Dionysius, The Icon Painter

Visiting Berdabek of the Golden Horde,
border scene dfrom the icon "Metropolitan Alexei".
In 1482, the Saint Sophia Calendar recorded friction between Bishop Iosif of Volotsk and Prince Fyodor Borisovich. Iosif, a wily politician, tried hard to mollify the Prince's wrath. But the Prince was implacable: he made peace only after Bishop Iosif had given him several icons painted by Rublyov and Dionysius.

Medieval Russia's chroniclers never bothered with the gossip of the day: they recorded only major events, so the conflict of prince and bishop and the handing over of these icons from the monastery collection must have appealed to them as big news.

Good paintings and painters were obviously in keen demand in those days. Leaders of church and state thought it essential to have a group of good artists at court. They grudged no expense and stopped at no means to obtain good artists. They won over others' artists by inducements, or even shamelessly kidnapped them.

When the first Russian schools of mutton when terrible pains seized him.

This free-thinker, the chroniclers solemnly claim, could not move a limb. He suffered agonies, and was cured only when he repented before the Superior of the monastery, brought to his side by the artist's frightened pupils and assistants.
Alexei Meets the Khan by Dionysius
Alexei Meets the Khan,
border scene from the icon "Metropolitan Alexei".
Some 60 or 70 years ago, before old paintings came under analytical scrutiny, many art collectors boasted possession of icons by Rublyov or Dionysius. The boasts had nothing to back them except vanity. In the first place, many ancient Russian paintings were irreparably lost or painted over several times during six stormy centuries of Russian history. Secondly, the Russian artists of old did not sign their icons. Thus documented authorship is rare.

Dionysius was, presumably, born around 1440. Of the many works attributed to him by chroniclers only a few survived: "Hodigitria" in the Ascension Monastery in Moscow, dated 1482, the frescoes of St. Pherapontus Monastery some 200 miles from Vologda, "The Saviour" and "The Crucifixion" (Pavlovo-Obnorsk Monastery), dated 1500, and "Metropolitan Aiexei" (now in the Tretyakov Picture Gallery).

The earliest of Dionysius' works of which we find mention were paintings in the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin (St. Pathnuthius Monastery). These works, done between 1467 and 1477, have not survived. Dionysius worked there with a certain Mitrofan: the chronicler put Dionysius' name second, which may signify that Mitrofan was an older and more experienced painter. Both, however, are rated as unsurpassed masters. Dionysius must have been painting icons for a long time to have won such a high appraisal.
Homage to the Relics of Alexei after Death
Homage to the Relics of Alexei after Death,
border scene from the icon "Metropolitan Alexei".

In 1481 Dionysius, together with Timothy, a priest, and Yarets and Konya, secular artists, painted icons for the most important Russian church of the time - the Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin. The team received 100 roubles - a colossal sum for those times. The chronicler now puts Dionysius at the top of the list.

Archbishop Vassian of Rostov is named as the artists' patron. Vassian is regarded by Russian historians as a patriot, an excellent writer and a man of influence at the court of the Grand Prince of Muscovy, Ivan III. Vassian, the Grand Prince's confessor, set him at peace with his bellicose brother princes and christened the heir to the Russian throne, Vassili, in 1479.

Vassian was from the same St. Pathnuthius Monastery Dionysius had decorated with Mitrofan, and he so admired the artist that he recommended him to the Grand Prince as the chief icon-painter of Moscow's foremost cathedral. Ivan III took a fancy to Dionysius, who remained his favourite artist for many years. The Prince saw in Dionysius' works a regal splendour that gave special lustre to his reign as unifier of the Russian lands.

No documentary evidence has been found of Dionysius' work in the 'nineties, but it is certain that he worked mostly in Moscow, where the Kremlin and a series of churches were being speedily rebuilt and several new churches erected. His group now included his sons, Theodosius and Vladimir.

The chronicles have nothing about his last known work - the paintings in the Chapel of the Virgin in St. Pherapontus Monastery. An inscription on the soffit of the north door of the church confirmed Dionysius' authorship.

An icon-painting group given the assignment for further decoration of the royal court's Assumption Cathedral was led by master Theo-dosius, Dionysius' son. Dionysius by this time was, apparently, either dead or too old to work.

Dionysius lived in an epoch of national upsurge, and his creative endeavour reflected the new ideas of the time which was marked by the growing might of the Russian state. This determined to a great extent his maturity and artistic perfection.

His manner lacks the striking individuality of Rublyov's school. In the works of his pupils, it is more difficult to discern individual styles than in the icons and paintings by Rublyov's followers. Nonetheless, Dionysius, like Rublyov, initiated a new trend in Russian painting, giving interest to his works to this day. He extended the range of subjects. The artist was particularly fond of painting icons that featured the lives of saints. An icon of this kind presented a saint's image surrounded by 15 or 20 scenes from his life.

The icon Metropolitan Alexei
The icon "Metropolitan Alexei",
painted somewhere between 1462 and 1483,
with border scenes from the life of the Metropolitan.
The Healing of Taidula
The Healing of Taidula, theKhan's Wife,
border scene from the icon "Metropolitan Alexei".
Chanting Prayers by Peter's Tomb
Chanting Prayers by Peter's Tomb,
border scene from the icon "Metropolitan Alexei".
The Crucifixion
Detail from the icon "The Crucifixion",
Pavlovo-Obnorsk Monastery, dated 1500.

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