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Novgorodian Icon-Painting / Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part5)

Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part5) 

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Unfortunately, only a few Novgorodian icons of the first half of the fourteenth century have survived, and they are not of the highest standard. So much so that they are of little help in reconstruction of a full picture of the development of easel-painting in this period. The absence of definitely dated icons is another obstacle. In the fourteenth century, Byzantine icons, and probably south Slavonic icons as well, appeared in Novgorod again. But these foreign-made panels did not exercise any great influence on the Novgorodian painting of the period. Its style stemmed from folk sources and was closely associated with thirteenth-century traditions. There were few points of similarity between it and the Byzantinizing style of mural painting. It was much more varied. It had many more nuances to it, more different sub-trends.

It is undeniable that in the first half of the fourteenth century artists continued to produce icons that were rather archaic in style. To this category belong such monuments as the half-length red-ground icon of St. Nicholas in the Hermitage, the hagiographical icon of St. Nicholas from the Church of St. Nicholas in the village of Lyubon', Borovichi District (now in the Russian Museum), and the icon of Sts. Boris and Gleb in the Museum of Russian Art in Kiev.

The Nativity of the Virgin, First half of XIV century.

The Nativity of the Virgin, First half of XIV century.

To this group of archaic-style panels, largely continuing the traditions of the thirteenth century, can be added the big icon of the Nativity of the Virgin in the Tretyakov Gallery. This beautifully coloured icon, with flaming cinnabar of unusual intensity, amazes one by the primitiveness of composition. The artist must certainly have used an exemplum of a highly developed iconographic type, for it includes many components: St. Anna reclining on a couch, the washing of the new-born Child, Joachim and four serving maids standing behind the couch, and an architectural background. In the exemplum all this was probably depicted with some attempt at spatial intervals. The Novgorodian artist, however, subordinates everything to the flat surface of the panel, positioning the figures one above the other or resorting to inverted perspective which enables him to spread out three-dimensional forms on the plane surface of the panel. As a result, the small table in front of the couch loses all vestiges of its cubic form. The typically sturdy Novgorodian buildings, for much the same reason, look almost Oat, though there is in the structure on the left a portico with columns borrowed from Byzantine sources. Highly indicative in this respect is the treatment of the figure of the serving maid on the right, shown in a complex turn. This movement, borrowed from the prototype, is so radically transformed that nothing is left of the Hellenistic grace of the original. The figure seems flattened, cramped, and is completely lost on the plane. Though the artist shows figures in various attitudes, their faces are invariably turned toward the viewer. This intensifies the static rhythm of the composition in which there is no relationship between the individual parts and which easily breaks up into separate links. With complete disregard for the relative scale of images, the artist makes Anna inordinately large to stress that she is the central figure.

Along with this archaic trend in Novgorodian icon-painting in the first half of the fourteenth century there existed other currents which led to its flourishing at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. Mention can be made here of such works as the red-ground Deesis icon with the Archangels and Sts. Peter and Paul, the icons of Sts. Boris and Gleb, St. George and the Dragon, and St. Nicholas of Zaraysk and the Apostle Philip. Much in these icons is still unstable and amorphous, indicative of an instinctive groping for new original ways of expression. As a result they lack unity of style and that wholeness which is typical of later Novgorodian work.

Sts. Boris and Gleb mounted, Near 1377 y.

Sts. Boris and Gleb mounted, Near 1377 y.

The icons of Sts. Boris and Gleb, the Annunciation with the figure of Theodore Tyron , and The Apostle Thomas must have been painted in the third quarter of the fourteenth century. The first of them was the patron-saint icon in the Church of Sts. Boris and Gleb in Novgorod, built in 1377 y. There is so much heraldic conciseness in this image that the two saints on horse-back seem to come straight from a coat of arms. The faces of both saints are rendered with great pictorial ease, partially inspired by works of monumental painting. A similar manner was used in painting the faces of the Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel on the big icon of the Annunciation comprising a small figure of Theodore Tyron, which was unquestionably added on the insistence of the donor, namesake of the saint. An uncertain draftsmanship and a stiiff compositional rhythm indicate the hand of but a second-rate painter. Much finer is the redground icon of the Apostle Thomas, whose face is vividly reminiscent of the Prophet Zacharias from the Skovorodsky Church. The icon of Thomas was painted closer to the fifties or sixties of the fourteenth century.

The Apostle Thomas, 1350 - 1370 yy.

The Apostle Thomas, 1350 - 1370 yy.

The end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries was perhaps the happiest time in the development of this art. The colours acquire a purity and sonority never known before. The palette becomes lighter and clearer, and the last traces of gloom disappear. The best traditions of thirteenth-century Novgorodian icon-painting are revived. Fiery cinnabar becomes the favourite colour, lending a joyous, buoyant note to the entire colour scheme. It is used in bold combinations with the gold of backgrounds and with white, green, pale pink, blue, opaque cherry-red and yellow tints. The shapes become simpler, more geometrical, as the older three dimensional treatment increasingly gives way to a two-dimensional treatment in which the main accent is on silhouette. New compositions-simple, laconic, widely-spaced, come into being. Icons with rows of frontally posed saints become especially popular. Simultaneously, a new iconographic type of saint is evolved: strongly-built, rather squat figures with sloping shoulders and almost round heads with small features and distinctive tiny drooping noses. The faces, the vestments, the background rocks are painted in a studied way which ultimately develops into a canonical pictorial system. There is no dryness as yet in the icons of the late fourteenth and the first half of the fifteenth centuries, and therein lies their special charm. They are painted in a free, flowing manner, without any apparent effort. But neither do they have the breadth of vision of the fourteenth-century works, nor their monumentality, and this is reflected specifically in a sharp reduction of the size of the icons. The miniature-like manner of execution bespeaks the victory of the icon-painting style.