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Novgorodian Icon-Painting / Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part4)

Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part4)

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A rebellion of sorts against the Byzantine tradition is felt in the big icon from the Russian Museum showing St. John Climacus and Sts. George and Blasius full length against a red background. All of them are depicted in stiff, frozen postures, and resemble carved and painted wooden idols. St. John Climacus is twice the size of the flanking saints, on either side of him, who were unquestionably selected by the donor or donors. As in the icon from the Cathedral of the Dormition, St. George holds the sword as if showing it to somebody. The entire composition is flat, with hint of a third dimension. The artist applied the paint over large flat surfaces, without any effort at chiaroscuro modelling. The types of faces, vividly reminiscent of the images of Nereditsa, are typically Russian. On top of the flesh tints the artist put deep shadows and bright highlights rendered by separate thin lines instead of the former imperceptible shading and thick daubs. We see here the beginnings of an iconographic technique which later was to become almost canonical. The icon as a whole impresses one by its vivid colours and a very specific aura of naive simplicity which was typical of many examples of Novgorodian painting. The icon of St. Aicholas Thaumaturgos from the Church of St. Nicholas on Lipna (now in the Novgorod Museum) occupies a place apart.

Sts. John Climacus, George and Blasius, Last third of XIII century.

Sts. John Climacus, George and Blasius, Last third of XIII century.

This icon is unique in that it bears both the name of the artist (Aleksa, son of Peter) and the date (1294 y.). On either side of St. Nicholas are the figures of Christ and the margins are decorated with even smaller figures of saints beloved by Novgorodians and half-figures of archangels and Apostles flanking the Empty Throne (Etimasia). In subordinating Christ and Mary to St. Nicholas, the artist clearly violated the church hierarchy. The saint, namesake of the donor, Nikolay Vasil'ievich, of whom he was the patron, has nothing of the grimness of a fanatical Father of the Church. We see a kindly benevolent Russian prelate who is ready to provide the most practical assistance to his ward. The linear treatment of the face is simple and bespeaks the artist's preference for centrical, rounded forms and smooth parabolic contours. The vestments of the saint are so profusely decorated that the artist might have been reproducing folk embroideries. Even the halo bears a delicate ornament.

Nikola Lipnyy, 1294 y.

Nikola Lipnyy, 1294 y.

From the fourteenth century onward, hagiographical icons began to appear more and more often in ancient Russian, specifically Novgorodian, painting. As a rule, they consisted of the figure of a saint in the middle of the panel and scenes from his life in smaller pictures on the margins, framing the central representation. Icons of this type had existed in Byzantium, too, but they were never as widely current there as in the Slav countries, especially in Russia. The subjects of scenes illustrating the lives of saints were often culled from the Apocrypha, which permitted the artist to interpret them more freely. Moreover, with the development of art in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the artists began to include in these scenes features taken directly from life. In this way, elements of contemporary architecture and actual life began to make their way into icons. But biographical scenes never turned into simple genre scenes. The distance between the ideal and actual world was always preserved, and the visionary element was always strongly present. The events the worshipper saw depicted on the icon unfolded in slow motion, in a timeless and spaceless setting. In this way, hagiographical scenes came close to the form of ideograms which hinted at the depicted episode rather than conveying it with a thoroughness typical of mature realistic art.

The icon of St. George from the Russian Museum, painted at the beginning of the fourteenth century, is an example of one of these hagiographical panels. Shown on the margins are scenes of the martyrdom of St. George, while the central field contains a detailed representation of St. George and the dragon, and also Tsarevna Yelisava (instead of Elizabeth!), her parents, and an archbishop looking out of a tower. All the principal elements of this composition had abready appeared in the Staraya Ladoga fresco. But the fairy-tale overtones that coloured the wall-painting are further intensified in the icon by contrasts of scale, figures which seem to be suspended in the air, and the naive narrative style. The Tsarevna looks like a toy, and so does the dragon which crawls meekly after Yelisava. There is nothing pointedly warlike about St. George. Though holding a spear in his right hand, he does not strike anybody with it but rides his white horse as if to guard the crops in the fields.

St. George, Early XIV century.

St. George, Early XIV century.

Extremely interesting are the small pictures on the margins, which in the main show scenes of martyrdom. St. George is quartered, beaten, placed in a cauldron with boiling water, stones are piled on him, his head is sawn and he is subjected to many other tortures. All in vain, however. Each time he emerges unscathed and his face remains unchanged as if he felt nothing. This is a Novgorodian artist's version of the heroism of martyrdom. And he presents it in such a lively and persuasive way that for all the simplicity of his artistic means, every episode emerges with startling concreteness.

As Novgorod was never occupied by the Tartars, the local artistic tradition was never interrupted. In Novgorod, unlike other Russian lands, there was no gap between the art of the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. The thirteenth century was a bridge which united these two distinct epochs. Indeed, it was in the thirteenth century that folk art came to the fore with particular force in Novgorod. The severity of faces was softened, composition was simplified, the drawing became more generalised and laconic, the paint was laid on in even tints, without nuances, and almost without chiaroscuro, the silhouette became increasingly more important, the palette was lightened and glowed with bright red, glair, emerald-green and lemon-yellow tones. The thirteenth century laid the foundation for the mature flowering of Novgorodian painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.