Blessed Xenia of St Petersburg was canonized at the end of the 20th century. Known to have spent her life in St Petersburg, she is especially venerated in this city. Thanks to the meticulous work of the curators and restorers from the State Hermitage Museum, today we can see the portrait of the blessed saint. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that, as shown by the historical and technological analysis, carried out during its restoration, this portrait was painted during Xenia’s earthly life.
The Image in the Portrait
This work, painted by an unknown artist, is called Portrait of the Holy Fool Xenia Petrova (or Portrait of Xenia of St Petersburg).
The holy woman is depicted wearing a light, loose-fitting shirt, made of homespun cloth, and a cross on her chest. The coarseness of the lines and compositional simplicity of the portrait, according to Dmitry Gusev, a researcher at the State Hermitage Museum’s Russian Culture History Department, indicate that the portrait was made by a non-professional artist and represents an example of naive art.
The semantic center of the composition is the cross on St Xenia’s chest, emphasizing that the woman in the picture is bearing the cross of a Christian feat. The same is indicated by the features of the facial image of Blessed Xenia, carrying no signs of madness, but exuding “calmness and firmness combined with humility”. Saint Xenia’s gaze is marked by severity and kindness.
History of the Painting
The portrait was first mentioned in 1930. An employee of the State Russian Museum, Fyodor Morozov, formerly a novice of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, considered an expert in church art, discovered it on the territory of the Smolensk Orthodox cemetery in Leningrad. The traces of soot found on the portrait indicated that there had been a candle or an icon lamp in front it. At that point the portrait was probably framed and placed under glass. Apparently, the portrait has been carefully kept and looked after. This is also evidenced by the traces of several restorations that it has undergone.
In 1930, the painting came into the collection of the Historical and Household Department of the State Russian Museum. It is assumed that it was then once again restored, duplicated and applied on cardboard. the reverse side of the cardboard retained the inscription done by the hand of Fyodor Morozov (the spelling and punctuation of the original are preserved): “Blessed Xenia / Obtained Smolensk Cemetery / Morozov 26 / 09 1930”.
In the Hermitage Storage Facilities
In the 1940s, the painting was transferred to the State Hermitage Museum.
The final restoration of the painting was carried out by the museum staff in 2016, in parallel with a technological study, which confirmed its dating to the late 18th or early 19th century. Art critics presumed the portrait to be an image of the saint made in her lifetime, allowing however that it could have been painted after Saint Xenia’s death (about 1806), in which case, the artist could have painted the portrait based on personal impressions (or the descriptions of those who had seen Blessed Xenia).
In the opinion of the Hermitage staff, the painting is one of the pinnacles of primitivism in Russian painting, presenting to the viewer a fragment of the 19th century’s everyday life in its pure form. The portrait should not be perceived as a symbolic image of the saint, whose face is depicted realistically, while the background and clothing are more conventional. The viewer is presented with the reality that is not changed in any way to accommodate the laws of art, which adds authenticity to the image.
Nikolai Malinovsky, the restorer of the portrait, expresses the following opinion, “The portrait was painted somewhat spontaneously – quickly and confidently, in one go.” In all likelihood, the artist sketched Xenia’s features while she was sitting. First, the unknown artist depicted the face, and then the background and the shoulders. He was not a professional painter, but, according to modern art critics, he could well have been an icon painter.
Traditional Iconography of Blessed Xenia
There are no less than 90 different types of images of Saint Xenia of St Petersburg, which makes her iconography one of the most diverse among the saints glorified in her rank. The most common depictions of the saint are full-length portraits against the background of a temple, where she is usually dressed in a soldier’s greatcoat, with a staff in her hands or in prayer. There are also icons with hagiographic marginal scenes. The iconography of St. Xenia developed under the influence of drawings by artists of the 19th century. Most often they represent scenes from St Xenia’s life, depicting the saint praying in the field or walking down the streets in shabby clothes, while the boys tease her for her strange appearance.
The painting is currently in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum. For the first time it was presented to a wide audience in the public area of the Hermitage’s restoration and storage center called the Old Village (currently the place of its permanent display) and the exhibition called Portrait Painting in the 18th – early-20th-century Russia in Vyborg (the Hermitage-Vyborg branch of the Museum) in 2017–2018.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds