Ancient and Medieval Russian Clerical Art
Christianity in Ancient Russia was based on the Eastern Orthodoxy practiced in Constantinople and the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, after the break-up of the Roman Empire.
The clerical art of Ancient Russia, as medieval Russian religious art is commonly called, is represented mostly by icons.
The earliest of these paintings belong to the period of the cultural florescence of Kiev Rus – a powerful Slavic state, which stretched from the foothills of the Carpathians to the White Sea. Kiev, the capital, maintained lively trade, political and cultural ties with western European countries and the East.
New art began to develop in Kiev and its subject cities – Novgorod, Smolensk, Rostov and others. In the 10th century Christianity was appointed the state religion. In a remarkably short period of time, Kiev artists fully mastered the principles of the Byzantine Art. Their icons embodied symbolical imagery which reflected Christians values of good and justice, their esteem for wisdom and honor, and of course of men rising in defense of their motherland.
One of the greatest masterpieces is the early 12th century Byzantine icon Our Lady of Vladimir, brought to Kiev from Constantinople. In 1155 it was taken to Vladimir (hence its name), the capital of North-Eastern Russia, where it remained for 240 years, and then when Moscow rose to power the icon was ceremoniously transported to the Kremlin. The figures of Mary and the Child are merged into one silhouette by the flowing line of the contour. Mary’s eyes speak of immeasurable sorrow and tragic anxiety for the fate of her son.
The Mongol-Tatars invaded in 1223. Towns were devastated and pillaged, thousands of invaluable works of art perished in fires, in some places. However, paradoxically, it was during this period that the uniqueness of art peculiar to different Russian regions attained its fullest expression.
Elijah the Prophet was painted in Novgorod at the end of the 14th or the beginning of the 15th century. The image of the aged prophet with a pointed beard and piercing eyes stands out clearly against the intense red background. The painter has portrayed a severe saint in whose worship there were strong echoes of the ancient Slav’ idolatry of Peroun the Thunderer and ruler of heavenly fire. The icon is marked by laconism, the inner strength of the image, so characteristic of Novgorod art.
The greatest masters of icon painting in the history of Russia are considered to be Theophanus the Greek, Andrey Rublev, and Dionysius. Theophanus the Greek, (1330 or 1350 – circa 1410) came to Russia from Byzantium and is linked with both Novgorod and Moscow. This brilliant master of the art of fresco created powerful and expressive images, distinguished for their philosophical depth and dramatic eloquence. Some of his frescoes have survived in Novgorod.
The Moscow school of icon painting attained its full florescence towards the beginning of the 15th century. This period is fully represented in the Tretyakov gallery. The pride of the gallery is the magnificent collection of Andrey Rublev’s icons (1360 or 1370-1430) and his fellow artists. The gallery boasts his most famous icons “The Trinity” and “Christ”, which have become symbols of Russian Orthodox culture.
In 1480, Russia finally freed herself from the yoke of the Mongol-Tatar domination, and the whole country entered a new period of vigorous cultural development. For the next two hundred years, until the capital was moved to St. Petersburg by Peter the Great, the leading role belonged to Moscow.
The most distinguished artistic personality in the post-Rublev period was Dionysius, called by his contemporaries ‘the most exquisite of painters’. His work is dated 15th-beginning16th centuries. Like Theophanus the Greek and Andrey Rublev, he expressed his striking individuality with equal force in murals and in icons, although he used entirely different techniques. An exaggerated elongation of figures was typical for Dionysius’ drawings. His Crucifixion (1500) is one of his most exquisite icons in line and color.
In the 16th century, stronger secular tendencies appeared in the development of culture, and they affected icon painting as well. The traditions remained stable, but the themes became more varied, especially in the second half of the century, and the subject matter more sophisticated. Icons began to contain the morals of parable. Composition was often fractional, the colors lost much of their dramatic impact, and the drawing became more ornamental. Still, icon painting as a whole did not lose its great artistic value.
A new trend in icon painting, with its own interpretation of Dionysius’ style, took shape towards the end of the 16th-beginning of the 17th century. It came to be called the “Stroganov school”. The icons were uusally small, with miniature, superbly executed painting. The works of different masters who belonged to this extremely widespread school was distinguished for its elaborate decorativeness.
The intensification of secular and realistic traits in 17th century art prepared the ground for the sharp turning point brought about by Peter the Great’s reforms in the sociopolitical and cultural life of Russia. From the beginning of the 18th century, Russian art embarked on the European course of development, and assumed a new, secular character.