Novgorodian Icon - Painting Book

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A new subject, the Virgin of Mercy (Pokrov Bogomateri) became widely popular in Novgorodian icon - painting beginning with the fourteenth century.
The Virgin of Mercy

The feast - day of Pokrov, unknown to the Greek church, was introduced in Vladimir - Suzdalian Russia as early as the twelfth century to commemorate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin to the Blessed Andrey Yurodivy (near 936) and his pupil Epiphanius. It is described in the Life of St. Andrey how he saw the Virgin enter the main door of the Church of Blachernae and approach the altar where she began to pray for the people. When she finished, she took off her veil and, holding it with both hands, spread it over the waiting people. The veil became the principal treasure of the church. In the opinion of Durand, author of the well - known "Discourse on Divine Service", it was this miracle that gave rise to the Most Holy Virgin service, which was celebrated at the sixth hour. "In one church in Constantinople", he wrote, "an image of the Holy Virgin entirely covered with a veil was venerated. Every Friday evening, at the sixth hour, this veil miraculously rose upwards revealing the image for all to see and then, on Saturday, after vespers, dropped back to cover the image, and so remained till the following Friday". This or similar action must have been staged by Byzantine clergy with appropriate high ceremony. In Greek painting, however, no images of the Virgin of Mercy have been found up to this time. In Russia, the iconography of this subject developed not later than the thirteenth century (Suzdal' doors, the relief at the cathedral of St. George in Yur'iev - Pol'skoy), and acquired its classical form in the fourteenth (fresco of 1313 y. in the Snetogorsky Monastery near Pskov). The main idea of both the miracle itself and the feast of Pokrov is perfectly clear. It is the idea of intercession and mercy, i.e. the same idea that is so clearly expressed in the composition of the Deesis, which was so widely current in Russia. It is no accident that a Psalter with Missal (Patr. 431), dating back to the middle of the fourteenth century, contains such a typical appeal to the Virgin: "Pray for us, sinners, and bring glory to the feast of Pokrov in the Russian land". The establishment of the feast of Pokrov bears witness not only to the Russian church's gradual emancipation from the Greek, not only to an awakening of national consciousness, but also to the tenacity of the old folk beliefs which merged organically with the cult of the Virgin. E. S. Medvedeva remarked astutely that this cult combined in an original way the ritual folk notions about the benign female deity Deva Zarya (The Dawn Maiden) with her imperishable veil, and the adoration of the Virgin with her robe (Intercession).

In the Tretyakov Gallery icon The Virgin is shown in the Orans attitude. She prays for mankind, interceding on their behalf before Christ who is shown hovering above the veil. Angels and saints turn to her from all sides, their glances and gestures suggesting a state of revelation. In the middle are two altars, with the figures of Fathers of the Church and angels visible behind them. Below, on both sides of the royal doors, stand Andrey Yurodivy (in a hair - shirt), St. Epiphanius, St. George and St. Demetrius of Thessalonica (on the right) and St. John the Forerunner with the apostles (on the left). The artist shows all these figures within the frame of three high arches hinting at three church naves. Above he has put a shining white temple surmounted with five cupolas. By these conventional devices he indicates to the beholder that the action unfolds in the altar part of a three - nave church which has five cupolas. The entire composition is built vertically and is subordinated to the flat surface of the panel, so beloved by the Novgorodians. Only the veil, extending over all and everything, and therefore encompassing the whole world, as it were, imparts a deep inner meaning to this composition. The Virgin is represented as a merciful intercessor, as a "veil" under which all who seek and suffer find salvation. In the icon we have not only a symmetry of individual figures but also - and this is much more important - a symmetry of their spiritual aspirations which shine through their seeming immobility. The Virgin is shown as the immobile center of the Universe. It is toward her that the symmetrical strokes of the angels' wings are directed from both sides. It is to her that all eyes are turned.

It is on her that all the principal architectural lines converge. This centrical composition is designed to express a centripetal movement toward universal joy. The invisible light which seems to emanate from the Virgin passes through the angelic and human spheres to break forth into diverse colours.

Fifteenth - century Novgorodian icon - painters did not favour complicated, involved, symbolic subjects, which became so current in later work. Their subjects are simple and expressive and do not require detailed commentary. The artists' thoughts are easily communicated to the beholder. There is a winning simplicity about their works. They simplify traditional iconographic subjects, discarding all super - fluous figures and leaving only the essentials. Their compositions are clearcut and easy to. grasp. They are free of the disjunction that detracted so much from sixteenth - century icons. Their subjects are not obscured by incidental, secondary episodes. This austerity of subject - matter and composition is, indeed, the distinctive feature of fifteenth - century Novgorodian icons. Novgorodians preferred the simplest iconographic types of traditional feast - day tier. This is why they willingly continued to paint rows of frontally - positioned saints. This is why they had such a liking for hagiographical icons which provided amazingly descriptive representations of scenes from the lives of saints.

If we compare a fifteenth - century Novgorodian icon with a contemporary Moscow panel, we shall immediately notice that the former is less aristocratic, more obviously archaic and more democratic in spirit. The Novgorodians preferred squat figures, they liked faces of clearly pronounced national type with forceful, sometimes even rather rugged features. There is often something piercing in the gaze of their saints. The positioning of saints in a line, with deliberately wide intervals between the figures, remains the favourite compositional device. The artists avoid forceful movement, and prefer static, widely - spaced compositions. Their background rocks are more massive and simpler than those in Moscow work. Their solidly - built architectural settings are less refined and less differentiated, their lines more generalized, their colours brighter and more impulsive. The Novgorodian icon is best recognized by its colouring in which fiery cinnabar is predominant. The Novgorodian palette consists of pure, unadulterated, intense colours used in bold juxtaposition. It is less harmonious than the Moscow palette and has fewer nuances to it, but it is virile and forceful. This unforgettable intensity of the colour scheme is probably the most vivid expression of Novgorodian taste.

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