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Novgorodian Icon-Painting / Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part6)

Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part6)

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It was not before the second half of the fourteenth century that the Novgorodians' religiousness acquired such vividly expressed individuality as to leave an unmistakable imprint on virtually every work. It was marked by warm faith coloured by a very personal attitude to church dogma. At the same time, there was about this religiousness a practical completely non-metaphysical spirit. It was close to actual life. It had organically absorbed the thoughts and aspirations of the people. There is a winning sincerity and impulsiveness about it. This is why Novgorod's religious art is so touching in its naive forthrightness. Its clear-cut, simple images are so concrete, so democratic in their way, that they are accepted matter-of-factly as a product of vibrant folk fantasy.

The very choice of saints represented on Novgorodian icons is a vivid reflection of popular tastes. The most highly venerated saints in Novgorod were Sts. Elijah, George, Blasius, Florus, Laurus, Nicholas, Paraskeva Pyatnitsa and Anastasia. They were all patrons of the husbandman, praying for his needs and interceding for him in times of need. The Prophet Elijah is the thunderer, who brings rain to the husbandman and protects his home against fire. St. George, conqueror of the dragon, is the land surveyor and guardian of the flocks. The white-headed Blasius is the protector of animals. Sts. Florus and Laurus are the patrons of horses so dear to the peasant. The wise Nicholas Thaumaturgos is the patron of carpenters, the favourite saint of travellers and sufferers, the protector against the fires which were the scourge of "wooden" Russia. Sts. Paraskeva and Anastasia, the patronesses of trade and fairs, were the subject of especial devotion in Novgorod.

The direct link between the subject-matter and concrete, real-life interests is nowhere so clearly felt as in the Novgorodian icon from the Church of St. Blasius (State Historical Museum). On the top, seated against a rocky background, we see Sts. Blasius and Spyridon, and below them are the herds they protect: cows, goats, sheep, calves, and boars painted in vivid red, orange, white, violet, azure and green.

Sts. Blasius and Spyridon, Late XIV century.

Sts. Blasius and Spyridon, Late XIV century.

Blasius was one of the most popular of the Novgorodian saints. His cult stemmed from the veneration of the local Slav deity Veles (or Volos), and a Byzantine legend. Already in the tenth century, the Greek writer John Geometres described Blasius as the "great guardian of the bulls". In the Greek menologion he is also described as the shepherd. In Russia, the christian cult of Blasius apparently first took root in areas where remnants of the heathen cult of Veles, the god of cattle, were still strong. On the icon, St. Blasius is shown with a whole herd. St. Spyridon, the Bishop of Trimiphunt, is seated opposite him. This saint was also widely venerated in Byzantium. According to legend, he was a shepherd in his youth. Even when he became a bishop he continued to carry his pastoral staff and wear a hat of ivy twigs. His very name means a round wicker basket in Greek. It is in this hat that he is shown on the icon and on the fresco by Theophanes the Greek in the Church of the Saviour of the Transfiguration.

St. George and the Dragon, Late XIV century.

St. George and the Dragon, Late XIV century.

One of the favourite saints in Novgorod was St. George. Numerous churches were built in his honour in the north - in the Novgorod, Dvinsk and Vyatka regions. He was lauded in sacred verses as the surveyor of the land, and as an active assistant of the husbandman in the north-eastern outlying districts of Russia. Local legends praised him as the protector of the settlers from Novgorod against the Chyud' people of Zavoloch. In time, the image of "Yegoriy the Brave" became one of the favourite subjects of Novgorod iconography. Especially beautiful is the icon from the Manikhin Church, Pashkovskiy district, Leningrad region. The figure of St. George, shown on a white horse against a red background, fits beautifully into the rectangle of the panel. The artist is not afraid to intersect the margins with the edge of the saint's Rowing cloak, his right hand, the tail and forelegs of the horse. He is such a master of composition that it is no hardship for him to restore the balance with the help of background rocks: on the left the rocks are higher; on the right, where the dragon's body and head are, they are lower. The saint's flowing cloak on the left is balanced by the Divine Hand on the right. These methods give an architectonic quality to the composition. The white horse gallops full tilt, obedient to the will of the horseman. St. George sinks the spear into the dragon's mouth, as if fulfilling the prediction of the Book of Destiny. He is represented as the incarnation of the forces of good. There is something stormy about his brilliance, something akin to a flash of lightning. One cannot help feeling that there is no force in nature that can arrest the swift onrush of the victorious warrior-saint.

The Prophet Elijah was also the subject of especial veneration in Novgorod. He was honoured as the thunderer, who brought the rain to the husbandman and protected him against fire. The icon shows Elijah against a glowing vermilion background. His face is strong and resolute. He will come to the assistance of only those who pray for it, and pray hard, with all their heart. Elijah does not like to trifle, and the Novgorodians are a little afraid of him. It is not surprising that the artist gave the face a keen and piercing expression. The turbulent lines of the moustache, the beard and dishevelled hair heighten this effect.

The Prophet Elijah, Late XIV century.

The Prophet Elijah, Late XIV century.

The end of the fourteenth century saw a great increase in icons with groups of chosen saints. Instead of commissioning a single image, practical Novgorodians thought it better to have an icon showing several patron saints at the same time. Such an icon was expected to be of greater practical assistance in everyday affairs. The saints were usually shown lined up in a row with the city's favourite emblem, the Virgin of the Sign, above. These icons, with their static, concise, widely-spaced composition are particularly noted for a refined choice of colours. The artists made skilful use of the multicoloured vestments of the saints to achieve an intensity of pure colour that would do justice to Matisse himself. The icon and triptych shows Sts. Elijah, Nicholas, Anastasia, Blasius and Florus. Other icons show Sts. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, Anastasia, Brother Jacob, Florus, Laurus, Barlaam Khutynskiy, and St. John the Almsgiver. They all have alert, vigorous, resolute faces. They are all represented as patron saints ready to help their wards.