In addition to painted icons, many icon workshops also produced cloth banners. These were essentially icon images on cloth, frequently a mixture of needlework and painting. Such banners were used in religious processions and for other church purposes.
There was, however, another category of banner — military banners. Given the mutual relationship between Church and State in old Russia, these banners too often bore religious images, but with a military purpose.
In battle, such a banner became the symbol of the army or regiment possessing it. When soldiers assembled for battle, their banner would usually be taken out of its protective travel storage, be affixed to a tall staff, and then the whole placed upright in a prominent place like a hill. The banner — given its symbolism — would be heavily protected during the battle, and if the soldiers fighting under it were unsuccessful, the banner would be captured and taken by the opposing army as a trophy of war — signifying the defeat of the opposition
Such a military banner was originally called a styag (Стяг), plural Стяги (Styagi). Near the end of the 1300s, Russian banners commonly bore the face of Jesus in the “Not Made by Hands” type:
That is when the term znamyona (знамёна), singular znamya (знамя) also came into use for them. Both styag and znamya were used until the beginning of the 17th century, at which time znamya (banner, pennant, ensign, standard) became the common term. As you may have guessed, the word znamya is related to znamenie (“sign”), which we have seen as the name of an important Marian icon type — the Znamenie Mother of God, the “Sign” Mother of God.
Today — thanks to Karin Tetteris of the Swedish Army Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, we will take a look at some old Russian military banners that show very clearly the importance of Eastern Orthodox iconography in their design.
Here, for example, is what remains of a silk infantry banner or ensign made in Kiev in 1693-4 for a regiment of Moscow streltsy under the command of colonel Alexey Lavrent’evich Obukhov. The paintings were made by the local artist Pyotr Kirilovich Tichovbon. It was taken as war booty by Swedish troops in the battle of Saladen, near Saločiai, Lithuania on March 19, 1703, part of the so-called Great Northern War. In English common usage, such a banner was referred to as the “colors,” which led to the expression “striking the colors,” meaning to surrender, particularly in naval jargon.
In the center we see the double-headed Russian eagle — symbol of the Russian Empire, and at its center is St. George slaying the dragon. You will recall that George was an extremely popular military saint.
At the top is an image of the Coronation of Mary, with Jesus (the Son) at left, and God the Father at right, with the Holy Spirit as dove just above the crown.
Mary holds an open book:
Here is the text on it:
Мною царие царствуют[ъ]
Mnoiu Ts[a]rie ts[a]rstvuiut”
It is from Proverbs 8:15:
Mnoiu tsarie tarstvuiut”, i silniy pishut” pravdu
“By me kings reign, and the powerful decree [literally ‘write’] justice.”
The infantry banner below was made in 1693-4 for a regiment of Moscow streltsy under the command of colonel Boris Fedorovich Dementiev. It too was taken by Swedish troops in the battle of Saladen, near Saločiai, Lithuania in 1703.
Readers here should recognize the iconography:
At the top we see two angels, and between them is the image of Christ Immanuel:
Below him is the main image, which we have seen before as an icon type:
We can identify it if we look more closely at the mounted figure on the left:
We can see he holds a club — so, combined with the angel at right holding a sword, we can recognize it as the same type we saw earlier in a fresco from the Dechani Monastery in Serbia — the image of the Prophet Balaam and the Archangel Michael:
Michael is, of course, considered the Chief Commander of the Armies of Heaven, so an important military figure — and here he stops the Prophet Balaam in his tracks, a sign of his supposed power to halt advances — though of course Balaam was not a soldier.
The reluctant ass of Balaam is depicted in a quite pleasant way:
In other military banners from other sources, we sometimes find a similar image of the Archangel Michael standing sword in hand, but in this case the other figure is not riding but kneeling, and he is not Balaam, but rather Isus/Iisus Navin — Joshua, son of Nun, the military leader in the Old Testament who fought the legendary Battle of Jericho.
Perhaps the oldest Russian military banner in the collection of the Swedish Army Museum is this silk example, a large cavalry banner made in the Kremlin workshops, probably in the first half of 17th century or possibly even late 16th. It was taken as a war trophy by the Polish army in a battle near Smolensk, on June 5, 1654. Then, when the Swedish army took Warsaw in 1655, the flag was captured by Swedish troops. It is 5 meters wide and 1,63 m high:
It depicts a gathering of saints at left, looking up to Jesus, who blesses them from Heaven:
The figure in the forefront at right is St. Nicholas/Nikolai, an extremely popular saint in Russia:
On the right side of the banner is an angel with seraphim.
Finally, here is another banner. It was made in 1695 for a regiment of Moscow streltsy under the command of Colonel Semyon Matveevich Krokov. It was taken by Swedish troops in the battle of Saladen, near Saločiai, Lithauania, in 1703:
The main image is that of the “Sign” (Znamenie) Mother of God, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists, and accompanied by four saints. You will recall that the “Sign” icon is one of the famous Russian “palladium” icons, meaning it was considered a protector of cities, and was thought to have the ability to repel enemies.
Above the “Sign” type is the image of God the Father (Lord Sabaoth), with the Holy Spirit as a dove on his breast:
Those who would like further information on banners in the Swedish Army Museum may wish to contact Karin Tetteris at this address:
Box 14095, 104 41 Stockholm
Street address: Riddargatan 13
Tel 08 51 95 63 82 Fax 08 662 68 31