Icon. Saint Basil the Great and Grand Prince Vasili III praying to Our Lady of the Sign
The icon was located near the tomb of the great prince in the Cathedral of the Archangel of the Moscow Kremlin. Together with other sepulchral images the icon is a part of a unique collection of the very first Russian portraits painted in the 70s of the XVII century. At the end of the XIX century, the icon was deposited in the Historical Museum. On the icon, the images of the grand prince and his patron saint are represented in the prayer stand by the sides of the image of Our Lady of the Sign. Basil is depicted in stature in the rank of an almighty. The prince’s face, written very vividly, has characteristic Paleologic ancestral features: a long hooked nose, full lips, and eyes a little bulging.
Vasily III was son of Ivan III Vasilyevich and Sophia Paleolog, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. Since 1505 he was the Grand Duke of Moscow. He vigorously fought for the centralization of the state. During his reign Pskov (1510), Smolensk (1514) and Ryazan (1521) were annexed to the Moscow principality, and thus, the unification of Russia around Moscow was completed.
The icon was located in the Archangel Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, which since its foundation until the XVIII century served as the resting place of representatives of the Moscow grand-princely family, apanage princes, and later tsars. The sepulchral icon of the Grand Prince Vasily III (1479–1533) is the oldest among numerous princely and royal images. For the first time, the icon is mentioned in the inventory of cathedral property of 1730: “The image on a big deck, prelate and reverend, but as in the name of signatures there is no deck the measure of which is three arshins across two arshins six inches, the image of the Sign of the Most Holy Theotokos, on the sides are the archangels Michail and Gabriel".
Probably, the original icon was in the local row of the iconostasis, directly above the tomb of the Grand Duke. The sepulchral iconostases erected at the royal tombs included an iconic portrait of the deceased, his patronal icon, that is an image of a saint named as him, a dimensional or birth icon, which was written at the birth of a child during his growing up and so-called coffin icons brought with a coffin and those who remained in the temple in memory of the dead.
Subsequently, the icon was moved several times inside the cathedral, and in 1894 it was given to the Historical Museum. In the diaries of I. E. Zabelin it is reported how the icon from the tzar’s tomb came to the Imperial Historical Museum: a prominent historian of his time and one of the leaders of the newly created museum wrote that the archpriest of the Archangel Cathedral was concerned about the fate of the relics and asked to accept portraits of princes and tzars "because they are decaying and there are no means and ways to keep them safe at the cathedral.”
The icon shows the Grand Duke Vasily Ioannovich in full height and his patron saint in a prayer stand by the sides of the image of Our Lady "The Sign". The grand prince's face, written very vividly, has distinctive ancestral features: a long hooked nose, full lips, eyes a little bulging.
Inscriptions by sides of the figures indicate their names: “Saint Vasily the Great” and “right-believing great duke Vasily Ioanovich autocrat of all Russia in monasticism Varlaam”.
The monastic name “Varlaam” was adopted by Vasily Ivanovich in honor of the Monk Varlaam Khutynsky, indicates that the image was created after the death of the Grand Duke, who was tonsured right before his death.
The name of the saint on the left is the subject of discussion. It is known that the patron of Vasily III was St. Basil of Pariysk. Usually, in the sepulchral images and prayer images, the patron with the same name was the representative of the deceased. But in the XIX century the name of the saint on the icon was read as "Basil the Great." However, the inscription was corrected many times and the second part of the name is not clearly readable. The iconographic features of the image of the saint stand for Basil the Great, but since the outlines are corrected, it is difficult to assert anything confidently. If the icon depicts Basil the Great, then such a replacement is a very rare feature.
Around the head of the prince is a halo. This iconographic feature most likely goes back to the Byzantine tradition, where the halo served not only as a sign of holiness, but also as a symbol of autocratic power, a sign of the divine origin of the emperor. Starting from the XVII century the icon has been updated many times. The opening of the icon in the workshops of the restoration center of I.E. Grabar, completed in 1997 became a big event. In the process of restoration, the author’s painting of the XVI century on the images of Basil the Great, Vasily III, Our Lady, the Savior and angels was opened.
The researchers date the creation of the icon to the third quarter of the XVI century - the time immediately after the Grand Duke’s death, considering the second spouse of Vasily III Elena Glinskaya and his son Ivan IV the Terrible were the ones who ordered the icon.
Vasily III Ivanovich (1479–1533) was son of Ivan III and Sophia Paleolog - the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, and father of Ivan IV the Terrible. Since 1505 he was the Grand Duke of Moscow and All Russia (1505–1533). He vigorously fought for the centralization of the state. During his reign Pskov (1510), Smolensk (1514), Ryazan (1521) and Novgorod-Seversky (1522) princedoms were annexed to the Moscow principality, and thus, the unification of Russia around Moscow was completed.