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Mysteries in Muscovite Political Theology

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Rabbits, Snakes and Lions in the Kremlin Golden Palace Throne Room Frescos

image of Russian History

Under the Metropolitan Macarius, a fresco program was produced in the Kremlin Golden Palace throne room and vestibule to express a rulership ideology appropriate for Ivan IV’s recent elevation from Grand Prince to Tsar. The images in the dome, based on a symbolic paradigm of “Wisdom’s house” from Proverbs (9: 1–5), show many innovative features. Most mysterious of all is a sun whose rays are the bodies of serpents, with the heads of serpents, lions and an eagle, above a rabbit fleeing from the devil. This study analyzes the origin, meaning and function of these heretofore undeciphered animal images. It shows that they are esoteric symbols of the Wisdom of the Cross which act as controlling metaphors for the whole program, including the Old Testament prototypes for present day Muscovy. They are directed at the sovereign as a mystical initiate who makes present the renewing power of the world’s beginning and end; they express the ruler’s Christ-like sovereignty and messianic calling to use the church and his army to liberate the peoples from sin, death and enslavement to the Devil or to the Devil’s earthly substitutes. Their symbolism transforms the traditional ecclesiastical model of “Wisdom’s house” into a vehicle of political theology.

Affiliations: 1: Research Associate of the Five Colleges at the University of Massachussetts and of the Davis Center of Harvard University, phunt@slavic.umass.edu

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/content/journals/10.1163/18763316-04402004
2017-06-23
2018-04-26

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