Novgorodian Icon - Painting Book
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It was not before the second half of the fourteenth century that the
Novgorodians' religiousness acquired such vividly expressed individuality as
to leave an unmistakable imprint on virtually every work. It was marked by
warm faith coloured by a very personal attitude to church dogma. At the same
time, there was about this religiousness a practical completely non -
metaphysical spirit. It was close to actual life, it had organically absorbed
the thoughts and aspirations of the people. There is a winning sincerity and
impulsiveness about it. This is why Novgorod's religious art is so touching in
its naive forthrightness. Its clear - cut, simple images are so concrete, so
democratic in their way, that they are accepted matter - of - factly as a
product of vibrant folk fantasy.
The very choice of saints represented on Novgorodian icons is a vivid
reflection of popular tastes. The most highly venerated saints in Novgorod
were Sts. Elijah, George, Blasius, Florus, Laurus, Nicholas, Paraskeva
Pyatnitsa and Anastasia. They were all patrons of the husbandman, praying for
his needs and interceding for him in times of need. The Prophet Elijah is the
thunderer, who brings rain to the husbandman and protects his home against
fire. St. George, conqueror of the dragon, is the land surveyor and guardian
of the flocks. The white - headed Blasius is the protector of animals. Sts.
Florus and Laurus are the patrons of horses so dear to the peasant. The wise
Nicholas Thaumaturgos is the patron of carpenters, the favourite saint of
travellers and sufferers, the protector against the fires which were the
scourge of "wooden" Russia. Sts. Paraskeva and Anastasia, the patronesses of
trade and fairs, were the subject of especial devotion in Novgorod.
The direct link between the subject - matter and concrete, real - life
interests is nowhere so clearly felt as in the Novgorodian icon from the
Church of St. Blasius (State Historical Museum). On the top, seated against a
rocky background, we see Sts. Blasius and Spyridon, and below them are the
herds they protect: cows, goats, sheep, calves, boars painted in vivid red,
orange, white, violet, azure and green.
Blasius was one of the most popular of Novgorodian saints.
Sts. Blasius and Spyridon
His cult stemmed from the veneration of the local Slav deity Veles (or Volos),
and a Byzantine legend. Already in the tenth century, the Greek writer John
Geometres described Blasius as the "great guardian of the bulls". In the Greek
menologion he is also described as the shepherd. In Russia, the christian cult
of Blasius apparently first took root in areas where remnants of the heathen
cult of Veles, the god of cattle, were still strong. On the icon, St. Blasius
is shown with a whole herd. St. Spyridon, the Bishop of Trimiphunt, is seated
opposite him. This saint was also widely venerated in Byzantium. According to
legend, he was a shepherd in his youth. Even when he became a bishop he
continued to carry his pastoral staff and wear a hat of ivy twigs. His very
name means a round wicker basket in Greek. It is in this hat that he is shown
on the icon and on the fresco by Theophanes the Greek in the Church of the
Saviour of the Transfiguration.
One of the most favourite saints in Novgorod was St. George.
St. George and the Dragon
Numerous churches were built in his honour in the north - in the Novgorod,
Dvinsk and Vyatka regions. He was lauded in sacred verses as the surveyor of
the land, as an active assistant of the husbandman in the north - eastern
outlying districts of Russia. Local legends praised him as the protector of
the settlers from Novgorod against the Chyud' people of Zavoloch. In time, the
image of "Yegoriy the Brave" became one of the favourite subjects of Novgorod
iconography. Especially beautiful is the icon from the Manikhin Church,
Pashkovskiy district, Leningrad region. The figure of St. George, shown on a
white horse against a red background, fits beautifully into the rectangle of
the panel. The artist is not afraid to intersect the margins with the edge of
the saint's Rowing cloak, his right hand, the tail and forelegs of the horse.
He is such a master of composition that it is no hardship for him to restore
the balance with the help of background rocks: on the left the rocks are
higher; on the right, where the dragon's body and head are, they are lower.
The saint's flowing cloak on the left is balanced by the Divine Hand on the
right. These methods give an architectonic quality to the composition. The
white horse gallops full tilt, obedient to the will of the horseman. St.
George sinks the spear into the dragon's mouth, as if fulfilling the
prediction of the Book of Destiny. He is represented as the incarnation of the
forces of good. There is something stormy about his brilliance, something akin
to a flash of lightning. One cannot help feeling that there is no force in
nature that can arrest the swift onrush of the victorious warrior - saint.
The Prophet Elijah was also the subject of especial veneration in Novgorod. He
was honoured as the thunderer, who brought the rain to the husbandman and
protected him against fire. The icon shows Elijah against a glowing vermilion
background. His face is strong and resolute. He will come to the assistance of
only those who pray for it, and pray hard, with all their heart. Elijah does
not like to trifle, and the Novgorodians are a little afraid of him. It is not
surprising that the artist gave the face a keen and piercing expression. The
turbulent lines of the moustache, the beard and dishevelled hair heighten this
The Prophet Elijah
The end of the fourteenth century saw a great increase in icons with groups of
chosen saints. Instead of commissioning a single image, practical Novgorodians
thought it better to have an icon showing several patron saints at the same
time. Such an icon was expected to be of greater practical assistance in
everyday affairs. The saints were usually shown lined up in a row with the
city's favourite emblem, the Virgin of the Sign, above. These icons, with
their static, concise, widely - spaced composition are particularly noted for
a refined choice of colours. The artists made skilful use of the multicoloured
vestments of the saints to achieve an intensity of pure colour that would do
justice to Matisse himself. The icon and triptych shows Sst. Elijah,
Nicholas, Anastasia, Blasius and Florus, icons show Sts. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa,
Anastasia, Brother Jacob, Florus, Laurus, Barlaam Khutynskiy, and St. John the
Almsgiver. They all have alert, vigorous, resolute faces. They are all
represented as patron saints ready to help their wards.
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