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The composition of the Only Son was formed in the middle of the sixteenth century, in connection with work on a group of icons intended for the private chapel of Ivan the Terrible – the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin – after the fire of 1547. Known in the literature as “theological-didactic” icons, such works reflect the rationalist approach of educated classes of Russian society to questions of faith in the sixteenth century. They also illustrate the attempts to translate the dogmas of the Russian Orthodox Church into the language of fine art.
The iconography of this subject is based on the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Revelation of John and the commentaries of the fathers of the church. The main idea is the triumph of life over death and good over evil. The composition of the icon illustrates the final act of divine house-building – Christ’s return to His Father’s bosom in heaven and the reunion of the Three Hypostases of the Holy Trinity – and is based on the contrasts between the upper and lower sections.
The bottom scene depicts death scything sinners. The inexorable tread of death is obstructed by the sword of Christ the Warrior, who sits on the cross, the instrument of His own death. The overthrown figure of Satan is enchained in the dark cavern of hell. The top scene depicts the Word of God, Jesus Christ (the Only Son), the Lord God (Sabaoth) and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The final outcome of Christ’s mission on earth – His sufferings and death on the cross – is man’s acquisition of the kingdom of Heaven, symbolised by the representations of the church and the New Jerusalem at the top of the icon.