Novgorodian easel - painting has a long and complex history. Its origins go back to the eleventh century. Its first flourishing was in the twelfth - thirteenth centuries, and the second, the greatest, in the late fourteenth and throughout the fifteenth centuries.

Only one example of eleventh - century Novgorodian icon - painting has come down to us.

Sts. Peter and Paul

It is a monumental icon of Sts. Peter and Paul from the Cathedral of St. Sophia (now in the Novgorod Museum of History and Architecture). Unfortunately, only fragments of vestments and the background survive from the initial painting: the original faces, hands and feet are all lost (here no paint layer earlier than the fifteenth century has been found). Because of this poor state of preservation, it is virtually impossible to establish whether the icon was painted by an immigrant Greek master, a Kievan artist invited to Novgorod or a local painter. As all early Novgorod icons, it has much in common with Byzantine panels, though it differs from them in size (2.36 X 1.47 m), which is unusually large for Greek icons. This in itself indicates that the icon was origin of local and not imported. Northern Rus', with its abundant forests, supplied the architects and artists with all the wood they needed, so that they did not have to skimp on the material. This, indeed, was one of the reasons for the rapid development of multi - tiered wooden iconostases in Novgorod, on which, beginning with the thirteenth - fourteenth centuries, the icon - painters lavished most of their attention.

The icon of Sts. Peter and Paul adorned the Cathedral of St. Sophia which had remained unpainted for nearly sixty years (1050 - 1109). Most likely it was a "pillar" icon decorating the temple's cruciform pillars along with the fresco icons.

The oldest among these icons, it would seem, are two images of St. George,

St. George

one full - length (Tretyakov Gallery), and the other half - length (Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin). The former came from the Cathedral of St. George at the Yur'yev Monastery in Novgorod, which was begun in 1019 and was consecrated, according to the fairly reliable Third Novgorod Chronicle, on June 29, 1140. The other icon was apparently brought to Moscow from the same cathedral. The full - length icon of St. George was undoubtedly the principal church icon, and must have been a "pillar" image, as indicated by its dimensions (2.30 X 1.42 m) which do not fit into the original altar screen either in shape or size. The powerful figure of the warrior - saint stood out boldly against the gold background now lost. In his right hand he holds a spear while his left clutches a sword hanging by his side. A small round shield, suspended on a belt, is visible behind the shoulder. Unfortunately, the numerous lacunae in the original painting, which were filled in by overpainting in the fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, make it impossible to reconstruct with any accuracy the type of face or the details of the armour. But the original silhouette of the figure and its strong, rather squat proportions have remained unchanged. The majestic, solemn figure of St. George is the epitome of strength and military valour, and has much in common with the heroic characters of Russian war epics. It has about it an aura of indomitable staunchness, that same staunchness that enabled Russian warriors to score victories over enemies vastly superior in numbers.

The icon from the Cathedral of the Dormition has come down to us in a good state of preservation, with little lost of the original painting.

St. George

St. George is shown half length. His figure fills the entire space of the panel so that the arms almost touch the edge. In his right hand is a spear, and in his left a sword, which he holds forth like a precious relic. It will be recalled that the sword played a special role with the Slavs. It was regarded as the military emblem of Russia as it were, as the symbol of sovereignty, notably princely sovereignty. The icon was apparently commissioned by some Novgorod prince as an icon of his name saint, who is depicted as the prince's patron and who holds the sword as the symbol of his princely state. The most likely version is that the prince in question was Georgiy Andreyevich, the youngest son of Andrey Bogolyubsky. If the icon was really commissioned by him, it should pertain to the early seventies of the twelfth century, and not later than the above - mentioned year 1174.

The icon from the Cathedral of the Dormition shows St. George as a brave and staunch warrior, a patron of fighting men. Especially expressive is his face, in which the freshness of youth is combined with manly strength. The even oval of the face is framed by thick brown hair. The eyes, peering intently at the onlooker, the dark, beautifully arched eyebrows, the straight nose and full lips are all treated in such a way that they produce an almost architectural effect. The skin is of a very light hue, with a faint flush of colour on the cheeks. The proximity of dense olive green shadows and the vigorous red lining of the nose lend a special transparency to this whitish hue of the skin and make the face glow as it were. Looking at St. George one is forcefully reminded of the beautiful lines from the "Tale of Saints Boris and Gleb" describing Boris as "tall and handsome, his face round, his shoulders broad... kind eyes, cheerful of mien... princely appearance, strong of body, beautifully adorned, like a flower in bloom..." The icon, like the ancient tale, gives a poetic picture of a handsome youth in the full flower of his strength.