Novgorod School. 1130-1190.
Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 0.48 x 0.39 cm.
The name of this icon derives from the gold highlights (assist) used by the painter to outline and decorate the locks of hair of this angel. The painting is an excellent example of Kievan art. The composition is extremely simple. Nothing distracts the viewer from contemplating the beautiful face of the angel and from thinking about the object of his gaze. If we say that the style of this painting is a "classic" Kievan style, we mean the monumental quality of the composition, the subdued colors, and some remote relationship between the angel and the art of classical antiquity. The angel is so beautifully drawn that one may suspect here a hand of a great master, perhaps a master from Constantinople or his most gifted Russian apprentice. The eyes of the angel are soft and seem to be looking past the viewer. There is a certain sadness and compassion in the eyes, possibly indicating the knowledge of the ills of this world and a desire to ease the pain of the believers. This kind of detached look reminds us that eternal life is promised to those who suffer for Christ or remain faithful through many trials. The jewel in the angel's hair may indicate that this is not an ordinary angel (which would be quite unusual for icon painting) but one of the Archangels, probably Michael or Gabriel. As similar surviving examples indicate, the icon might have been a part of a Deesis row. The shadows under the eyes, and the overal shape and size of the eyes lend themselves to comparisons with the funeral portraits of Fayum and to the best early icons discovered at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai.
When I look at this icon, many things catch my eyes. The gold streaks in the angel's hair remind me of golden threads and the dark shadows under the eyes make him look tired and sad. His pursed lips show me that he is deep in thought. I like this icon very much because of its mysterious character and of all the possible interpretations the viewer can make looking at the angel. [K.T.]