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Novgorodian Icon-Painting / Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part9)

Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part9) 

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One of the finest Novgorodian icons is the Nativity, executed not later than the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The figures of the angels, the Magi, the shepherd, Joseph, the old man standing in front of him, and the serving maids washing the child are distributed about the surface of the panel in strict balance. The composition has its central axis, intersected by the recumbent figure of the Virgin. But all these elements of symmetry are handled freely, without any appearance of studied deliberation. This is why the composition has such a flexible and elastic rhythm. The artist makes skilful use of the rocks to unite episodes occurring at different times. The figures are placed in three bands, arranged in tiers, which do not upset the picture plane, but are fully subordinated to it. The clefts of the ledges all lead the spectator's gaze to the figures which are presented either amidst them, or against their background. In this way, every character is set off by lines of the landscape background. The upper field of the icon contains half - length figures of three saints who were popular in Novgorod - Evdokiya, Sts. John Climacus and Ul'yana, obviously namesakes of members of the donor's family. The colouring is refined, especially in the bluish rocks shaded by pale lilac hues. Vermilion and lilac - coloured garments and green shrubs with red berries stand out vividly against this background.

The Nativity, First quarter of XV century.

The Nativity, First quarter of XV century.

In the fifteenth century St. George remained one of the most popular images in Novgorod icon - painting. Though the theme was traditional, Novgorodians each time managed to find a new and unexpected solution. In the icon the horse trots on imperturbably, disregarding the dragon visible under its hoofs. In his raised right hand St. George holds a sword. It is a symbol of the coming battle, as it were, rather than a weapon of revenge. The horse's neck is encircled with a red kerchief with white spots, and there are red ribbons twined round its legs. The harness, the saddle and the sweat - cloth are richly ornamented. The overall impression is that the painter artlessly conveyed what he had seen in the street of his native village on one of the twelve feast days when the peasants led out their richly ornamented horses.

St. George and the Dragon, First quarter of XV century.

St. George and the Dragon, First quarter of XV century.

An entirely different rendering of St. George is offered in another icon from the Tretyakov Gallery. This work is full of turbulent motion. The white horse is galloping full tilt, and the horseman is bent in the saddle plunging the spear into the dragon's mouth. His bright red cloak, streaming in the wind, provides the background for the figure, accenting and intensifying the curve of the torso. A shield is visible behind the left shoulder. Together with the Divine Hand in the upper right corner, this shield balances the floating cloak, making the entire composition more stable. It is interesting that in the process of work the artist departed from the original sketch, eliminating a background rock and altering the curve of the horse's neck. This is yet another indication of how sensitive the artist was to compositional rhythm, which he continued to perfect even in carrying out the first sketch in colour.

St. George and the Dragon. First half of XV century.

St. George and the Dragon. First half of XV century.

It has already been noted that icons with groups of chosen saints are among the most original of all Novgorodian works. A keen feeling for colour is particularly evident in them. One of these icons is Sts. Nicholas, Blasius, Florus and Laurus at the Tretyakov Gallery. As usual, the saints are shown in a frontal position. In a semicircle above them is the Virgin of the Sign. Apparently to safeguard himself against all possible evils, the donor asked the artist to add half - length figures of Elijah and Paraskeva Pyatnitsa so that his house should be safe from fire and his market days successful. The artist invested this simple composition with such a wealth of shades of colour, from cinnabar, greenish - blue and green to lilac and pink, that the icon scintillates like a gem, so glowing is its pure colour.

Sts. Nicholas, Blasius, Florus, Laurus, the Prophet Elijah and Paraskeva Pytnitsa, First half of XV century.

Sts. Nicholas, Blasius, Florus, Laurus, the Prophet Elijah and Paraskeva Pytnitsa, First half of XV century.

In the icon, Sts. Florus and Laurus are represented as martyrs. The three - tier icon shows them in a different way - as benign intercessors on behalf of the husbandman. The cult of Sts. Florus and Laurus as patrons of horse - breeding was brought to Russia from the Balkans, and it was in Novgorod that it struck the deepest roots. The two saints are usually represented at the sides of an angel who holds a pair of horses by their bridles. Below is depicted a herd of horses driven by the Cappadocian, grooms Speusippus, Eleusippus, and Meleusippus. Sts. Florus and Laurus are shown not as independent carriers of celestial power but as benign intercessors on behalf of the husbandman who has lost or is afraid of losing his dearest possession, the horse.

Sts. Florus, Laurus, Blasius and Modestus, XV century.

Sts. Florus, Laurus, Blasius and Modestus, XV century.

The composition of the icon, divided into three tiers, does not have the centricity typical of later works on the subject. The upper tier is marked by a precise, almost heraldic symmetry. On the rock in the middle stands an angel holding the bridles of two horses, a white and a black, which are protected by Sts. Florus and Laurus. All the figures stand out in sharp silhouette against a light background. In the second tier the symmetry is upset, and the entire movement is directed from left to right where the grooms Speusippus, Eleusippus and Meleusippus are driving the herd of horses. To coordinate the composition of the second tier with that of the upper, the artist places one of the grooms in the center, on the same axis with the rock and the figure of the Archangel on it. But the right side of the composition clearly overbalances the left, even though the artist has introduced an additional rock there to maintain the compositional balance. The lower tier too, fails to achieve the ideal symmetry of the upper. It shows Blasius and Modestus seated against an architectural background with a rock rising in the center. The cattle approaching St. Blasius clearly upset the balance of the component parts, and the artist introduces an additional small rock in an effort to restore it. In all these devices there is still much that is naive and laboured. It is felt that the artist has not yet found the classically clear forms that distinguish the same composition on later icons of Sts. Florus and Laurus.