From a dark mandorla, as if from behind the mists of time, father looks on at us. His earthly life appears before our mind's eye as a pathway of acquisition of the Holy Spirit and brings the person of the Venerable Seraphim truly and intimately close to our pious hearts.
The icon of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, in its ornate carved wood case, is located to the left of the central nave of Seraphim-Diveyevo monastery's Trinity Cathedral. The icon is a replica of his life portrait painted on the cusp of 19th and 20th centuries at the icon-painting shop of the Diveyevo monastery. It is painted on a wooden board, like an icon, its nimbus and sign painted delicately without compromising the artwork's harmony. The portrait's icon features validate nun Elena (Annenkova)'s observation in 1887 regarding the iconic character of the paintings made in the Serebryakov style: "The images of Father Seraphim are called and treated as "icons," for they are placed in icon cases along with the other icons, such as of Christ, Theotokos and already canonized saints. Oil lamps are burning in front of them, people venerate them and lay crosses in front of them… Among other widely-known images of father Seraphim, there is a chest-length painting in the so-called Serebryakov style… practically an icon already save for the absence of a nimbus, barely noticeable to many, which explains the fact that it is a depiction of someone who is yet to be canonized by the Church."
A copy of an icon of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov by monk Joseph (Serebryakov). Diveyevo icon workshop.
According to the "Chronicles of the Seraphim-Diveyevo Monastery," the elder was painted five years before his passing "wearing his habit, stole and cuffs, appearing as he used to look before Holy Communion. The portrait makes it obvious how age and monastic life had impacted his appearance. Because of his ascetic labors, his face is depicted as pale and emaciated, while his beard and hair, though still thick, looks short and is completely gray. His right hand rests on his chest covered with a stole."
According to the memories of nun Seraphima (Bulgakova), the original artwork has Venerable Seraphim's image in a mandorla over a gray-colored background. The Diveyevo image has a warm olive background characteristic of classical portraits of the first third of the 19th century. The replica reveals genuine unique peculiarities of the saint's facial features and his gaze. The elder is shown as advanced in age, with his graying head uncovered, wearing his habit and the stole over it. The latter is a reminder of the venerable father's prophecy that he will come again to preach universal repentance before the end of the world, thus saving those Orthodox Christians who remain steadfast in their faith. Father's right hand is pressed to the area of the heart as a sign that this man is standing at deep prayerful attention. It is known that monastics from the Venerable Paisius Velichkovsky's monastery walked using this gesture, pressing their hand to their heart. The Paschal color of the stole on Diveyevo's icon reminds us of father's greeting: "My joy, Christ is risen!" The elder's gaze towards us is deep and heart-searching.
An icon of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov festively decorated with fresh flowers
"Chronicles of the Seraphim-Diveyevo Monastery" identifies Serebryakov as "a monk from the Sarov monastery who found there his eternal rest." The Sarov monastery's registry reads as follows: "Joseph (Simeon Serebryakov), a Ryassophore monk, 80 yeas old, a color wash and mural painter of special talents, passed away on May 9th, 1862. A native of Arzamas. In 1845, he and his sons decorated the dome of Our Lady of Life-Giving Spring church and his son Alexander painted large-scale paintings" (…) Consequently, it turns out he had a baptismal name of Simeon, for it was earlier considered to be his patronymic name. Taking the veil, he received his new name of Joseph.
During his formative years, Serebryakov was influenced by Alexander Vasilyevich Stupin from Arzamas and, judging by the year of his birth, he became one of the first students at Stupin's school of art. During more than 50 years of Stupin's school operation, Stupin and his apprentices decorated 10 churches, made 136 iconostases, and created 2956 icons with orders coming from Penza, Simbirsk, Tambov, Nizhny Novgorod, Saratov, Kazan and Orenburg Provinces. Stupin and his team also decorated churches in the Sarov monastery.
Serebryakov's most significant work is the decoration of the Resurrection Cathedral in Arzamas that was completed by the artist, his sons, and their team over a period of three years, from 1834 to 1837. Save for the central dome, frescoes are painted in monochrome brown and beige colors that amplify the cathedral's vastness, giving it air and light. The artists worked in fresco technique, or painting on wet plaster. The major hassle a fresco painter had to overcome was the quickly drying plaster, thus a dried plaster layer had to be knocked down and painting could only be continued after applying a fresh layer.
The fresco narrative presents scenes from the earthly life of the Savior. Works by Western European masters served as their inspiration. For example, "The Last Supper" above the main altar is a copy of the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. However, the frescoes also feature some details of everyday Russian life of that time. For instance, the Adoration of the Magi takes place in a wooden shed instead of a cave.
Smaller paintings depict angels, cherubims, censers, etc. The twelve apostles are painted on the central dome between windows whereas the four Evangelists are placed in sail vaults below. The monochromaticism of frescoes creates an impression of uniformity of painting style and architectural design, inviting the viewer to enter into a peaceful and prayerful mood. Overall, the cathedral has only two oil paintings. One is the Triune God in the central dome vault. The other is the Crucifixion at the main altar's High Place, a copy from the original piece by Spanish artist Bartolomeo Murillo, located at Our Lady of Smolensk Church in Vyezdnoye village. The Resurrection Cathedral is richly decorated with stucco moldings, while in some places skilled paintwork can be easily mistaken for stucco.
Cathedral Church of Resurrection in Arzamas, its paintings made by Simeon (Joseph) and Alexander Serebyakov
The Venerable Seraphim's portrait by Serebryakov has been carefully stored in the Abbot chambers of Sarov Monastery. What became of it after the monastery was closed remains unknown. The replicas are kept at the residence of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, the Patriarchal residence at the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, the Nizhny Novgorod Diocesan Administration office, and in private collections. As it often happens with the copied work, the replicas are quite difficult to date. It was aptly noted that earlier copies had a cross and border on the stole painted blue, while later ones had them in pink. A presumed life portrait from St. Sergius-Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral in Kursk had it originally painted blue with a pink overpaint added later. The image from Kursk is identified with the one the Sarov monastery sent to Alexei Moshnin along with the news of his brother, elder Seraphim's, passing, so it was created during the saint's lifetime. It also belongs to Serebryakov style.
Icons of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov made after Serebryakov style, of various years.
Many icons of the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov portray him wearing a stole. This feature, repeated in almost every icon of the venerable saint, reminds us about father Seraphim's propheсy to come again before the end of the world and preach universal repentance.