Saint Basil, ca. 1500
Inscribed: Basil of Caesarea
Russian Byzantine
Northern Russia
Tempera and gold leaf on canvas mounted on wood
34 3/8 × 13 7/8 × 1 1/8 in. (87.3 × 35.2 × 2.9 cm)
1985-057.35 DJ

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The inscription in red at the top of this panel, though partially abraded, identifies the subject as Saint Basil of Caesarea, as does the figure’s long, black beard. Although he is credited with performing a number of miracles, Basil was primarily revered for both the monastery and hospital that he built and for authoring one of the most frequently used liturgies in the Orthodox Church. Basil’s many influential writings are represented in this depiction by the gold and vermillion book that he grasps in his left hand. The extreme elongation of the saint’s form and the elimination of nearly any reference to his physicality establish—in the eyes of Russian Orthodox viewers of the era—Basil’s spirituality and grandeur. The reduced size of the figure’s head further abstracts his bodily form. The ornamentation of the saint’s garments has been radically simplified; nuances were eliminated and simplified patterns reinforced. The style can be traced to an unknown monastic center in northern Russia active around 1500. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Russian avant-garde artists would find inspiration in their country’s icon painting tradition, especially in its emphasis on geometry over naturalism.