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