism, with its language of allegories and metaphorical readings.

In particular, the image of the Virgin Mary, always revered in the Russian lands, found itself employed as an agent of political discourse. New iconographies were developed and existing altered to emphasize her role as Queen of Heaven, saint and the mother of the nation, especially in connection with the motif of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden.

I intend to demonstrate that this latter semantic role came to the fore during the time on the throne of Ivan III, following his marriage to Zoe Palaeologue, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, who was brought up in Rome. The arrival of Zoe in Muscovy signaled a much greater presence at the new court of the Muscovite ruler of Italian cultural tradition. Crucially, the marriage with Zoe was regarded as dynastic, and was to support the new doctrine of Russia being the Third Rome, which was being formulated at the time, following the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Religious symbolism which could collaborate this concept, as well as relics and ancient religious items were considered the most important part of the bride’s dowry, as was her being well versed in the singularities of Roman paradigms of pictorial diplomacy.

The iconography of the Mother of God »Oranta«, although not new in Russia, receives a much greater prominence after Zoe’s arrival in Moscow. It is found on a number of artefacts (precious »Panagias«) which were commissioned by Zoe at the Russian court, it starts to be found as the central icon in the Prophet tier of the icononstasis, and is depicted on the icons in the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin, the private church of the ruling family, whose decorative programme served as a proclamation of state ideology. Later, during the reign of Ivan IV, it is shown behind the Tsar’s throne in the Golden Chamber which served as the royal reception room.

The use of the image of the Mother of God »Oranta« increased during the reign of Ivan IV, and was further woven into, or served as the central theme for an impressive number of iconographies, whose elaborate theology was to assert the country as a monarchy, the sovereign as a sacral figure and the nation as being protected by the impregnable chastity of the Virgin and Mother of God.

The paper aims to demonstrate that such transfer of iconographies and the context of their appropriation testify to a polycentric and reciprocal, with Russia’s joining the West European political visual discourse, response to the prototypical Byzantine paradigm of Imperial power which rested on invoking the sublime as the ultimate legitimizing agent. Invoking the sublime in attestations of a right to rule had long been in use in Western Europe, but became a new departure for Russia, and was prompted by political circumstances, including the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and the new rivalry for religious and political supremacy and the right to self-determination.

The discussion shall conclude by stating that by the 16th century both the West-European and the new Russian courts had reconfigured their shared frame of reference, the archetypal cultural idiom of Christianity and lineage into a paradigm of asserting sovereign authority, conveyed (most?) forcefully through pictorial decorative programmes. This was a mutually intelligible language of geo-political self-definition, both in communication between the West-European courts, and that between Western Europe and the new court of Muscovy, and as such effectively served as a meta-vocabulary for European discourse of sovereign power.

Literature references: T. E. Samoilova, Grand Prince Ivan III, Sovereign of All Russia (Moscow 2013), Exhibition catalogue, The Moscow Kremlin Museums, 20 March – 14 July 2013; Вера и власть. Эпоха Ивана Грозногo/Faith and Power. The Age of Ivan the Terrible, Moscow 2007. Музеи Московского Кремля/The Moscow Kremlin Museums, Exhibition catalogue, 12 December 2007 – 13 April 2008; Морозов, В. В., Лицевой свод в контексте отечественного летописания XVI века (Москва: Индрик 2005); Самойлова, Т. Е. и Панова, Т. Д., Усыпальница царя Ивана Грозного (Москва 2004); Качалова, И.Я., “Царский храм”, in Царский храм: святыни Благовещенского собора в Кремле (Москва 2003).

elena-kashina-300x2031Elena Kashina studied for her MPhil in Mediaeval Viking and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oslo, following an award of a scholarship by the Research Council of Norway and gained her PhD in the History of Art at Leeds University in 2007. Her research interests link Russia’s medieval artistic and philosophical paradigms with those that became prevalent in the second part of the 19th – early 20th century. Among the fields of enquiry pertinent for the conference the following can be named:

  • socio-cultural processes in Muscovy during the reign of Ivan III (1462–1505);
  • changes in traditional iconographies under Ivan IV (1547–1584), in their political,cultural   and international contexts;
  • the use of art, particularly invoking the sublime, for the purposes of geo-political     self-definition in late Medieval – Early Modern periods.

Forthcoming publications include: Transference of Authority: Spiritual Tradition as Foundation for State Construction and Preservation (edited volume Political Theology, Brill 2015).


To the program.

Cite this blog post
dhiparis (2016, January 7). Elena Kashina (York), The Temple of Transcendent Wisdom: the Image of the Virgin Mary as an Agent of Russia’s National State. Virgins, Wives, Mothers. Retrieved June 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v9do

3 thoughts on “Elena Kashina (York), The Temple of Transcendent Wisdom: the Image of the Virgin Mary as an Agent of Russia’s National State

  1. Dear Elena,
    may I ask you to send me your paper if it is finished. I intended to participate at the conference but I had to cancel it. We would have been in the same panel.
    I have a similar publication to your topic (on Ushakov’s icon) which just has come out in English but it was published 2 years ago in French.
    My email is: endresashalmi@gmail.com
    With best wishes,
    Endre Sashalmi

    • Dear Endre,

      I apologise unreservedly for not replying sooner that now! I simply have not found your message until this minute – I never checked the blog, which was, of course, very silly of me.

      Ushakov – oh, we could have talked about him for a long time, it is such a pity that you were unable to attend. With regard to my paper, I am sorry to say but it has not been written yet, I ‘spoke’ it, not read, and it remains to be committed to paper. But by all means, I will be delighted to share it once it has been given a form.

      Once again, I am every so sorry, I m ever meant to ignore your request.

      I will be looking forward to your reply,


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