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Depicting Orthodoxy: The Novgorod Sophia icon reconsidered



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Tóthné Kriza, Ágnes Rebeka 


The Novgorod icon of Divine Wisdom is a great innovation of fifteenth-century Russian art. It represents the winged female Sophia flanked by the Theotokos and John the Baptist. Although the icon has a contemporaneous commentary and it exercised a profound influence on Russian cultural history (inspiring, among others, the sophiological theory of the turn of the twentieth century), its meaning, together with the dating and localisation of the first appearance of the iconography, has remained a great art-historical conundrum. This thesis sheds new light on this icon and explores the message, roots, function and historical context of the first, most emblematic and most enigmatic Russian allegorical iconography. In contrast to its recent interpretations as a Trinitarian image with Christ-Angel, it argues that the winged Sophia is the personification of the Orthodox Church. The Novgorod Wisdom icon represents the Church of Hagia Sophia, that is Orthodoxy, as it was perceived in fifteenth-century Rus’: the icon together with its commentary was a visual-textual response to the Florentine Union between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, signed in 1439 but rejected by the Russians in 1441. The thesis is based on detailed interdisciplinary research, utilising simultaneously the methodologies of philology, art history, theology and history. The combined analysis reveals that the great innovation of the Novgorod Sophia icon is that it amalgamates ecclesiological and sophiological iconographies in new ways. Hence the dissertation is also an innovative attempt to survey how Orthodoxy was perceived and visualized in medieval Rus’. It identifies the theological questions that constituted the basis of Russian Orthodox identity in the Middle Ages and reveals the significance of the polemics between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches for the history of Medieval Russian art.





Marks, Richard


Russian art, Byzantine art, Christian iconography, Orthodoxy, Medieval Rus', Novgorod, Church Slavonic literature


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Newnham College, Royalton Kisch studentship