Saintly Shapes: The Evolution of Iconography to the Avant-Garde


Two iconic women, one in the Orthodox tradition, and one from the Avant-Garde. In this 1890 icon, the crown upon Saint Barbara’s head symbolizes her martyrdom, and a halo of holiness encircles her. The crown and the halo are symbols of intangible concepts and feelings, used to tell the story of the life and death of Saint Barbara. In contrast, the cubist woman illustrated by Natalia Goncharova is just barely identifiable as a female: we see her dark hair and the outline of her breasts. She is a strong, centered figure, depicted from the waist-up like many saint icons, and her gesture and pose are similar to Saint Barbara’s.. However, her figure is devoid of religious imagery and presents a minimalist image of the female body, formally posed but lacking identity.

Goncharova, Natalia, Figurine, Color lithograph. c. 1900. Yale University Art Gallery, 1969.60.97, Gift of Molly and Walter Bareiss

Saint Barbara, Egg tempera on wood. c. 1890, Museum of Russian Icons, R1993.3