On June 21, 1547 a disastrous fire swept through Moscow, destroying its wooden structures, displacing some 80,000 people and killing around 2,500 – 3,000.  It nearly destroyed the Kremlin.

Popular rumor of the time had it that the fire had been called forth by witchcraft practiced by Anna Glinskaya, the grandmother of Tsar Ivan IV — “Ivan the Terrible.”  She was said to have gone through through Moscow, casting a destructive spell by sprinkling the streets and houses with an evil potion made of water in which human hearts had been steeped.  Such were the times.

One result of the fire was the need for new religious paintings — frescos and icons — for the imperial palace and for the Blagoveschchenie/Annunciation Cathedral, etc.  in the Kremlin.  Iconographers from Pskov and Novgorod were assigned to undertake the task.

About three years later, the State Secretary Ivan Mikhailovich Viskovatiy (also transliterated as Viskovatyi) began to publicly criticize the new religious paintings.  His motives seemed to be a mixture of religion and politics.  But in any case, his open criticism over time led to serious trouble.  Remember that the Russian Orthodox Church was (and still is to a great extent) a Church-State affair, and Tsar Ivan himself apparently had approved the new religious paintings.

The essence of the controversy was that Viskovatiy declared a number of the new iconographic paintings heretical.

A classic example of what he detested was this surviving four-part icon:

It consists of four icon types.

At top left is “And God Rested on the Seventh Day” (И почи Бог в день седьмый/I pochi Bog v den’ sedmuiy):

At top right is the “Only-begotten Son and Word of God” (Единородный сыне и Слове Божий/Edinorodnuiy suine i Slove Bozhiy):

At lower left is “Come, People, Worship the Three-hypostatic Godhood” (Приидите, людие, Триипостасному Божеству поклонимся/Priidite, liudie, Triipostasnomu Bozhestvu poklonimsya):

And at lower right is “In the Grave Fleshly” (Во гробе плотским/Vo grobe plotskim)

Now as one can tell from the titles, this was evidence of a growing trend in icon painting toward depicting religious texts in visual form — icons that expressed concepts in Eastern Orthodox theology in an often allegorical manner.  Such icons are often called “mystical-didactic,” or to use the more currently popular Russian term, Богословско-дидактические иконы/Bogoslovsko-didakticheskie ikonui — “Theological-didactic” icons.

His complaints about such icons being introduced to Moscow did not do Viskovatiy any good.  In 1553 he was brought before an ecclesiastical council on charges of heresy, and was found guilty of blasphemy against the icons he scorned.  Seeing the way things were going, Viskovatiy repented and recanted — and so the icons he considered heretical innovations became a part of the regular iconographic repertory of Russian Orthodoxy.