The Mother of God of the Sign icon known as the Serafimo-Ponetaevskaya was imbued with particular significance for Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna. As the last icon of this iconographic type to be declared miracle-working in Russia (1885), it became for the Imperial couple a symbol of Holy Rus reborn and triumphant in the modern age, and a direct link to the miraculous powers and protection of Saint Serafim of Sarov, to whom the Empress Alexandra was especially drawn. When the couple attended the celebrations marking the canonization of the Nizhnii Novgorod saint in 1903, the Ponetaevskaya icon was one of three venerated for their connection to Serafim’s life and work. The Empress was given a copy to mark the occasion and this icon accompanied her until her final days and death in Ekaterinburg in 1918. The Ponetaevskaya icon was particularly associated with Tsarskoe Selo, which in 1901 became the official Imperial residence and from 1909 was the site of the Fedorovsky Gorodok, an elaborate complex intended to recreate the spirit and culture of an idealized Russian past in a modernized idiom. It is with Colonel Dmitrii Loman, the driving force behind the construction and conception of the Fedorovsky Gorodok and a trusted member of the Imperial family’s inner circle, that the offered lot is associated.
The icon’s name derives from the Serafimo-Ponetaevskaya convent, established in 1864 in memory of Saint Serafim (1754/9 - 1833), whose hermitage was located at nearby Sarov. The convent was famous for its icon painting workshops, and in 1879, a novice named Klavdia Voiloshnikovna made a copy of an icon of the Sign that had been acquired from the artist Pavel Sorokin who oversaw the painting studio. In addition to the canonical features of Sign icons - the half-length figure of the Mother of God with her hands raised in prayer and the Christ Child encircled by a nimbus within Her womb - the icon that Voiloshnikovna copied had several distinctive features. The Mother of God’s eyes are lifted to heaven and a pearl and gem encrusted veil sheathes her head and shoulders, imparting to her face a teardrop-shaped contour. The faces are rendered in the painterly style popular in the nineteenth century and have a certain sentimental sweetness. On May 14, 1885 the icon performed the first of many miracles and by the end of the year was officially proclaimed miracle-working by the Holy Synod.
In 1909 an exact copy of the icon arrived at Tsarskoe Selo as a gift from the Abbess of the Ponetaevskaya convent. That same year, Tsar Nicholas II approved construction of a temporary church to serve the devotional needs of His Majesty’s Own Regiment, who were permanently stationed there. Dedicated to Saint Serafim of Sarov, the church was an experiment in resurrecting an idealized Russian past. It was appointed with an iconostasis designed by Prince Mikhail Putyatin (see fig. #3 & #4) and filled with icons painted by noted iconographer Nikolai Emelianov executed in the 17th century style. The Ponetaevskaya icon occupied a place of honor in the church, along with relics associated with Saint Serafim.
At the same time Nicholas and Alexander gave permission and funds to build a permanent cathedral on the grounds of the Alexander Palace at Tsarkoe Selo, where their family might worship surrounded by their most devoted troops as well as their favorite sacred images. Consecrated in 1912, the cathedral contained two churches. In the upper church dedicated to the Feodorovskaya Mother of God icon, a five-tiered iconostasis was installed, filled with new icons painted by Emelianov in the same 17th century style and lavishly adorned with silver basma. On the lower level, space was carved out for a crypt church and it was here that the temporary church’s altar, icons, relics and fixtures were transferred. To the Ponetaevskaya icon was added a copy of the Umilenie Mother of God that had been Saint Serafim’s personal icon, together with an icon of the saint himself. A second Ponetaevskaya icon hung nearby in the empress’s own private chapel, donated by the empress’s sister, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna in 1912 and adorned with a sumptuous silver oklad and costly embroidered veil (Fig.1).
The offered triptych of the Ponetaevskaya Mother of God with Saints Nicholas and Serafim can be securely traced to Dmitrii Loman (1868-1918), a Colonel in His Majesty’s Own Regiment, whose energy and organizational talents made him an indispensable and sympathetic aide to the Imperial couple and was by all accounts very close to the Empress, who was the Godmother of Loman’s son, Yuri. A contemporary photograph dated to 1914 shows the icon hanging in the upper corner of Loman’s office located in the refectory at Tsarskoe Selo (Fig.2). Colonel Loman served in countless capacities that reflected the Emperor and Empress’ trust. In addition to being churchwarden of the cathedral, during WWI he served as the Empress’ representative on the Tsarskoe Selo Military Hospital Train No. 143 and similar trains under the protection of the grand duchesses. He was also on friendly terms with Grigorii Rasputin (Fig.3) who was a frequent visitor and was one of the few people actually present at his burial. Loman’s great passion was the preservation of early Russian art, music, and popular culture, and his collections of liturgical and folk art were intended to serve as inspiration for the revival of a single national style in all facets of contemporary life. In 1915, he was instrumental in creating the Society for the Renaissance of Artistic Rus, a group that included the leading artists and architects working in a neo-Russian style. The society’s goals included the study and preservation of Russian antiquities, the revival of pre-Petrine aesthetic traditions adapted to contemporary conditions, publishing textbooks on Russian art for schools, and restoring the purity of the Russian language. The complex of buildings that grew up around the Feodorovsky Cathedral, the Feodorovsky Gorodok, was to be a prototype for the realization of these goals on a national scale.
In every sense the offered triptych is a microcosm and memento of the Feodorovsky Cathedral whose construction and decoration Loman oversaw. The painting is the work of the Palekh- trained Moscow-based court iconographer and restorer Nikolai Sergeevich Emelianov. Having proved his ability to interpret the spirit of 17th century icons in a modern idiom with the iconostasis for the temporary church, Emelianov was among a select group of iconographers (including Mikhail Dikarev) commissioned to provide icons for the cathedral’s upper church (Fig.4). Emelianov also prepared the drawings for the mosaic icons that marked the multiple entrances to the cathedral. In addition to the iconostasis, in 1910-11 Emelianov painted 102 icons for the cathedral itself, including “an icon of the Mother of God of the Sign with attendant angels,” of which the present icon may have been the model for the Loman triptych. Icons by Emelianov from the Feodorovsky Cathedral and other late Imperial churches are preserved in the State Museum of the History of Religion and, like the present icon, are generally signed in the lower right corner. So pleased were the royal family with his work, that Emelianov was awarded a silver medal on a Vladimir ribbon for his icons in the Feodorovsky Cathedral together with the Emperor’s “personal thanks.”
The elegantly elongated figures of the two attendant saints - the tsar’s name saint Nicholas and Saint Serafim himself - and the miniature painting of the marginal scenes of festivals and saints are subtly adapted to the distinctly modern features of the Ponetaevskaya Mother of God. An exceptionally rich visual rhythm is created by the variations in scale and size of the scenes that flank that central image and create a continuous horizontal band along the lower edge. The three panels are set within a carved wooden framework that echoes the elongated gables of the iconostasis designed by Vladimir Pokrovsky for the upper church (Fig 5.). The carved relief roundels on the lower margin reference the mosaic icons of Saint George and Saint Michael that Emelianov designed to mark the north and south entrances into the cathedral (St. George appropriately designated the officers’ entrance). Reflected in the cabochon-studded haloes is the rich intricacy of 17th century devotional icons that established the aesthetic ideal espoused by enthusiasts like Prince Shirinsky-Shikhmatov and Loman himself. The carving borrows some of the stylized folk motifs from the furnishings designed for the cathedral by Nikolai Bartram and executed in the workshops of the Moscow Zemstvo at Sergiev Posad. Here too a balance is sought between the lushly ornamented upper half in the neo-Russian style and the neoclassical simplicity of the lower section.
Clearly, the triptych is a testament to Loman’s deeply held conviction - one he shared with the Imperial couple - that a renaissance of Old Russian values in contemporary life was a goal within reach. In the absence of a presentation plaque or other documentation we can only speculate as to its origins. It would certainly have been a fitting gift of appreciation and remembrance from the Empress for whom Loman had proved so indispensable. It is displayed in Loman’s office near an assortment of personal photographs depicting Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress of the type known to have been given by the royal couple to those whom they held in high esteem. However, perhaps the best clue as to who might have commissioned this icon rests in the fact that the triptych was displayed in the office of dutiful royal confidant and administrator Dmitrii Loman, it is fair to presume that the offered lot was indeed a gift from Nicholas and Alexandra to Loman most likely upon the completion of the cathedral in the fall of 1913 which Loman oversaw, including the task of primary fundraiser.
After decades of decay and destruction, in 2009 a concerted restoration of the Feodorovsky Cathedral at Tsarskoe Selo was undertaken and the iconostasis reconstructed on the basis of several surviving icons by Emelianov. Loman’s son Yuri (1906-1988) survived the times or terror, successfully adjusted to communist rule and towards the end of his life penned a biography, “Memories of the Empress’ Godson”. The Society for the Renaissance of Artistic Rus of which Loman was instrumental, ceased its activities in October 1917. Loman perished (was shot) during the terror of 1918 and by 1928 the old icons from the Feodorovsky Cathedral had been dispersed, some made their way to the Russian Museum, while others, including some painted by Emelianov went to the State Museum of the History of Religion. Others, like the offered lot, thankfully found safe haven elsewhere and after decades of silently preaching in places far removed from the splendor of Tsarskoe Selo, are now being enjoyed by a new generation of enthusiasts who have come to appreciate the true geniuses of those artisans who created a unique Russian style that has now risen from the ash heap of history to reign again in splendor.