Dionisii's career coincided with the rivalry between the followers of the ascetic teachings of St Nil Sorskii (1433-1508) and the more worldly views of St IosifofVolokolamsk(i439-i5i5), known respectively as the Non-Possessors and the Possessors. His art was 'an unusual compromise, an attempt to combine two elements, which cannot be combined: an internal purity and an external ritualism'.71 He has been described as medieval Russia's 'last great painter', a view compatible with the belief that the victory of the more worldly views of Iosif and the increasing 'triumphalism' of the state coincided with a decline in the spirituality of icon-painting in Russia. In the same period the Russian Orthodox Church battled to stamp out iconoclastic tendencies in the heresies of the dissident strigol'niki and the Judaisers. A church council pronouncement against the Judaisers issued in 1490 condemned those who 'mocked the images of Christ and the All Pure represented on the icons . . . Others have destroyed holy icons and burned them in the fire. You have reviled the holy image of those who are painted on the icons.'72 A polemic with such heretics is inherent in the 'Message to an iconographer' (1480s/ 90s), variously attributed to either Iosif or Nil and perhaps written in response to Dionisii's appeal for guidance.73
Orthodox theology was expressed both in individual icons and in the relationships between images, time (the church year) and space (the church interior). In our period the majority of the Russian laity was illiterate, but this does not mean, as is sometimes assumed, that icons were some sort of pictorial teaching aid, which served faute de mieux as an alternative to texts. They themselves constituted the texts of Christian doctrine as much as the written word. It is true that many icons had to be seen from a distance and in dim light, hence the preference for bold, simple outlines and blocks of colour, allowing major subjects to be recognised easily, but the impulse behind 'paring down' images in this manner was as much spiritual as pedagogical. 'In its essence the icon is not a sermon, not an exhortation in colour. Its moral and educational power is exerted when people, as they gaze at it, give themselves over to artistic contemplation.'74
The few artists whose careers scholars are able to study to any degree worked mainly in major cathedrals and monasteries where records were preserved, but Orthodox devotions were not confined to the church or cloister, nor were icons restricted to officially consecrated spaces. Anywhere could serve as a
71 Grierson, Gates of mystery, 59.
72 Uspenskii, Theology, ii, 263.
74 M. Alpatov, 'The icons of Russia', in The Icon, ed. K. Weitzmann etal. (London: Studio Editions, 1982), 241.
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