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Here’s a question for you: Would you say Russia is a European or an Asian country? It extends into both Europe and Asia, but it’s neither distinctively European nor distinctively Asian, in part because it’s so massive. You simply can’t effectively classify it within our usual concepts of West and East. This is has been an issue with Russia for hundreds of years, particularly once Western Europe began constructing a worldview that necessitated placing everything into categories and didn’t allow much room for ambiguity. Ambiguity and complexity seem to be hallmarks of Russian history and culture, especially if you were educated in that Western model and are used to history being recounted in a certain way and different nations hitting certain milestones at certain times. The piece of art I want to talk about in this episode provides a great opportunity to examine Western perspectives on Russia and question how and by what standards we judge cultural progress. It is a late 17th century Russian Orthodox icon of the head of John the Baptist on a platter from the Yaroslavl Art Museum. The subject itself is probably pretty familiar to a lot of people, but the way in which it’s displayed in the artwork might not be. There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding this work for a lot of reasons, but rather than considering that a negative, let’s take that uncertainty as an opportunity to look at the limitations of our knowledge and where we have an opportunity to learn more!
Icon of the Head of John the Baptist with Scenes from His Life, possibly by Gury Nikitin, circa 1680. Tempera on wooden panel, 46 x 38 cm, either in the Church of Elijah in Yaroslavl, Russia, or in the Yaroslavl Art Museum.
The painting is characterized by its gold background and thick green border. All of the imagery is painted on the gold, while annotations and words in Church Slavic are picked out in gold on the green border. In the center of the gold field is the severed head of a man with long hair and a beard—John the Baptist. His eyes are closed, and you can just see the raw, red cross-section of his neck underneath his beard. His head is rendered in a sort of semi-flat way, with a little light and shade to model the skin and features, but without realistic foreshortening. The head rests on a stylized platter with an ornate base that resembles the acanthus leaves that are the hallmark of Corinthian columns. The platter and its base are delineated in black lines, and rendered in a flat, stylized manner. At the top of the platter, an angel in red robes flies down with a crown in their hand, presumably to bestow it upon the head of the martyr. The angel is flying down from a cloudy space in which Jesus Christ stands holding a gilded Bible. Christ is surrounded by what appear to be four red birds and, like the angel and the head, is rendered in a flat, stylized manner. In each of the four corners of the golden field is a small rendering of a different scene from the life of John the Baptist. The bottom left scene is the moment of John’s beheading, the bottom right is John’s head on a platter with two devotees. The two upper scenes are difficult to make out from online images, and as there is very limited information available on this painting, I am unable to state definitively what they depict, but I suspect that the scene in the upper right may be John’s birth, while the upper left may be the prophecy of John’s birth. Each scene is labeled in small Church Slavic script on the green border. A larger, block-letter Church Slavic phrase is at the center top of the border.
For those unfamiliar with the Bible, John the Baptist was a traveling preacher, and a bit of an extreme one, too. The different accounts of him in the Bible conflict with each other somewhat (as they do about a number of things) but here’s what is generally agreed upon: John was the result of a pregnancy almost as miraculous as the Virgin Mary’s, his birth also being foretold by an angel, but this time to an older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who had never had children and did not expect to at their age. When he grew up and started preaching and, as his name attests, baptizing people, the canonical Gospels report he did things like wear camel hair shirts and eat locusts and wild honey—hence, when he’s depicted in art as a living man, it’s usually with wild hair and a rough, hairy-looking robe. Along with the many people John baptized for the purposes of cleansing them of sin, he also baptized Jesus himself. Eventually, probably due to John being a bit of a radical, his death was called for by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, and he was executed.
The idea of John the Baptist’s head being on a platter comes specifically from the Gospel of Mark, which tells that John had been criticizing Herod for marrying his brother’s widow, Herodias, for which Herod had imprisoned him. At Herod’s birthday banquet, Herodias’s daughter Salome danced for all the guests, and Herod enjoyed it so much that he said he would grant her any request–after some prompting from her mother, Salome requested that she be given the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod did so.
Numerous artists have depicted the head of John the Baptist on a platter, but the versions you may be more familiar with are firmly in the Western European tradition, and usually have a narrative bent, depicting the moment when John’s head is presented to Salome in the middle of Herod’s birthday feast. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian painters like Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Titian treat the subject particularly dramatically. This painting, however, is an icon, a specific type of religious image used primarily in the Eastern Orthodox Church for prayer and devotion. As I mentioned in episode 5 of Art History for All, on Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 abstract painting Black Square, icons often appear in Russian homes, not just churches or sacred sites. As Russian historian Daniel H. Kaiser writes, quote, “Russian Orthodoxy is, above all, a religion of the sign, not of the word.” End quote. Early modern Russia had an extremely low literacy rate in comparison to other regions at the time, which meant that images were one of the most effective ways to convey religious messages to the masses. A sixteenth-century Orthodox religious manual called Domostroi recommended that, quote, “Every Christian should put holy and venerable pictures, icons painted according to the church’s rules, on the walls of every room,” end quote, and also directed worshippers to, quote, “always so revere [icons]—during prayer, vigils, worship, and any other divine service, confessing, pleading with tears and a contrite heart, for the remission of your sins.” End quote. The key with icons is that they don’t require the drama and narrative impact of Western European artwork in order to fulfill their function: the mere fact that the object depicts a saint is what is necessary for worshipers. Elena Avdyusheva and Irina Egorova, describing an icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh and his life, emphasize that for the Orthodox worshiper, quote, “the contemplation of the image put one in the immediate presence of the Saint and the reciprocal gaze of the figure allowed their communication…. The viewer regards the image as a real one…. [T]he artist showed a long and difficult life path of the saint, trying to correlate it with a long and hard way of his spiritual progress, which ha something in common with the experience of an ordinary person. That is why the icon is clear for any orthodox [sic] person to understand.” End quote.
Our icon of the head of John the Baptist may have been an individual’s private devotional picture at one point, but, unfortunately, it’s difficult to know with the limited information available to those who don’t speak Russian. The online text from an exhibition it appeared in at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis says it is from the Yaroslavl Art Museum, but metadata on a photo of the same icon on Wikimedia Commons says it is located in the Church of Elijah in Yaroslavl. Knowing where it is would make learning more about this specific icon much easier, and would give us immediate context for how it’s currently being displayed or has been displayed in the past. For example, Russian Orthodox Churches feature what’s called an iconostasis, a tall panel covered in icons that divides the nave of a church from the sanctuary, screening the altar from the view of the congregation. When Russians sat in the nave of a church and looked towards the altar, they saw a wall of saints and other religious figures—then, when they returned home, more icons decorated their own walls. Even after Peter the Great introduced more Westernized elements to Russian culture, religious imagery remained so common in early modern Russia that in merchant homes, quote, “the essential feature and main decoration of the rooms…in spite of the appearance of the latest western European innovations in domestic decoration (pictures, mirrors, clocks, etc.), remained, as before, the ‘beautiful corner,’ filled with numerous icons, often constituting a genuine iconostasis.” End quote. As Western Europeans traveled to the region in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they often remarked upon the prevalence of icons and icon worship in their travelogues—some favorably, some not so much:
“European visitors confirm that Muscovites extended consistent attention to household icons. Cornelis de Bruyn, for example, noted that in [Peter the Great’s] Russia persons who entered a room would, before pronouncing a word, search out ‘any Saint there might be, one of whom would always be in every room. Searching it out, they would make three inclinations before it, covering themselves with the sign of the cross and pronouncing ‘Lord, have mercy’ or else ‘peace be to the house and all who dwell therein,’ again crossing themselves and only after this greeting the householders and holding conversation with them.’ John Perry offers a similar description, adding that sometimes the bows could lead to complete prostrations before the icons, reflective of the extent to which, in Perry’s opinion, Russians confused mere icons with the divine spirit. When a Russian entered a room and did not immediately make out where an icon hung, said Perry, ‘he presently enquires Ogdea Boag? Where is God?’ The result, he thought, was that veneration sometimes fused with an almost magical regard for certain images. In venerating a particular icon, then, an Orthodox Christian seemed to try to appropriate the power of the image.”
Whether this icon of the head of John the Baptist was in a private home or a church, it was probably treated with this sort of reverence, a reverence that, to the Western European eye, particularly after the Protestant Reformation, would have seemed cultlike and strange. In fact, much of Russian culture prior to the ascension of Tsar Peter the Great in 1682 seemed strange and old-fashioned, even backward, to Western Europeans. The Austrian emperor’s envoy to Muscovy around 1660 said of Russians’ attitude toward their sacred spaces, quote: “the Muscovites block entrance to their churches to persons of any other religion, as if they were dogs; and should someone try to have a look on the sly, they take him by the arms and throw him out, shouting profanities after him.” End quote. Europeans had equal disdain for Russian art and architecture before Peter came along: the secretary of the English embassy to Muscovy in 1568 wrote a snarky poem that reads in part, quote, “Temples stuft [sic] with idols that defile/The seats that sacred ought to be…. I never saw a…people so beset with saints, yet all but vile and vain.” End quote. One Dr. Collins wrote in the 1660s that Russian imagery, quote, “is very pitiful painting, flat and ugly…if you saw their images, you would take them for no better than guilded [sic] gingerbread.” End quote. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that these commentators were looking at Russian imagery with eyes that had become used to the three-dimensionality and linear perspective that the Italian Renaissance had brought to the art of Western Europe. As James Cracraft explains in his book on Peter the Great’s impact on Russian art, both Italian Renaissance artists and pre-Petrine Russian artists had access to and were influenced by Byzantine art, which was, in a way, the “living continuation of Greek art.” But while Byzantine art, being a development of Greek art produced in the last living form of the Roman empire, led Italians back to Classical sources that they drew on during the Renaissance, Russians didn’t have access to those classical sources. They had plenty of Byzantine art to reference, especially since their religious traditions were both Eastern Orthodox, but they couldn’t walk around and dig up Classical sculptures like Italians could, or find Classical writings in archives or archaeological sites. Russian art simply could not develop in the same way that Western European art had, and so for a while it stayed in a mode that to us, and to early modern Europeans, looks sort of “medieval” or “Gothic.”
The Head of John the Baptist does very closely resemble aspects of Byzantine and medieval art—its golden background in particular, as well as the way in which it depicts Christ, is very similar to the way Byzantine icons were depicted in paintings and mosaics. The very icon tradition itself derives from the way Christianity developed under the Byzantine empire. There do seem to be some nods, however, to the quote-unquote “new art” that made its way to Russia in bits and pieces prior to Peter the Great. The small scene in the upper right hand corner seems to have been composed at least in part with linear perspective, as evidenced by the lines of stones in the floor of the chamber, which appear to recede to a single vanishing point at the center of the scene. Just as notable , however, is the way in which the base of the platter on which John the Baptist’s head lies is treated. The ornate plant forms that fan out to support the plate look strikingly similar to the ornamental acanthus leaves that cascade up the sides of Corinthian capitals. The fact they are modeled monochromatically, with black outlines and shading, suggests they may have been inspired by the depiction of such ornamentation in print. This makes sense because prior to 1700, the few elements of “new art” that were transmitted to Russia were thanks largely to the circulation of Western European prints. Print technology in Russia at that time was undeveloped, especially in comparison to the massive scale of printmaking that had developed over the previous two centuries in Europe. The printed word and the printed image allowed for Renaissance ideas to spread across Europe rapidly, and became the framework through which knowledge was distributed in the European Age of Enlightenment. But at the same time that Europe’s intellectual and cultural development was picking up speed thanks to printing, Russia was at a totally different level. By 1700, Cracraft says, the tsardom of Russia was geographically enormous, but also quite autocratic and “one of the least urbanized” states in the world. If we take Western Europe’s trajectory as the standard by which progress is to be judged (and we usually do), then Russia was significantly behind the times at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It was at a different level of economic development, with a barter-focused economy untouched by capitalism. It was at a different level of educational development, too: according to Cracraft, Moscow, the urban hub of the empire, quote, “had little or no indigenous tradition of learning, its few scholars had little or no access to Classical literature, and few of its inhabitants could actually read.” End quote. The arts, too, seemed to be lagging behind Western Europe, not just stylistically, but in their very structures, rooted in craft traditions and focused almost entirely on painting with little sculpture to speak of. The patronage of art was limited almost entirely to the tsar, whose autocratic power Cracraft describes in the following excerpt:
“Both contemporary European observers and later historians…marveled at the absolute, centralized character of the Russian ‘autocracy’ and its related control of the economy—an autocracy whose harshness, it seems, was tempered only by inefficiency and venality. In practice the system was in some degree perhaps also moderated by the religious or moral influence of the one Orthodox church to which both the Ruler and all his faithful subjects were thought to belong, an influence which persistently enjoined the tsar to show mercy to his ‘children’ and the ‘haves’ among his subjects to show kindness to the ‘have-nots.’ Whatever their practical import, these themes are reflected, or refracted, in the traditional imagery of the church.
One clear indication of the tsardom’s growing control of society is the virtual monopoly it had established by the later seventeenth century over the production of works of art…. The control was both direct and indirect, encompassing as it did art produced in workshops or on building sites owned and operated by organs of the tsar’s state and art produced elsewhere, under state regulations and with state subsidies if not on commission from a state agency. It might be said that such a monopoly of art devolved naturally upon an institution that had come to regard itself as the ultimate lord and residual owner of the country and all its resources, both human and material. In any event, when Peter I personally assumed full power (in 1689) the tsardom was unquestionably the chief patron of art in Russia, a fact that is also reflected in the art—the imagery—itself.”
It may be difficult to see this autocratic power made manifest in the icon of the Head of John the Baptist, but knowing that it was likely a result of the Tsar’s patronage casts it in a new light. Monarchic rulers all over the world have justified their hereditary rule through visible displays of devotion to higher beings, to whom they claim they owe their earthly power. The Roman emperors aligned themselves with their gods, and after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the power of the Byzantine emperors was closely connected to their devotion to and visible glorification of the Judeo-Christian God. The depiction in this icon of Christ sending an angel down to bestow a crown upon the martyred John the Baptist communicates that it is Christ’s prerogative to crown whomever he chooses, whether it be a martyr or a king. The material richness of the icon itself—the gold, the detailed scenes in the corners, the annotations in gilded script that only a rare few could actually read—all this supports the hierarchical arrangement of divine and earthly power that is central to the icon, and validates the hierarchical arrangement of church and state authority that produced the physical icon.
I’ve tried to just hint at the changes that came shortly after this icon was produced once Peter the Great took the throne. Peter’s reign is generally considered a watershed period in Russian history, during which Russia effectively joined modern Europe and had a little Renaissance of its own. You could probably do a whole podcast just on Peter the Great, an idea which I fully support and would definitely listen to, please go make that podcast! But the focus on Peter’s reign has meant that the period that immediately preceded him is not as clearly understood, and, as Russian historian Paul Bushkovitch says, quote, “the cultural history of the 1670-1735 period is a mass of unconnected details, and they need to be put together into a coherent whole.” End quote. Bushkovitch further notes, in connection with problems with the ways historians have approached early modern Russia, that, quote, “the one issue never posed is why any of this happened at all. Most Russian historians in general, particularly in the last generation, avoid discussion of causality or even explanation in favor of ever more precise description…” End quote. It seems that not only did early modern European travelers have trouble understanding and explaining pre-Petrine Russia, so have its historians.
I would argue that we in the West in general have not really known what to think about Russia or how to explain its history and culture, except in broad generalities conceived by anti-Communist propaganda during the Cold War. One of those stereotypes, especially towards the end of the Cold War, was the idea of Russia as a poor, old-fashioned, backward nation whose culture consists entirely of state-sanctioned content… not unlike the ways in which European travelers described seventeenth-century Russia. I’m not saying that Russia in either the seventeenth century, the twentieth, or the twenty-first is without significant problems, especially problems to do with its government, but I do wonder if the standards by which we have been judging it are, perhaps, unfair. Who is to say that a country’s development, whether economic, military, or cultural, should necessarily follow a Western European trajectory? Who is to say that a given artistic tradition must necessarily follow the same trajectory as Western Europe’s has? The way in which the artist behind the icon of the Head of John the Baptist blends narrative scenes with traditional icon composition, and mixes Byzantine and medieval artistic elements with Classically inspired details and Renaissance linear perspective, creates something totally unique, a one-of-a-kind contribution that might not have been possible had Russian art developed any other way. Every work of art is an encapsulation of a unique historical and cultural moment, and global art history, and human history more broadly, would be much less rich and vibrant were that not the case.
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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving a tip at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall. This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. Main episodes premiere on the last Monday of every month, and bonus episodes will appear in your feed occasionally. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely in 2020—you never know what you might see.
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“Ay Uchniem (Song of the Volga Boatmen),” performed by Kiriloff’s Russian Balalaika Orchestra, 1921. 78 rpm recording via archive.org: https://archive.org/details/78_ay-uchniem-song-of-the-volga-boatmen_kirilloffs-russian-balalaika-orchestra_gbia0054989a/Ay+Uchniem+(Song+-+Kirilloff’s+Russian+Balalaika+Orchestra.flac
Music from https://filmmusic.io
“Virtutes Instrumenti” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)
License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
 Daniel H. Kaiser, “Icons and Private Devotion Among Eighteenth-Century Moscow Townsfolk,” Journal of Social History 45, no. 1 (November 12, 2011): 125.
 Kaiser, 125.
 Kaiser, 126.
 Elena A. Avdyusheva and Irina V. Egorova, “Communicative Value of the Russian Orthodox Icon,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, International Conference on Communication in Multicultural Society, CMSC 2015, 6-8 December 2015, Moscow, Russian Federation, 236 (December 14, 2016): 307–8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2016.12.034.
 “Head of St. John the Baptist,” The Museum of Russian Art (blog), October 30, 2015, https://tmora.org/currentexhibitions/online-exhibitions/transcendent-art-icons-from-yaroslavl-russia/17th-century-icons/head-of-st-john-the-baptist/.
 School of Gury Nikitin, English: Head of John the BaptistРусский: Усекновенная Голова Иоанна Предтечи. Икона Храма Ильи Пророка в Ярославле. 1680, Школа Гурия Никитина, 1680, Scan from Русский: И. Л. Бусева-Давыдова. Культура и искусство в эпоху перемен. – М., Индрик, 2008, ISBN 978-5-85759-439-1 Original located in the Church of Elijah, Yaroslavl., https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jonh_the_Baptist_1680.jpg.
 Robert M Arida, “Another Look at the Solid Iconostasis in the Russian Orthodox Church,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52, no. 3–4 (2008): 339–65.
 Kaiser, 137.
 James Cracraft, The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 2.
 Cracraft, 3.
 Cracraft, 9.
 Cracraft, 20.
 Beautiful Buildings Pics, English: Timeline of Acanthus Leafes in Different Styles, Each One Beaing Notated with a Letter. a-Greek, b-Roman, c-Byzantine, d-Romanesque, e, f-Gothic, g-Renaissance, h, i-Baroque, j, k-Rococo., October 19, 2019, Own work, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Timeline_of_acanthus_leafes_in_different_styles,_each_one_beaing_notated_with_a_letter._a-Greek,_b-Roman,_c-Byzantine,_d-Romanesque,_e,_f-Gothic,_g-Renaissance,_h,_i-Baroque,_j,_k-Rococo.jpg.
 Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT Germany, The Pantheon, Rome, February 7, 2014, The Pantheon, Rome, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Pantheon,_Rome_(14995115321).jpg.
 Cracraft, 21-24.
 Cracraft, 24.
 Cracraft, 27.
 Cracraft, 28.
 Cracraft, 30.
 Bushkovitch, 313.