I don’t know how to start with this newest painting from the Icon series. When I started the series I wanted it to focus on the lives and stories of the everyday ancestors that make up my and many others’ family lines. But there ares some folks in these lines that are definitely not everyday people. Such is the case with this icon– she was already the subject of multiple icons before I even thought of painting her.
Her birth name was Ingegerd Olafsdotter and she was born to the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung right around the year 1001. She is my 32nd great-grandmother.
She received an exceptional education as a young girl of the time, studying the scriptures, literature and history as well as being instructed in the use of military arms. In order to extend his own influence and consolidate power, Olof sent her to Kiev in 1017 to wed the Russian Great Prince Yaroslav the Wise. There she took on the name Greek martyred saint, Irene.
During her time as the Great Princess of Kiev, Irene acted as an ambassador of sorts in maintaining Russia’ influence in the Europe of that age. She offered sanctuary to several outcast princes to protect them from overthrowing forces and arranged marriages for her children that placed them squarely in the middle of continental affairs. Her three daughters became Queens of Hungary, Norway and France ( my 31st gr-grandmother, Anne of Kiev) while her sons all took positions of power within Russia.
She and Yaroslav also continued the growth of Christianity in that time, building the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev as well as one of the same name in Novgorod. Near the end of her life, Irene established a monastery in Novgorod and, as was the custom of the time, as founder was required to operate it. In doing she was tonsured (which involves the cutting of the hair) and took on the name Anna. She continued in this capacity for several years until her death around the year 1050. She is buried in St, Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.
For her works in spreading the beliefs of the church as well, in actually building churches, Anna was made a saint in the Eastern Orthodox church. In fact, one of the feast days of St. Anna is next week on February 10th.
You would think it would be easier to paint this type of ancestor, especially one who is already portrayed in many real icons. But there is such a disconnnect in time and place that with some of these distant illustrious ancestors, while I am pleased to know that I somehow have a blood link to them, I feel less of a bond with them than with a hardworking lumberman in the Adirondacks or a forgotten housemaid who stole from her employer. Or even a Scottish scoundrel and liar who remains a mystery to me.
Maybe I see more of myself in them.
Genealogy often reveals great discoveries. In some cases, you are left wondering how a family rose so far from humble beginnings while in others you wonder what choices and factors along the way brought a descendant so far below the stature of their ancestors.
I guess it’s a great case study in the laws of probability. Over the course of a thousand years and thirty some generations winding their way into a new country, some bad choices and bad luck will inevitably fall on some along the way. I am sure there are literally many, many millions of descendants springing from St. Anna and some families have probably maintained power and prestige through the ages.
And others– well, you know the story. It’s most of our stories.