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.