Dionisius the Wise

Descent into Hell by Dionisius and workshop (Ferapontov monastery)

My exposure to Russian icon painting began with the works and the name of Dionisius. A friend of mine has an amazing book-album titled Through the Veil of Five Centuries: A Secret Meeting with Frescoes by Dionisius the Wise. It is remarkable because its author Yuri Holdin not only photographed the frescoes painted by Dionisius: this album is the result of his personal reflection on each element of the paintings, on each liturgical image, and it invites the viewer to think, engaging him in the contemplative process.  After all, the frescoes are truly unique.

Mother of God by Dionisius and workshop

In many cases, some difficult circumstances turn out to be advantageous in the future: for example, due to territorial isolation and squalor, the frescoes of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin of the Ferapontov Monastery have never been renewed, and people in the 21st century have the opportunity to see them as they were seen at the beginning of the 16th century. The frescoes have been preserved almost entirely in their original state and are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Fund.

The project covers an area of almost 600 sq.m. Dionisius and his sons Vladimir and Theodosius completed it in just over two years, as evidenced by the inscription on the church. By that time Dionisius himself was already an elderly man, and the work in the Ferapontov Monastery was his last project. Apart from painting, almost all the icons from the Deesis and Prophets’ tiers of the Ferapontov iconostasis have survived, as well as two icons from the local row, namely Mother of God the Hodegetria and the Resurrection of Christ.

The mural paintings decorate not only the interior, but also the façade of the church, which features the main theme, the Nativity of the Mother of God. Thus, the life story of the Virgin Mary begins at the entrance to the church and continues inside it: all in all there are around twenty-five images of her in the church.

Dionisius’s works are devoid of any dramatism; not once are there any depictions of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Nothing overshadows the festive and solemn mood. The paintings combine several themes, the major of which are the glorification of the Most Holy Mother of God, the salvation of the righteous, and the justification of sinners. Dionisius depicts a blue river cooling the flames of hell in the scene of the Last Judgment. He also portrays the sinful prodigal son who returned to his father; there are scenes of healing the sinners who came to believe in Christ; on the contrary, there are scenes of rejection and condemnation of the Pharisees who are proud of their faithfulness to the letter of the law given by God, but do not possess the basic virtue that is love. Any repentant sinner should gladly be taken back into the fold.

The colors of the paintings are strikingly harmonious and translucent – Dionisius was renowned for his pure and clear colors. Researchers rightfully compare the color of his frescoes with watercolors: they are predominantly turquoise, pale green, purple, lilac, light pink, white or dark cherry (the latter are usually used to paint the cloak of Our Lady). All these blend in with a bright azure background. Intense light colors, free multi-figure composition (Dionisius often diverges from the usual compositional and iconographic schemes), ornate clothes, the luxury of banquet tables (in the scenes of Gospel parables), a landscape with distant bright hills and thin trees – everything gives the impression of a cheerful, jubilant feast of colors.

This lightness and solemnity of Dionisius’s works had previously manifested itself in his frescoes (which are partially preserved) and the iconostasis of the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.  Even his icon of the Crucifixion shows not only death and terror, but also joy and the triumph of life over death. It is noteworthy that prior to Dionisius the interplay of works within the entire multi-tier iconostasis and, more broadly, within the entire church, with all its frescoes and icons, had never been so distinct. He changes the “enclosed” composition of icons (where figures are oriented towards the center) to an “open” one, directing the figures beyond the composition boundaries.

Crucifixion of Christ by Dionisius

Dionisius also became the first icon painter to “combine” images of Metropolitan Peter and Metropolitan Alexis on one icon, although they are neither biographically nor chronologically related in any way. It seems that Dionisius “rhymes” their icons, making them parallel and echoing each other. Metropolitans are depicted in solemn poses, dressed in their best sakkoses, appearing at the same time as the heads of the Church and as lamps or conductors of spiritual power that fills their figures and radiates from the gold and shining white color of their omophorions.

Dionisius became the last of the greatest icon painters of the so-called Golden Age of Russian icon painting. He created ideal timeless images of contemplation and prayer, which help us to touch the deep tradition of Christian worldview of his time through the veil of centuries.

Mother of God Pantanassa fresco by Dionisius
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