Novgorodian Icon - Painting Book

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A group apart stylistically is formed by three icons which are similar in the manner of painting. Two of them come from Novgorod.
The Ustyug Annunciation

The first is the so - called Ustyug Annunciation. According to such a reliable source as "Rozysk Dyaka Viskovatogo", the icon was brought to Moscow by order of Ivan the Terrible from the Yur'yev Monastery in Novgorod. The exact date of the icon is in question, as it might have been painted soon after the consecration of the Cathedral (1130 or 1140), or some time later. The icon gives a rare iconographic version of the Annunciation, with the Child descending to the Virgin's womb. From the hand of the Ancient of Days in the upper part of the icon there issues a straight ray which points to the Virgin's womb. In this way the artist showed with the utmost straightforwardness possible for his time that the "immaculate conception" occurred by the will of the Most High.

The monumental figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin bespeak the artist's thorough knowledge of contemporary Byzantine work. Though the figures are somewhat massive, which distinguishes them from the images on Greek icons, they are well - proportioned. The Archangel's movement is conveyed. His cloak falls convincingly in elegant folds, and the folds of his tunic are no less beautiful. The Virgin's veil is depicted with the same sensitive feeling for the texture of the material. The modelling of the faces is marked by a special softness. The dark olive - green ground is visible only in the shadows. Further modelling is achieved by the gradual superimposition of dark - yellow ochre, each subsequent layer containing more white but in such proportions that the transition from one layer to another is almost invisible. The uppermost layer, covering the lightest parts, is nowhere completely white but retains a slightly yellowish hue.

Pink paint on top of the ochre sets off the cheeks, the forehead, the neck and the line of the nose. In general, the colouring of the Ustyug Annunciation is somewhat sombre, which, indeed, is typical of all icons of the pre - Mongolian period. The brightest colours are to be found in the upper part of the icon which shows the Ancient of Days supported by cherubs and glorified by seraphs. Here cinnabar is boldly combined with blue, azure, green and white. The harsh colour of this part of the icon, with its Slavonic inscriptions, is somewhat at odds with the overall colour scheme. This is certainly a consequence of the individual taste of the Novgorodian artist who strove for a special "sonority" of colour.

Very close stylistically to the Ustyug Annunciation is a magnificent two - sided icon of the Holy Face at the Tretyakov Gallery. There

The Holy Face

There is no doubt about its Novgorodian origin. This is attested to by unmistakable Novgorodisms in the inscriptions on the reverse side, which shows the Adoration of the Cross, the similarities between the angels in this scene and the angels in the cupola of the Nereditsa, painted in the same broad and colourful manner, and, lastly, by the fact that the composition on the obverse, and partially on the reverse side of the icon was reproduced in a headpiece of the Novgorodian manuscript known as the "Zakhar'yevsky Prolog" . As this manuscript is dated 1262, it is clear that already in the thirteenth century the icon of the Holy Face was one of Novgorod's most venerated treasures, for otherwise it would not have been reproduced in the head - piece of a manuscript.

One is immediately struck by the difference of style in the images on the two sides of the icon, which were executed by different artists and probably at different periods.

The Adoration of the cross

The face of Christ, the hair with fine gold lines running through it, is painted in a soft, "fused" manner with almost imperceptible transitions from light to shadow. The colour scheme, meager and restrained is based on combinations of olive and yellow tints. The main accent is on the large eyes, which are tremendously expressive. For still greater expressiveness, the artist, a past master of line, took the liberty of an asymmetrical construction of the face, which is especially pronounced in the dissimilar curves of the eyebrows.

An entirely different style marks the image on the reverse. The bold, free, dashing manner of painting, the sharp contrasts of light and shadow, the multicolour palette with its lemon - yellow, cinnabar, pink, azure and white tints indicate the hand of a Novgorodian master, a contemporary of the artists who decorated the Church of Nereditsa.

The last work belonging to this group is a magnificent icon from the Russian Museum bearing a half - length image of an Archangel.


It was, most likely, a part of a now lost Deesis tier. The icon is one of the most beautiful works of ancient Russian painting. The modelling of the face and the gold lines in the hair is the same as on the icons of the Holy Face and the Ustyug Annunciation. The Russian Museum icon, however, is superior to them in delicacy of execution and a special nobility of conception. It would be hard to find in all ancient Russian painting a more spiritual face with such an original blend of sensuous charm and deep sorrow. For emotional impact, the huge velvety eyes of the angel can be compared only to the eyes of Our Lady of Vladimir. This is the work of a great master who had organically assimilated all the intricacies of Byzantine painting.

It is extremely hard to date this group of icons with any accuracy. The Ustyug Annunciation could have been painted soon after the consecration of the Cathedral of S. George (1130 or 1140), but it is impossible to prove this as it was not the principal church icon like the icon of St. George and could therefore have been a later votive offering. The reverse of the Holy Face, the Adoration of the Cross, bears traces of having been painted at the end of the twelfth century.

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