The collecting of works of art by private persons and museums, the migratory movement caused by the major events of the XX century, - the 1917 Revolution in Russia and the Second World War, - were the reason why the Novgorodian icons are now scattered all over the world. They can be found in museums and private collections in Russia, Western Europe and America. However, it is only on the Novgorodian land, among its historical monuments and landscapes, that the viewer gets a deeper insight into the city's past, into the fresh and spontaneous attitude of ancient Novgorodians to the world around them, and into their stern, heroic, and optimistic spirit.
A contemporary art lover has one more advantage when visiting Novgorod. The main body of the museum collection of icons includes the works of art created by the best local masters. These are the holy icons venerated by the Novgorodians and the iconostases.
The oldest among known to us Novgorodian icons is "The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul" decorating the altar screen in the Cathedral of St. Sophia. This monumental painting dates back to the late XI - early XII centuries; it is executed in the manner characteristic of the Byzantine and Kievan art imitated by the Novgorodian artists. The full - length images of the Apostles are drawn against the golden background. Their elegant figures, slightly turned to each other, have the faultless proportions, the cloaks stream down in wavy folds, the colours are complex tonal combinations of blue, white, mauve and olive - grey. The artist who repainted the images of the Apostles in the XVI century preserved the austere and inspired features of their Greek faces. In all probability, the icon and its chased silver frame were made in the Prince's shops by the artists who were familiar with the current artistic trends in the Byzantine world.
The local tradition relates the XII century "St. Nicholas", the select image of the Nikolo - Dvorishchensky Cathedral, to the rule of Prince Mstislav. The original painting has not been preserved, but the uncommon round form of the icon speaks of its age. Such icons, resembling the antique representations on warriors' shields, were created in the early period of the Byzantine art and not later.
Along with the prevailing Byzantine iconography, the Novgorodian artists began to develop their own style of icon painting in the early XII century. The double - sided portable icon - "The Theotokos 'Of the Sign'" and "The Apostle Peter and Natalia the Martyr" - is the most striking example confirming our observation. The Novgorodian chronicles mention this icon in an account of the events of the year 1169 when the miraculous icon helped the Novgorodians to drive away from the city's walls the host of Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky of Suzdal. Since that time the image of the Theotokos 'Of the Sign' has been treated as a symbol of Novgorod.
As it often happened with the objects of veneration, the icon was "freshened" more than once and its jewelled frames were remade. As a result, only the small pieces of ancient painting have been preserved on the face side, viz: the contour of the image of the Mother of God, the fragments of Her blue cloak, Her mauve head - dress and khiton and the small sections of the clothing of the Christ Emmanuel and the background with His monogram. The XII century painting is better preserved on the back side of the icon representing the Apostle Peter and Natalia the Martyr. Most probably, the persons who commissioned the icon had the same names as these saints. The Apostle Peter and Natalia are praying to Our Saviour depicted in the upper segment. The squat, big - headed figures of Apostle Peter and Natalia have irregular proportions, but their impressive faces are masterfully drawn by a bold and temperamental hand. The artist had a perfect sense of colour; the predominant deep blue and red of the Saints' garments sparkled against the golden background like precious enamels (the dark background of the icon and the figures of the saints on the margins belong to the XVI - XVII centuries).
In the XIII century the Novgorodian icons assumed a more ornamental quality. The Golden Horde's invasion of Russia blocked Novgorod's contacts with the Byzantine cultural centres. The outside artistic influences weakened, leading to the emergence and development of the local democratic traditions. The new iconographic tendencies are noticeable even in the icons of the official trend. One of them is "St. Nicholas" by Alexa Petrov, dated 1294. The painting of this master is distinguished by the excellent graphic work, the plane composition characteristic of the icons, and the "tracery".
St. Nicholas was reputed as a defender of common people and helper in misfortune and was one of the most popular saints in Russia. The select icon of the Church of St. Nicholas on the Lipnya is the magnificent head - and - shoulder representation of the Saint. On the sides of the Saint's nimbus against the golden background, stand the Christ and the Mother of God who present the signs of episcopal rank to him; the Gospel and the omophorion , the main thing of episcopal garment. On the margins are the Prepared throne, the archangels, the apostles, the saints and the martyrs.
The great changes took place in the Novgorodian culture in the early decades of the XIV century. The links with Byzantium, the centre of Orthodoxy highly respected by the Novgorodians in all times, were restored. Pilgrims visited Constantinople, Jerusalem and Mt. Athos, and brought back with them relics, icons and manuscripts. Local masters imbided the new ideas of the Paleolog's Byzantine art. Most beneficial for the Novgorodian artists were their contacts with the visiting foreign masters, such as Isaiah, a Greek who painted the murals of the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem in the Detinets (the inner fortress) in 1338 - 1339, or the provincial Byzantine and Balkan masters who decorated the Cathedral of St. Sophia in the early 1340s and created the twelve icons for the cathedral's iconostasis, for its feast range: "The Annunciation", "The Nativity of Jesus Christ", "The Meeling of Our Lord", "The Theophany", "The Transfiguration", "The Rising of Lazarus", "The Palm Sunday", "The Crucifixion", "The Descending into Hades". "The Ascension-day". "The Descent of the Holy Spirit", and "The Dormition of the Theotokos". These icons were placed over the older, pre - Mongolian images - the twin icons "The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul" and "The Saviour sitting on the throne".
New trends coexisted with the well - established local traditions in Novgorodian art. The icon "The Descending into Hades" from the town of Tikhvin tends to the archaic style and is reminiscent of the noble images of the early XIII century. Its subject is apparently taken from the apocryphal (non - canonical) Gospel according to Nikodemus where are described the Death and the Resurrection of the Christ, and His descending into Hades with the purpose of trampling under feet the power of darkness and rescuing the souls of the righteous men. The Christ stands on the fallen gates of Hades with His face turned to Adam whom He holds by the hand. Eve and Abel are depicted behind Adam; facing them are David and Solomon, the kings of the Hebrews, and St. John the Forerunner. The significance of the scene is emphasized by the solemn attitude of the group, by the measured rhythm of the flowing lines, by the deep and reserved colouring and by lively flickering of the golden ornaments and of the assyst (the colour range imitating the radiance of God).
The artistic culture of Novgorod reached its summit in the later half of the XIV century. The best icons of that period demonstrate the consummate skill of their creators. The exellence of style is manifested in profound and highly expressive images, in perfect composition and choice of colours. The pride of place among the late XIV century icons belongs to "Sts. Boris and Gleb" from the Church of same name in Plotniki - heroic in spirit and superb in its colour - scheme of flaming cinnabar, gold, emerald green, and olive and orange tones. The icon represents the first Russian saints, the sons of Grand Duke Vladimir. Killed in 1015 by their brother Svyatopolk who strove to take up his father's throne, they were canonized in the XI century and were revered as the martyrs and warriors, the patrons of dukes and soldiers.
The icon "The Annunciation" with St. Theodorus of Tyre is drawn in the manner similar to "Sts. Boris and Gleb". The awe - inspiring figures of the saints on both icons, their composed and grave faces reveal the great talent and the artistic power of the painters. Comparing these two icons, an attentive viewer will notice the wholeness of the artistic system of the first icon, while the second lacks such integrity. The contrast of movement and stillness catches the eye in "The Annunciation": the swift pace of the Archangel and the calm, motionless figure of the Holy Virgin. The detailed particulars contradict the accentuated irreality of the whole scene submerged in the radiance of the golden background. Perhaps this icon had been copied from an older one, hence the contradictions in its style.
The XIV century Novgorodian icons are solemn and austere. They have a shade of dramatism, emphasized, for instance, in such masterpiece as "The Dormition of the Theotokos" from the village of Kuritsko. The dramatic elements are also present in the icons created at the turn of the century: "The Protection of the Theotokos" from the Zverin Monastery (1399), "The Saviour Almightv" from the Church of St. Theodorus the Stratelates on the Ruchei, "The Life of St. Nicholas" from the Church of Sts. Boris and Gleb, "The Descent of the Holy Spirit" from the Dukhov Monastery. The latter icon dates from the early third of the XV century. At the same time, the imagery of these icons bears new. lyrical motifs. The lyrical elements of the icon from the Zverin Monastery lend it the poetical intonation, fill it with the reverent wonder illuminating the self - absorbed faces of the saints and expressed in their impulsive gestures, in the crisp folds of their garments.
The image of the Protection of the Theotokos is devoted to the age - old Russian Church festival initiated by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky in the Vladimir - Suzdal land presumably in the 1160s. However, the subject of this icon is based on the life of the Byzantine Saint, Andrew the Fool - for - Christ who witnessed the appearance of Our Lady in the church at Constantinople where a little part of Her garment was kept. The Novgorodian master depicted the Holy Virgin in the posture of Orante soaring on the cloud with the five - domed temple in the background. The angels holding the veil and the half - length figure of the Christ giving His blessing are depicted above Her, then the Three Hierarchs. St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. stand to the left of Her and the angels - to the right of Her. In the lower register are the wonder - struck witnesses of the miracle, Andrew and his disciple Epiphany, St. John the Forerunner with the apostles, and the holy warriors. The glorificalion of Our Lady, the men's patroness and interceder before Cod is the message of this icon.
The deep changes in the Novgorodians' perception of the world are graphically reflected in the middle of XV century icon painting. The images became less solemn, the lines softer and more graceful, and the colours brighter and without sharp contrasts. Novgorod experienced a powerful influence of the Central Russia's progressive culture. The Moscow icon painter Andrei Rublev was the greatest figure of his time. He embodied in his works the ideas of mercy, goodness, and harmonious existence.
"The Synaxis of the Holy Apostles" from the Church of the Twelve Apostles on Chudintsova Street was created in the 1430s. The rhythmical pattern of this elevated and illuminant icon is soft and pliant, the colours are bright and iridescent.
The emotional power of the representations, the picturesque manner of painting, the richness of the colour range and detailed architectural backgrounds are characteristic of the wonderful masterpieces, the feast icons from the Holy Theotokos Dormition Church on the Volotovo Field. Close to them in time and style are "The Deesis" from the Church of St. Vlasius (?) that was part of one of the many XV century Novgorod iconostases and the famous chef - d'oeuvre "The Miracle of the Novgorod Icon of the Theotokos 'Of the Sign'" from the Church of St. Nikolai Kochanov. The masters who created these sacred images adhered to the classical tradition cultivated in the leading artistic shops.
Along with the classical trends, new-fashioned orientations emerged in Novgorodian iconography to satisfy the artistic tastes of the common people. As a rule, the imagery of the icons of popular orientation was highly expressive, and the vividness of artistic representation compensated for the simplified idiom. Here belongs the icon "The Little Deesis with the Commemoration - List and the Figures of the Dead" (1467) from the Chapel of St. Barlaam Khutinsky. It is kind of a Deesis, probably originating from tombstone iconostases. In the icon "St. Simeon the Stylites" (1465) from the Antoniev Dymsky Monastery in Tikhvin, created in the northern province of Novgorod, the "low" tastes transpire in a propensity for minute details and concrete nature of artistic vision.
By the end of the XV century the Novgorodian art became more officialized; the strict rules had to be observed in what concerned the subjects and the iconography, and a touch of academism made itself felt. The masterpieces of that period, "Sts. Cyril and Athanasius of Alexandria and St. Leontias of Rostov" from the Malo - Kirillov Monastery, and a set of tablets, church calendars from the Cathedral of St. Sophia - these icons are refined and perfect, only they lack the inspiration felt, for instance, in the Volotovo feasts.
The tablets are the small double - sided icons painted on the canvas primed with powder chalk mixed with animal or fish glue. They were called "the towels" in ancient records and were placed on the lectern on the occasion of the Great Feasts or the Commemoration - days of the saints represented on them. The St. Sophia's calendars bear the images of the Christ, Our Lady, the scenes from the Gospels, and other compositions. On the back side of the tablets are represented the chosen saints, both Byzantine and Russian, among them the hierarchs of the Church, the founders of monasteries and the canonized monks, ascetics, hermits, warriors and martyrs. Researchers point out the programme character of St. Sophia's calendars commissioned, in all probability, as part of a state campaign.The intensive creative searches for a new Russian national style in painting explain the abundance of iconographic trends in Novgorod in the XVI century. There are some works tending to the archaic style, to the Novgorodian paintings of the XV century ("The Annunciation" from the Dukhov Monastery, the Holy gates from the Kirillovsky Uyezd, representing St. Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom) and even of the XIV century (the feast range from the Church of Our Saviour on the Nereditsa), and also some works consonant with the spirit of the times. The latier are distinguished by the narrative character of the subject connected usually with the literary traditions, and by the enclosed, "chamber" composition where some scenes resemble miniature painting. These features are to be found in the XVI century icons depicting the lives of saints: "St. Theodorus the Stratelates" from the Church of St. Theodorus the Stratelates on the Ruchei, "The Holy Apostles Peter and Paul" from the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in Kozhevniki. and "The Nativity of the Holy Theotokos" from the Antoniev Monastery.
The middle of XVI century was marked by the appearance of many - tier iconostases. The most impressive of them stands in the Holy Theotokos Nativity Cathedral within the Antoniev Monastery. It consists of the four ranges: the select range, the Deesis, the feast range, and the range of prophets. The viewers see these icons from a distance, hence the stylistics of the painting: the clear - cut stately silhouettes, solid texture and colour contrasts.
The grand Deesis of thirteen icons occupies the central place in the Antoniev iconostasis. The solemn composition represenling the saints appearing before the Christ produces a strong impression. The saints' heads are inclined toward the Christ, their hands are stretched in praying, the faces are sad, the dynamic of movement is achieved through the elongation of the figures and the garments flapping in the wind or sweeping down in the cascading folds. The same sad, even mournful notes sound in the icons depicting the church feasts. The prophets' thoughts about the fate of the world are imprinted on their tragic faces. It should be remembered that these icons were created during a highly dramatic period in the history of Novgorod, shortly before the oprichniki's massacre of 1570.
The quite different moods are expressed in provincial Novgorodian icons, their manner of painting resembling folk art. "The Ascension - day" (1543) from the Malo - Kirillov Monastery and "The Last Judgement" painted by a northern master are unsophisticated and open - hearted.
In the XVII century, Novgorod harboured painters from other cities, who were commissioned to help local masters on restoring the churches damaged during the city's occupation by the Swedes. The Moscow painter Leontiy Cherny restored the ancient icon of the Theotokos 'Of the Sign'. He also repainted "The Vision of Sexton Tarasiy" from the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour in the Khutinsky Monastery and probably took part in the restoration of the cathedral's iconostasis.
The Cathedral of St. Sophia was renovated in the middle of XVII century, and new icons were installed. The St. Sophia's icon "St. Alexis the Blessed" and the icon "The Translation of the Sacred Garment of the Theotokos" from the Church of the Kazan icon of the Theotokos in the town of Ustyuzhny manifest the adherence of the masters of that time to the old artistic forms due to the atmosphere of worship of local legends and sacred objects fostered by the metropolitans of Novgorod.
The orientation toward the masterpieces of the XVI century is discernible in a number of the Novgorodian icons of the late XVII century. The icons representing the patriarchs in the iconostasis of the Holy Theotokos Nativity Cathedral within the Antoniev Monastery are painted in a simplified manner, the images are not carefully drawn, but the composition is highly expressive and the colours are bright and contrasling. In this way an impression of unity of the range of the patriarchs with the earlier icons is achieved.
In the XVIII and XIX centuries, the great changes occurred in icon painting. The official trends in Russian religious painting fully departed from the ancient iconographic traditions. None the less, the archaic tendencies continued to exist, occasionally closing with folk art. The XVIII century icon "The Holy Trinity" from the village of Kuritsko and the XIX century Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God with the chosen saints are painted in this vein.
The vitality of the traditional iconography still persistent today is explained by the great potential of this ancient stratum of Russian culture and its everlasting fame.
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