More on the Vasnetsov Madonna

Interior, St Vladimir's Cathedral, Kiev

First of all, it is worth considering the location and size of this image of the Madonna. It is a monumental fresco in the apse of St Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev,Ukraine.

The image itself combines the stylized forms and poses of the classical iconography of the Mother of God, but uses a more naturalistic style–making it more accessible to a modern audience. I realize that the purists of the Eastern Orthodox iconographic tradition turn up their nose at Vasnetsov’s sacred art. Victor Vasnetsov was considered a traitor to the modernist cause and sacrilegious to the Russian Orthodox traditionalists, but there are still many who are within the tradition who accept his work as an excellent expression of the tradition.

I love the image because it is so “Eastern” the Madonna looks like a young Russian girl, but she also looks Semitic. She seems like she could be stepping out of Jewish Nazareth to gaze at us. Vasnetsov has also managed to convey both the natural simplicity of the child and mother, while also conveying their royal dignity and the Christ child’s divine pre-eminence. That they are portrayed in heavenly splendor on the clouds and high above in the apse also reveals a beautiful truth of humanity divinized through the wonder of the incarnation.

I’d be interested in other people’s opinions in the combox.

  • David Thomas

    I like how Jesus has one armed raised to heaven and the other toward us. Like he’s saying “I’m bringing heaven to you.” He also looks like he wants to jump out of his mother’s arms to be held by us.

    Our Lady of Valaam is another favorite–it looks like the Theotokos is giving Jesus for you to hold.

    • Bill

      I second your comment on Our Lady of Valaam, David.

  • Mary Alice

    Adore this one for just the reasons you said, Father.

  • Will

    The art is beautiful although I admit I know nothing about it. Your comments about the artist and his art are intesting too. Many look on church architecture and art as being monolithic until the second half of the 20th century, when there have been many changes along the way.

  • Bernie

    Absolutely beautiful. Just one correction Father, Kiev is in Ukraine, not Russia.

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  • http://byzantinechesterton.blogspot.com Seraphim

    It’s a pretty religious painting, one which has great artistic merit, but it doesn’t belong in an Orthodox temple. It’s not an ikon, it violates the iconographic canons, and it is naturalistic. Our ikons depict transfigured reality, viewing the Incarnation from the viewpoint of Heaven (as opposed to the West, which depicts the earthly reality that is being transfigured). As St. Symeon of Thessaloniki told us, the narthex corresponds to earth, the church to heaven, and the holy sanctuary to what is beyond heaven, and putting a painting of something earthly in the sanctuary is grossly inappropriate. This is not to deny its artistic merits, but ikons are not art. They are sacraments. Vasnetsov’s Madonna might have been appropriate in a Roman Catholic setting, but certainly not an Orthodox one. This isn’t “purism” or “traditionalism” – it’s just a fact that we have canons and blatantly violating them is not okay.

    • Will

      Apparently the Roman Catholic Church is not the only one without disputes.

  • Amanda

    Father, as a Ukrainian, I absolutely insist that you change the post to reflect that Kiev is in UKRAINE, not Russia. My grandmother would turn red in the face at such an insult! And beautiful church. :)

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Done…but “please” would have been nice.


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