Novgorodian Icon - Painting Book

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One feature immediately apparent about the Sophia tablets is the complication of subject - matter.
The Virgin of mercy

In addition to patriarchs, hermits, Fathers of the Church, and saints they contain many - figured compositions which constitute great iconographic rarities. They are the Vision of Peter of Alexandria, the Raising of the Cross (this feast - day was of great importance for the Novgorodians as it was on this day that the St. Sophia was consecrated), the Synaxis (Assembly) of the Archangels, the Deposition of the Cincture of the Holy Virgin, the Deposition of the Veil of the Holy Virgin, and also the Virgin of Mercy and In Thee Rejoiceth, as well as scenes from the life of the Virgin and Christ. In the Christological cycle, the main emphasis is on scenes of the Passion. A place apart belongs to images of Constantine and Helen, the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace and the Holy Face. All these subjects are not related to each other and do not form any complete iconographical system. The only element that unites them is the Church calendar: it appears that individual icons were brought out on appropriate feast - days and placed on the lectern. Be that as it may, one thing about the Sophia tablets is undeniable: a considerable complication of subject - matter. They are indicative of a certain gravitation to fanciful subjects which were not current in fifteenth - century icon - painting. This latter preferred either single images or scenes with a small number of figures, which was in accordance with the simple and virile tastes of the Novgorodians. With the approach of the sixteenth century, very small icons with large numbers of figures became popular. These many - figured compositions led to a gradual disappearance of the old unencumbered compositions. The compositions became increasingly overcrowded and disjointed, and changes occurred in the figures, which became more elegant and fragile. Good as some of these tablets are, with their delicate colouring and a special softness of brushwork reminiscent of Duccio, they show a definite decline of artistic energy. The artists seem to delight in technical proficiency, in art for dexterity's sake. This sophisticated art catered to the refined tastes of the boyars. Departing further and further from its folk origins, it heralded a crisis in Novgorodian painting which set in soon in the sixteenth century. It is instructive to compare the icon of the Virgin of Mercy from the Sophia series with the Tretyakov Gallery icon of the end of the fourteenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century. The composition has lost its former uncrowded arrangement: the architectural background, hemming in the figure of the Virgin, has become more complicated; the number of figures in the composition has increased with the result that no clear patches of background are left; the garments are meticulously ornamented; the figures have become more elongated and refined. The net result is that the composition has lost the remarkable clarity and architectonic character that is so captivating in the Tretyakov Gallery panel.

Christ Among the Doctors

Even in the Christological cycle one feels a striving toward a more complex composition. In the central part of Christ among the Doctors the architectural background is so complicated and differentiated that it is at odds with the foreground figures placed in a semicircle. The number of figures on the tablet with the representation of the Passion, though it comprises four episodes occurring at different periods, is obviously too big for such a small space. In the Doubting of St. Thomas, one of the most beautiful of the tablets, and one of the most logical compositionally, the somewhat unusual architectural background blends felicitously with the positioning of the figures: the curved wall, the trees bent to the right and the red velum underscore the movement of St. Thomas leaning toward Christ, while the building on the right, with its vertical lines and a door rounded at the top, echoes the figure of Christ, setting it off as the main figure. The building is shown at such an angle that its right wall provides the background for the group of Apostles. In the Crucifixion, the cross is shown against a wall decorated with delicate ornaments quite unusual for icons of the early fifteenth century. One of the most beautiful of the tablets shows the Three Hebrew Children in the Fiery Furnace. On the right sits the King who ordered the children to be put in the furnace. An angel comes to their assistance, however, and the flames cannot singe them. In the foreground, the men who carried out the king's order are lying prone on the ground, covering their eyes with their hands to protect them from the celestial light which emanates from the angel and which is stronger than the red flames of the furnace. Behind the King stands his arms bearer. In the background there is a column with a heathen idol which the three children had refused to worship. The whole story is told very graphically. The figures of the children, which seem to be doing a round - dance with the angel, are so light, so vigorous, that you cannot but believe in their miraculous victory over the flames. The positions of the figures and the rectangular furnace bespeak the artist's striving for a logical solution of a difficult three - dimensional problem.

The feast - day of the Raising of the Cross, popular in Novgorod, unfolds against a snow - white temple surmounted with a big cupola. The Archbishop, standing on an elevation, lifts up the cross. Below and on the sides is a crowd of people watching the ceremony. The artist adds another building on the left and a ciborium on the right and places them diagonally in such a way as to strengthen the symmetry of his rigorously centrical composition and to direct the gaze of the viewer to the central group of priests raising the cross, which stands out clearly against the background of the temple's white wall.

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