The Deesis (Greek “prayer” or “supplication”). In Medieval Rus’ it could mean, firstly, the icons representing Christ flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist; secondly a row which included these icons; and thirdly, the entire iconostasis excluding the sovereign tier. The term “Deesis” is first encountered in the Hypatian Codex (1288). The use of the word “Deesis” denoting the second iconostasis tier is encountered in the 17th century manuscripts.
The icons depicting Christ flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist were called trimorphs. The first mention of a trimorph icon is encountered in 629. The earliest of the known images date back to the 7th century. These compositions are divided into two types. In the former type the figures of Christ, the Holy Virgin and John the Baptist that were usually placed over the entrance or in the altar, could be depicted from the shoulders up and as head-only. The latter type comprises the full-length figures of the Mother of God and John the Baptist standing in devotional poses before Christ. Such images were part of some of the Final Judgment scenes. They can be associated with the earliest surviving liturgical texts in which the Holy Virgin and John the Baptist are mentioned as protectors of Christians, either together, or divided by a mention of the life-giving cross and the heavenly incorruptible powers. The former type includes an icon of the Deesis: the Savior, the Holy Virgin and John the Baptist (13th c., State Tretyakov Gallery).
The late 15th century marks the completion of a high iconostasis development. In the second tier of the iconostasis, in the center, an icon of the Savior was placed, to the right and left of it were the icons depicting the Mother of God, John the Baptist, the archangels, apostles, holy fathers, martyrs, in devotional poses. This tier was called a Deesis row.
The earliest example of a full-length Deesis tier is icons from the iconostasis in the Anunciation Cathedral of Moscow’s Kremlin dating back to the last quarter of the 14th century.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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