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Novgorodian Icon-Painting / Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part7)

Novgorodian Icon-Painting (part7)

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In the opinion of some scholars, the cult of Paraskeva stemmed from the ancient heathen cult of Mokosh, the Goddess of Marriage and Spinning. In Bulgaria and Macedonia, the veneration of Paraskeva is linked with the veneration of a definite day of the week (Friday). It is still an open question as to how Paraskeva came to be regarded as the patroness of trade. The cult of the deity to which this day was dedicated might have had something to do with this. Another contributing factor may have been the original five-day week in which every fifth day, the day of rest, may have been devoted to trade. In Russia, at any rate - in the central regions and in Novgorod - the bazaars and fairs were held precisely on these fifth days. It was no accident that merchants trading with the west built a church dedicated to St. Paraskeva in the Novgorod market place in 1156. This church unquestionably played a special role in trade. The cult of another saint, Anastasia, was associated with Sunday. This is why their images appear so frequently on Novgorodian icons.

Sts. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa and Anastasia, End of XIV century.

Sts. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa and Anastasia, End of XIV century.

The iconography of Novgorodian saints shows clearly how closely Novgorod's religious art was associated with life and its requirements. In the eyes of ordinary people, the images of saints were associated with things that were close to one and all, things that were of vital concern to them. These saints were not an embodiment of abstract metaphysical notions, they were not empty, dessicated allegories born of abstruse scholasticism but living symbols of the most urgent needs of the tiller-of-the-soil. When he looked at St. Blasius he remembered his only mangy horse, when he prayed to St. Paraskeva he thought of the next market day, when he beheld the stern face of Elijah he recollected the parched land thirsting for rain, when he stood in front of the icon of St. Nicholas he sought his aid against fires. All these saints were close to him. For all their abstraction, they had for him a practical meaning that made him regard the icon with emotion, seeing in it a poetic tale of what he himself had felt and lived through.

Sts. Barlaam Khutynskiy, John the Almsgiver, Paraskeva Pyatnitsa and Anastasia, End of XIV century.

Sts. Barlaam Khutynskiy, John the Almsgiver, Paraskeva Pyatnitsa and Anastasia, End of XIV century.

There is extant one late fourteenth-century Novgorodian icon that marked the beginning of free religious thought in Russia. It is a big icon of Paternitas, now in the Tretyakov Gallery. The icon represents the Triune Godhead in an iconographic version which was known to Byzantium and the southern Slavs but had not previously appeared on Russian soil. God the Father is shown sitting on a round throne clad in a snow-white garment with a clavus. There is a cross-nimbus around his head. On his knees sits Christ Emmanuel, supporting with both hands a discus with a dove, the symbol of the Holy Ghost. He too has a cruciform halo. The feet of God the Father rest on a footstool surrounded with fiery wheels with eyes and wings. Seraphs hover around the head of God the Father above the back of the throne. The throne itself is flanked by two pillar saints, probably inspired by the fresco by Theophanes the Greek in the Church of the Saviour of the Transfiguration where the Old Testament Trinity is also flanked by stylites. Below, on the right, we can see a young apostle, probably Thomas or Philip, whose figure upsets the strict symmetry of the composition. The inscriptions on the icon prove irrefutably that he intended it as an object lesson to the heretics who denied the indivisibility and consubstantiality of the Three Divine Persons.

A Quadripartite Icon, End of XIV century or beginning of XV century.

A Quadripartite Icon, End of XIV century or beginning of XV century.

As the foot of the throne is not resting firmly on the ground, but seems scarcely to touch it, both the throne and the figure on it seem to be in a state of levitation and thus present themselves to the onlooker in the form of a miraculous vision. The figures of the stylites, whose pillars are also devoid of firm support, add to this impression. Only the apostle, namesake of the donor, stands firmly on the ground. The artist employs this method to elevate as it were the white-clad figure of God the Father. He underscores with wonderful skill the contrast between the snow-white garment and the golden yellow of the background and margins. His subdued, simple palette is amply justified, for it achieves the desired effect of solemn monumentality.

A magnificent example of Novgorodian icon-painting at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century is offered by a quadripartite icon from the Church of St. George. It remains unknown why the artist grouped together on one panel such disparate subjects as the Raising of Lazarus, the Old Testament Trinity, the Presentation in the Temple, and John the Evangelist dictating his Gospel to Prochorus. Such was probably the wish of the donor. All four scenes fit wonderfully well into the rectangle of the panel. The composition is clear, spacious, uncluttered. The artist makes skilful use of spatial intervals which his brush renders particularly expressive. The main emphasis is on patches of intense colour (mainly cinnabar) which stand out clearly against the gold background. There is a sort of dynamic interaction between the figures and the architectural settings. In the Raising of Lazarus, for example, the movement of Christ's right hand finds a parallel in the parabola of a background rock, while the convergent movement of the leaning Lazarus and of Martha and Mary clinging to Christ's feet are set off by the clefts in the strongly stylized ledges of rocks whose diagonal lines converge on Christ's hand. In the Presentation in the Temple, the figures of Joachim on the left and Anna on the right are parallelled by two vertically elongated buildings, while the cupola of the ciborium, with its stressed parabola, finds a continuation, as it were, in the kneeling figures of the Virgin and Symeon. The firm vertical lines of the ciborium columns and the dark apertures of the buildings in the background point up the softness and rotundity of the silhouettes of the slightly bent figures. The magnificent compositional gift of the Novgorodian artist is particularly felt in the lower right-hand scene. The figure of St. John, enclosed in a bold parabolic line, is contained, like the kernel in the nut, in the light-coloured silhouette of the framing rock. The silhouette of the rock repeats the silhouette of the figure, and the ledge on the extreme right, inclined to the same side, gives direction to the movement of the figure of St. John, who is shown in a three-quarter view. The dark aperture of the cave in turn "outlines" the silhouette of Prochorus, who is bent forward ready to take dictation. The clefts of the ledges of two rocks above his head lead the spectator's gaze back to St. John. In this way, the two figures are closely bound up compositionally. And though this compositional bond is threatened by the seats placed at different angles, a cubic table and a footstool, they do not upset it, as they are almost completely neutralized by the projection in plane. The Novgorodian artist always reckons with the picture plane. He not only carefully maintains it, but uses it as the point of departure in building his composition and calculating his proportions.