The 13th century was a very difficult time for the principalities of Kievan Rus’ due to the Mongol invasion, when villages and towns were burned and looted and large numbers of people killed. The princes of that time were thus put in the position of either trying to appease the Tatars or of fighting against them. The land went under Tatar control for over two centuries, with the principalities becoming vassal states, except for Novgorod and Pskov in the northwest, which remained independent.
Today we will take a look at a very pleasant Russian icon (from a private collection) depicting royal saints of this period:
At left are the images “святого благоверного князя Феодора Смоленского (Черного) и его чад Давида и Константина” — “of the holy good-believing prince Feodor of Smolensk (‘The Black’) and his sons David and Konstantin.” “Good-believing,” or as it is often translated, “True-believing,” means that they were faithful to Eastern Orthodox belief:
Feodor Rostislavich was son of the prince of Smolensk. After his father’s death his brothers took the more choice regions, while he was left with Mozhaisk. Nonetheless, through marriage he became prince of Yaroslavl, and engaged in military campaigns for the Tatars of the “Golden Horde,” the western part of the Mongol Empire that had its head in the Sarai on the lower Volga River. He even married the daughter of the Khan Mengu-Timir. He had a previous son, Mikhail, under an earlier wife who died, but with his new wife he had two sons, David And Konstantin. In September of 1299 Feodor became ill, and asked to be made a monk so he might die as one. That is why in the icon he is wearing a monastic cowl (skhima), even though his life had been spent as a warrior and prince. He was succeeded by his son David, Konstantin having apparently died earlier.
At right are two other princes of Yaroslavl, Vasiliy (Basil) and Konstantin (Constantine, not the same as Konstantin son of Feodor):
Their father Vsevolod had been killed fighting the Tatars, who remained a problem first for the older brother Vasiliy, and after his death in 1249 for the younger brother Konstantin, who was killed while fighting the Tatars in 1257.
Royal figures in icons are recognized by their robes, which are usually heavily ornamented, often with damask designs and (as here) borders of white dots as pearls. Look also for the shuba, the fur-trimmed outer cloak-coat seen here on David, Konstantin, Vasiliy, and the other Konstantin. Sometimes royal saints wear metal crowns, but for Russian royalty, often the fur shapka like that worn by Prince David in this icon.
At the top of this example, the Old Testament Trinity is depicted in clouds.
The gold leafed background of this icon has been worn away over time (not uncommon), and with it the inscriptions, leaving the underlying gesso visible. But all the saints are nonetheless recognizable by their iconographic forms. The dark little holes visible in the halos of the saints show that they were once covered by nailed-on metal halos, added as a sign of veneration. That too is common in icons of the 17th century.