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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. Afterwards, the art gradually began to decline, and though individual icons of excellent quality continued to be produced on Novgorodian soil, they nevertheless fell short of the earlier work.This is understandable, for the loss of Novgorod's independence and privileges led to the gradual disappearance of the factors which had brought about the great flourishing of its art.
Present-day historians like to stress the fact that Novgorod was a boyar republic ruled by a boyar oligarchy which had skilfully exploited the Council of Citizens (Veche) to further its own interests. What is much more important,however, is that before its annexation by Muscovy, Novgorod was a free city which had its own republican way of life, its own economic structure, its own great cultural traditions. A large territory, fertile soil, abundant natural wealth and skilful economic management - all these factors had contributed to the prosperity of "Gospodin Velikiy Novgorod" (Lord Novgorod the Great), which was famed through out Eastern Europe for its wealth and business acumen.
If we compare the art of Novgorod as a whole with that of Kievan Rus', the Principality of Vladimir - Suzdal' and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, we are immediately impressed by its full-blooded nature, its strong affinity with life, its close kinship with the people. It is striking in its freshness and spontaneity. Novgorodian painting is keynoted by the spelling force of its images, achieved through an original colour scheme, vivid and glowing. The artists of Novgorod did not favour complicated, intricate subjects. The involved symbolism of both Byzantine theologians and West European scholastics was alien to them. They preferred to depict the most venerated local saints (Florus and Laurus, Elijah, Anastasia, Paraskeva Pyatnitsa and others) who werecounted on to help them in their farming and their trade. Lining the saints upin a row, beneath the image of the Virgin of the Sign, which came to be regarded as the city's emblem, Novgorodians treated the icon without undue ceremony, as an old friend. They confided their innermost thoughts to it, and they fully expected it to help them in everything that they regarded as important and urgent. This approach to icon-painting tended to bring it closer to life. It would be wrong, however, to underestimate the visionary element in Novgorodian icon-painting. Like all medieval art it contains muchthat is abstract, conventional, much that transplants all images onto a different plane where the action takes place in a setting that is outside timeand space. This original combination of seemingly irreconcilable elements is the source of the Novgorodian icon's unfading charm: though the Novgorodian artist stands foursquare on the ground, his thought soars up into the sky. Even there, however, he does not lose the gift of lending to his visions an extremely vivid and concrete form.
Sts. Peter and Paul
Only one example of eleventh-century Novgorodian icon-painting has come down to us. 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, 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.