Following the thread – an investigation on Russian church embroideries


Article written around the exhibition: Liturgical Textiles of the Post-Byzantine World  (August 3d to November 1st 2015)
Author – Warren T. Woodfin, City University of New York
Translated by Claire de Pourtalès
Link to the original article

One of the most striking aspects of the silk and metal-thread embroideries on view through November 1, 2015, in Liturgical Textiles of the Post-Byzantine World is how labor-intensive they are. One might wonder who devoted so much time and eyestrain to creating these pieces, and at whose behest? Although they form a minority within the body of surviving liturgical embroideries, pieces inscribed with the names of the donor or the embroiderer help scholars to answer these questions.

Art historians can use both explicit inscriptions and the implicit evidence of style and iconography to trace liturgical embroideries back to the churches that used them, the patrons that sponsored them, and embroiderers that created them. Not only does this information provide us with important milestones for the attribution and dating of similar pieces, but it also helps us to reconstruct the networks of ties, both social and sacred, created and reinforced through the delicate threads of embroidery.

Liturgical cuffs (epimanikia), 1740. Greek. Silk, metal thread, and metal wire embroidery on a foundation of silk satin; 9 3/4 x 5 3/4 in. (24.8 x 14.6 cm) © MET, New York / 41.100.235 and 41.100.234

Inscriptions help provide a date for some of the earliest and latest pieces found in the exhibition. A pair of liturgical cuffs, or epimanikia, depicting the Annunciation, bears an inscription in Greek characters that spans the two cuffs. Although it is marked by a number of misspellings, one can decipher the name of the embroiderer, one Doulisa Tzoeris, who dedicated the epimanikia in memory of her son and of her parents. The characters at the end of the inscription give the date of 1740.

The Annunciation was a favored subject for epimanikia, since it lent itself to division across the pair of cuffs (see also 41.100.235). The motif of the angel Gabriel entering on a raft of clouds is borrowed from the art of Western Europe, likely via prints. The inscription in the lower margins recalls the “toil and pains” of the embroider and concludes with the Greek numerals ΑΨΜ for the year 1740.

A second embroidered item with many inscriptions can be used as a reference to help date other pieces. This veil formed a boxlike cover for the chalice during portions of the liturgy. Its central image shows the young Christ blessing from within a chalice, flanked by Arabic script labeling him Jesus, the Messiah. The Greek inscription surrounding the medallion speaks of Christ’s sacrifice, while the Georgian inscriptions at the ends of the cross-arms plead for the donor, the nobleman Solomon Shavrashidze.

Chalice cover, late 15th century. Georgian, Abkhasia. Silk and metal-thread embroidery on a foundation of silk satin backed with linen plain weave; 16 3/4 x 17 in. (42.5 x 43.2 cm) © MET, New York / 17.190.128
Chalice cover, Epitaphios (Plashchanitsa), third quarter 17th century. Russian, Moscow or environs. Silk and metal-thread embroidery on a foundation of linen plain weave, 61.6 x 81.3 cm © MET, New York / 46.191

In a third instance, that of a Russian liturgical veil, or epitaphios, the art-historical tools of stylistic comparison and iconographic analysis allow us to infer the history of the object’s creation even in the absence of a dedicatory inscription.
The central scene of the Lamentation of Christ is bordered by a series of saints in roundels, with a particular focus on saints of the Moscow region, including four Metropolitans of Moscow and the important monastic leaders Sergius and Cyril. Also notable is the depiction in the left border of the sainted Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich, whose cult flourished following the transfer of his remains to Moscow in 1606.

The choice of central image—the epitaphios thrēnos, or lamentation over Christ’s lifeless body after his crucifixion—is standard for this type of textile. In fact, the composition of this scene, as with similar embroidered veils of this period, is lifted in more or less direct fashion from famous epitaphioi of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Slavonic inscriptions, combined with the insistent geometric patterning of the embroidery, help to place this example in seventeenth-century Russia. The depiction of Saint John the Baptist with wings (as the “angel,” that is, the harbinger of Christ’s appearing) is an iconographic detail favored in Russia, although it occasionally appears elsewhere in late Byzantine and post-Byzantine contexts.

Details – Saint John the Baptiste, The Christ and Saint Gregory
Details – Saint Christopher Cynocephali

Another detail that points to Russia is the correlation of the four Evangelist symbols found in the corners to the four Gospel writers. Most Byzantine and post-Byzantine embroideries follow the system familiar also in the Latin West: the angel represents Matthew; the winged lion Mark; the winged ox Luke; and the eagle John, as is also shown on another roundel in the exhibition. Here, however, as in many Russian works of art, the winged lion is labeled “Saint John” and the eagle “Saint Mark.” (The other zoomorphic figure, second from left in the bottom row, is Saint Christopher, who, according to some medieval versions of his legend, was a member of the Cynocephali, that is, a race of dog-headed people supposedly residing in North Africa.)

At the center of the top of the veil is the depiction of the Lord of Hosts, labeled Gospod’ Savaof (Lord of Sabaoth); in the same position on the lower border is the Annunciation, with a small image of God the Father sending the Holy Spirit upon the womb of the Virgin Mary to effect the conception of Christ. The corners, as already mentioned, contain the symbols of the four Gospels, while the remaining fourteen roundels are occupied with figures of saints.

Details – The Annunciation
Details – Above, Metropolitans Philip II of Moscow / Righe, Anna the Prophetess

Fully half of these represent individuals closely associated with the Orthodox Church in Muscovy in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. These include the important monastic founders Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Saint Cyril of Beloozero, both active in the fourteenth century; the Moscow Metropolitans Peter (†1326), Alexius (†1378), Jonas (†1461), and Philip II (†1568); and the holy Tsarevich—Dmitrii Ivanovich—the son of Ivan the Terrible who was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1591. The remaining saints include John the Baptist, Anna the Prophetess, Procopius, John the Hermit, Pelagia of Tarsus, Gregory, and Christopher.

The sainted Tsarevich Dmitrii was popularly regarded as a martyr to the machinations of Boris Godunov, and he enjoyed a thriving cult following the translation of his remains to Moscow, in 1606. Tsar Michael I Romanov (r. 1613–1645) and his son Alexei Mikhailovich (r. 1645–1676) both used the cult of the Tsarevich Dmitrii as a tool to legitimate their reign. His imagery was particularly propagated by the workshops of the Stroganov family, which was based in the city of Solvychegodsk, near Arkhangelsk in the Russian far north.

Details – The sainted Tsarevich Dmitrii

With their vast fortune built on salt making, the Stroganovs provided financial and military backing to the tsars in Moscow from the time of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547–1584) onward. Embroiderers working under the patronage of Dmitrii Andreevich Stroganov (ca. 1622–1670) produced several hangings with images of the Tsarevich Dmitrii and his supposed martyrdom. One of these pieces—now in the Historical and Art Museum of Solvychegodsk—was presented to the local Cathedral of the Annunciation in 1654. With its border of saints in roundels, it is strikingly similar in imagery and style to the Metropolitan Museum’s embroidery, and even includes some of the same rather unusual saints, such as John the Hermit and the animal-headed Saint Christopher.

In the 1650s and 1660s, the Stroganovs were giving embroidered works not only to the churches of their own region, but also to the major churches and monasteries of Moscow and its environs. Some of these textile gifts were inscribed with the names of Dmitrii’s son, Grigorii, and his daughter, Pelageia—names that, with that of his wife, Anna, are echoed by the names of the saints featured on the border of the Museum’s veil.

The selection of saints in the roundels may help us to further pinpoint the date and circumstances for which this textile was embroidered. The depictions of Saints Pelagia, Anna, and Gregory all relate to members of Dmitrii Andreevich Stroganov’s immediate family, and symbolically associate them with the sainted leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church. The canonization of Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow, in 1652, gives the earliest possible date (terminus post quem) for the embroidery—one that fits quite closely with the stylistically comparable examples from the Stroganov workshops.

Church of Saint Gregory of Neocaesarea, Moscow, built 1662 and following © Photo Alexei Lidov

One final detail may help further narrow the date: the placement of Saint Gregory in the upper border of the epitaphios, immediately to the left of God the Father. His appearance in this place of honor, opposite the winged figure of John the Baptist, likely indicates that the piece was embroidered for a church or monastery dedicated to Saint Gregory. A likely candidate is the Church of Saint Gregory of Neocaesarea in the Zamoskvorech’e region of Moscow. The monumental rebuilding on the site of an earlier wooden church was commissioned by Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, and work was begun in 1662.

In 1671, the new church served as the setting for the tsar’s marriage to his second wife, Natalia Naryshkina, the mother of the future Peter the Great. Given the Stroganov’s demonstrated interest in supporting the early members of the Romanov dynasty, it would hardly be surprising for them to give a donation to an important new church commissioned by the tsar, particularly one dedicated to the name-saint of Grigorii Dmitrievich Stroganov.

The author would like to thank Professor Michael Flier of Harvard University for his helpful bibliographical references on the churches of Moscow.

Additional Reading
Avalishvili, Z. A Fifteenth-Century Georgian Needle Painting in the Metropolitan Museum, New York In Georgica : A Journal of Georgian and Caucasian Studies 1.1 (octobre 1935): 67–74
Chatzedake, Eugenia. Εκκλησιαστικά Κεντήματα. Athens: Benaki Museum, 1953.
Grierson, Roderick, ed. Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia. Fort Worth, Texas: InterCultura, 1992
Makarevich, Gleb V., et al., Eds. Pamiatniki arkhitektury Moskvy. Zamoskvorech’e. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1994
Schilb, Henry. Singing, Crying, Shouting, and Saying: Embroidered Aëres and Epitaphioi and the Sounds of the Byzantine Liturgy. In Resounding Images: Medieval Intersections of Art, Music, and Sound, edited by Susan Boynton and Diane J. Reilly, 167–187. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015
Silkin, A. V. Stroganovskoe litsevoe shit’ë. Moscow: Progress-Traditsiia, 2002
Smirnova, Englina, ed. Tserkovnoe shit’ë v drevnei Rusi. Moscow: Galart, 2010

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire