It’s a short post today, about as much as a toddler-induced headache can muster. But I found an interesting article about a question that some of you may have had. If icons are supposed to represent holy objects and people, why do some of them have full-on battle scenes? Take this one for example:
What’s going on? In the Russian magazine Foma, artist Dmitrii Trophimov answered this question. What follows is my translation of his short, but interesting, explanation.
Battle scenes, more often than not, appear not in icons, but in miniature illuminations in the margins of manuscripts. When they do appear in proper icons, there’s usually a good reason for it. Perhaps the most famous “war-like” icon is the so-called “Battle of the Novgorodians with the Suzdalians.”
This icon depicts a miraculous deliverance of Novgorod by the icon of the Mother of God of the Sign in 1170. This was right in the middle of the tense period sometimes called the Internecine War, a time when rival cities battled each other for power almost constantly (and a time period I recreate in my third novel, The Heart of the World). The army of Suzdal had besieged Novgorod. It got so bad that the Suzdalians had already decided which streets of the city would be destroyed in which order.
At that time, the icon of the Mother of God (later called “the Icon of the Sign”) was brought into the stockade as part of a liturgical procession. As it processed, the arrows of the Suzdalians began to pierce the icon, and the image began to shed real tears. As soon as that happened, a storm descended out of nowhere so quickly, it terrified the Suzdalians. In the confused murk, they began to shoot at each other and were eventually routed by the army of Novgorod.
Another popular theme for such military icons is the Battle on the Neva of St. Alexander Nevsky, but this scene is usually not the main image, but a side panel or a background motif. The battle of Kulikovo Field can also be seen in some icons as a background motif.
Even though actual bloodshed isn’t shown on the icon, the drama of battle is given stylized life. Armed warriors are gathered together like a monolith or like a balled fist. Spears bristle upward. To show the massive size of battle, iconographers used this kind of “shorthand”–a few horses to indicate the the whole host, a bunch of shields above them, and above the shields– many helms and spears. The retreating army is in tattered disarray in marked contrast to the monolith of the army of the virtuous.
In such icons, most of the faces are not particularly recognizable. In icons of the battle of Kulikovo Field (the first significant military victory of the Rus against the invading Mongols), we can recognize St. Dmitrii Donskoy and the two warrior-monks Peresvet and Osliabia. In the icon of the victory over Suzdal, the Novgorodian army is led by none other than Sts. Boris and Gleb, Great-martyr George, and Great-martyr Dmitrii, who are all paragons of military virtue (though for different reasons).
As for the icon of St. Alexander Nevsky battling the invading Crusaders, the armies of heaven themselves step into battle on Prince Alexander’s side. Interestingly, both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are painted with the same neutral expressions.
So ultimately the answer to the question is that battles are painted on icons when the events had not merely historical but spiritual significance as well. The battle in such cases is connected with a labor for the sake of the faith and is always won with God’s direct aid or by the prayer of His mother, and often with the military support of the angels and the saints.
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