Twelfth Century Icon from Ukraine
THE MOST FAMOUS ICON in the world is probably the Virgin of Kyiv, which was made by a Byzantine artist about the year 1132 for Prince Mstislav(1125-1132) of Kyiv. Mstislav, the son of King Volodymyr Monomakh (1113-1125), of Kyiv Rus, decided to build a church in Vyshorod, near Kyiv, for which the foundation stone was laid in 1132. He commissioned an icon of the Virgin and Child from Byzantium. The icon's beauty and importance were fully realized by the Kyivans as two historical chronicles, the Laurentian and Hypatian, noted.
Our Lady of Kyiv, which arrived in Ukraine about 1134, is a masterpiece comparable for its beauty and psychological depths to the Mona Lisa. This religious painting, by a Greek, probably reflected the taste of the Kyiv royal family and is the first great work in the Kyivan or Ukrainian school of icons.
Ukrainians usually call the icon the Virgin of Vyshorod, while the Russians call it the Virgin of Vladimir. The reason is that Prince Andrew Bogolubsky removed the treasured icon in 1155 or 1164 to his northern city of Vladimir before he destroyed Kyiv. Some Ukrainian historians consider this the first attack of the nascent Russian nation (Suzdalia) on Ukraine.
This icon displays an animated face, and the great tenderness of the Virgin for her child, which was very unusual for the strict code of icon painting in its day. The Virgin's head, touching the baby, is a gesture of such deep affection that, iconographically, it is described by the word "tenderness". It has a profoundly Slavic spirit and set the standard for Ukrainian icon painters, which has never been surpassed. The Virgin is an individual as well as a symbol of motherhood.
Fate has preserved the icon through centuries of war, although the faces and some background are all that survived 800 years. In 1395 it was takenfrom Vladimir to Moscow and is now in the Tretyakov Gallery there. The original icon measures 78.1 x 54.6 cm.
The Virgin of Kyiv is an important work of world art and a treasure of the Ukrainian cultural heritage.
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Copyright © 1982 Andrew Gregorovich
Reprinted from FORUM Ukrainian Review No.52 Fall 1982
Published by the Ukrainian Fraternal Association
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Originally composed: Sunday January 18th 1998.
Date last modified: Friday February 4th 2000.