Novgorod School of Icon Painting
Icons, Mural Paintings: Russian Medieval Art.

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Madonna of Don Icon (c.1380)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
By Theophanes the Greek.
A beautiful example of 14th century
Russian Medieval Painting of the
Novgorodian School.

Novgorod School of Icon Painting (& murals)


Icon Painting 1300-1400: A Spiritual Approach
Icon Painting 1400-1500: Greater Use of Line and Colour
The Creation of Rhythm
Pskov and Tver Schools
Nereditsa Murals
Frescoes at Mizhorski Monastery
Murals at Snetogorski Monastery
Greatest Exponents of the Novgorod School of Icon Painting

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For chronology, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For a quick guide to specific
styles, see: Art Movements.

The city of St Petersburg was
created by Tsar Peter the Great
during the era of Petrine art,
involving architectural design,
sculpture, painting, engraving
and book illustration, among
many other art forms. See also:
Russian Painting, 18th-Century.

For modernist painting, see:
Russian Painting, 19th-Century.


An outstanding centre of Christian art, the Novgorod school produced so many panel paintings of such high quality, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, that its output deserves to rank with the finest and most important in the history of icon-painting. Certain Byzantine icons, it is true, such as the Virgin of Vladimir (c.1131), may surpass any produced by the Novgorodian school; but there are many individual masterpieces of Russian art, while there are insufficient Byzantine icons in existence to enable us to form a just idea of the general standard reached by Byzantine painters in any given period. Until more Byzantine art is uncovered, the Novgorodian school of icon-painting must therefore be accepted as the richest and most prolific. (Please see also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.)

Many of Novgorod's products rank alongside the finest medieval painting of the 14th century Italian Primitives - such as the Sienese School of painting, or the accomplished examples of Biblical Flemish painting.

For a general guide, see:
Romanesque Art (c.1000-1200)
For religious murals, see:
Romanesque Painting.


Icon Painting 1300-1400: A Spiritual Approach

The fundamental approach of the icon painter is, however, distinct from what we see in the West, and an early fourteenth-century icon from Novgorod showing the prophet Elijah clearly indicates the attitude of medieval Russian artists to religious painting. For Novgorodian painters set out to kindle man's faith by using his eyes as the road to his mind and soul. The prophet is therefore depicted as a man entirely concerned with the spiritual, and the icon is purposely devoid of the embellishments and refinements likely to render it attractive. Instead its intensity is overwhelming. A good deal of its force is due to the absolutely plain, flat, bright-red background which somehow escapes crudity, which does, in fact, attain distinction by appearing as the reflection of the fierce light illuminating the prophet's inflexible eyes.

Icon Painting 1400-1500: Greater Use of Line and Colour

In the fifteenth century the spirituality of this approach remained as pure, and as inspired as in the fourteenth, but it found expression in finer composition, in a flowing linear rhythm, in a superb balancing of new proportions, and in an unsurpassed loveliness and sureness of colour - see, for instance, the Melchisedek fresco painting (1378) by Theophanes the Greek in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, in Novgorod. These characteristics appear today as the school's finest achievements. They are well to the fore in an icon showing the Descent from the Cross (c.1430), formerly in the Ostrukhov collection and now in the Tretyakov Gallery. Novgorodian painting is characterized by an intense elongation of the figures. In this icon it is to be seen in the superb line of the bowed figures and the elegance of the curve of Christ's lifeless body. These forms are emphasized by the clear-cut, rectilinear outlines of the great cross, which rivets the eye by its size, but leaves the mind free to respond to the rhythmic conception of the scene. The severely symmetrical background counteracts any pliancy inherent in the curved line in the same way that the expressionless faces of the mourners place the central subject on a level entirely its own. As Christ's associates, the mourners remain conscious of their unique position and, regardless of their all-too-human propensity to grief, they have recourse to more rigid self-control than that given to ordinary people. Thus, although they experience pain like any layman, their suffering is depicted in the abstract, and is expressed by a prescribed grouping and posture, and a rhythmic linear effect, instead of by individual, grief-stricken gestures.


The Creation of Rhythm

The sense of rhythm so characteristic of Novgorodian painting was already present in twelfth century religious art in Russia. At Novgorod, however, it was considerably developed, and from then onwards it becomes a fundamental element of Russian painting. It is especially evident in an outstandingly interesting icon showing a battle fought between the Novgorodians and Suzdalians in 1170. The painting dates from the first half of the fifteenth century, and was preserved in the Novgorod Museum. The icon is divided horizontally into three sections, the lowest of which illustrates the clash between the two groups of knights. Here realism and historical record make their first appearance in icon-painting, but they remain subject to the severest stylization. As a result, although the knights are authentic men engaged in battle, they are not individuals, and the battle scene is completely unreal - and thus devoid of any linear perspective or naturalist foreshortening - largely owing to its compliance with the fifteenth-century's Gothic-style insistence upon rhythm and decorative symmetry. In this icon the rhythm is derived from the curves of the fluttering pennants, from the chargers' arched necks and from the riders' inclined heads and onion-shaped helmets, as well as from their rounded shields as seen contrasted with the rectilinear spears, the raised arms and poised arrows.

This tempera icon is virtually the only surviving example of medieval Russian decorative, as opposed to traditional Byzantine, composition, but it is such an accomplished piece of work that it is difficult to believe that it was as unique in its day as it is in this. It is interesting to compare it with the practically contemporary Early Renaissance battle-piece - The Battle of San Romano (1438-55) by Paolo Uccello. The latter shows us an Italian artist
preoccupied with nature, the former an anonymous Russian absorbed in linear effects; where Uccello set out to suggest movement by individual gestures and action, the icon-painter attempted to express it by rhythmical composition and grouping. Whilst the Italian strove after portraiture, the Russian, working in the Byzantine tradition, regarded the human form as the symbol of knighthood and rectitude. Yet, although each of the artists set out from such divergent points, each achieved very similar results, for both convey much the same clear and definite impression of the pageantry of medieval chivalry and warfare, and both, by subordinating realism to the picturesque, provide valuable evidence of the importance which fifteenth-century Europe, whether Catholic or Orthodox, Western or Eastern, attached to decorative art. An importance which, in Western Europe's case, accounts for the popularity of the International Gothic style.

Pskov and Tver

This decorative sense and this keen feeling for rhythm are equally marked in the paintings of Novgorod's satellite city, Pskov, and of its outposts, such as Tver. These cities shared Novgorod's sure eye for colour and were almost as successful as Novgorod in blending unexpected shades into harmonious and curiously exciting compositions. In Novgorodian religious paintings the choice and juxtaposition of colours are so daring and the quality so luminous that they must be seen to be imagined. A black-and-white reproduction, for instance, can give no idea of their range and variations; it can only convey an impression of the firm yet sinuous drawing, the delicate spirit, religious fervour and somewhat naive naturalism of the work. That these reproductions succeed so far is proof of the superb quality of the paintings; even so, seen without its colour, Novgorodian painting is little better than a lush summer landscape seen only by moonlight.

Nereditsa Murals

Novgorodian mural painting is permeated with the same spirit and marked by the same characteristics as the icons. Numerous fine examples survived until World War II, as, for example, in the church of the Assumption at Bolotovo (1362) or in that of St. Theodore Stratelites (1370) at Novgorod, or in Novgorod's main cemetery church (1390). This marvellous florescence of wall-painting was fittingly introduced at the end of the twelfth century by a series of frescoes in the Church of the Saviour at Nereditsa, as remarkable for their early date as for their high quality. The paintings were completed within a very few years of the church's construction in 1199, and their destruction in the last war was a serious loss. The paintings occupied the whole wall-space of the interior, excepting for a broad strip at ground level coloured to resemble marble revetment. The space allocated to the frescoes was so much larger than was customary that the artists engaged on the work had to evolve new scenes and cycles to fill it. As a result the church was as interesting iconographically as it was exhilarating aesthetically.

The conventional scenes occupied the spaces prescribed by Byzantine tradition. Thus the Pantocrator appeared in the dome, the Virgin Orans and the Communion of the Apostles on the east wall, with the Last Judgement on the west wall. A portrait of the donor, Prince Yaroslav Vladimirovich, was also included, as was sometimes done in Constantinople, and frequently in Serbia, Bulgaria and Cyprus, though examples in these areas are mostly of a later date. The iconographic peculiarities of the Nereditsa fresco paintings are important, but since iconographic details are more interesting to scholars than to art-lovers, only four instances are cited here.

Thus, first, the Virgin is shown bearing a medallion of Christ on Her breast. The earliest example of this type so far known is that at Bethlehem, dated to 1169; it only became usual in Russia, according to Myasoedov, the restorer of these paintings, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Secondly, the scene showing the prophet Elijah being fed by ravens follows a variant which became typical of fourteenth-century Serbian art. Thirdly, the scene of the earth giving up its dead is here included in the Last Judgement. Finally, the popular Russian saints, Boris and Gleb, appear for the first time so far recorded.

Myasoedov has traced seven main styles in these paintings. The prevailing style, akin to that of the fine murals at old Ladoga, was local. Another, which Myasoedov defined as the archaic, recalls in its cruder colours and sweeping lines the ninth and tenth-century icons at Sinai; a third, in which modelled effects were created, is reminiscent of the mosaics in St. Sophia at Salonica. Work of the pure Constantinopolitan style appeared side by side with a heavier Eastern style, recalling the frescoes in the church of St. George at Ani. A still heavier Syrian manner was also represented, and Western influence was apparent, especially in the treatment of some of the drapery and in certain faces which resembled some in the frescoes in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme at Rome; other faces recall those in the paintings of the church of the Quattro Coronati, also at Rome. Thus, apart from the predominating Novgorodian influence - and it should be noted that, except for one instance, all the inscriptions on these murals were in Slavonic - the restorer found only a few traces of Constantinopolitan influence, but much from Syria, Asia Minor and the West. This ceases to be surprising when we recall that on the one hand the ruler of Novgorod, Prince Yaroslav's wife, Maria, was Caucasian by birth, and that on the other Yaroslav signed Russia's first treaty of friendship with Germany in 1199 - the very year to which the church is dated. Such blending of foreign and national elements was entirely in accordance with the Russian practice, yet regardless of the profusion of styles to be discerned at Nereditsa, its frescoes did most definitely present a single, essentially Russian entity.

Frescoes at Mizhorski Monastery

The slightly earlier frescoes in the Church of the Saviour in the Mizhorski Monastery at Pskov (1156) were less cosmopolitan. Until quite recently it was believed that Pskov represented no more than a subgroup of the Novgorodian school of painting. However, recent discoveries have revealed considerable differences between the two. As so often happens in the case of a provincial town, Pskov was far less sophisticated than Novgorod, and although she used much the same ingredients, she mixed them in a different way, and the influence of the locality tended to be preponderant. As a result native trends are more in evidence at Pskov, and the spiritual approach is purely Russian. It is based on the belief that saints and holy men, although superior to laymen, are essentially human. As such they suffer pain and happiness like their fellow-men, differing from them only in their reactions. This conception permeates Pskov's painting, investing it with an appealing intimacy and sincerity. In the fifteenth century it was expressed with great technical skill. A new linear rhythm intensified the spiritual earnestness by imposing severe restraint on pose and gesture. Nevertheless it is at Pskov perhaps more than anywhere else in Russia that Byzantine austerity is tempered by that humanism which we regard as characteristic of Russia, though it appears in the Byzantine icon of the Virgin of Vladimir. Novgorod's superb colour schemes were perhaps as responsible as anything else for the unity and loveliness of the Nereditsa frescoes. Pskov shared this colour sense, but expressed it rather differently. Thus at Mizhorski the faces were heavily modelled in deep, intense colour pigments, an olive-green predominating, with the highlights ranging from ochre to white, and with the eyes, nose and hands outlined in reddish-brown. Whereas Novgorod placed its figures against a light ground, preferably white or pale ochre, Pskov preferred setting them against one of deep bright blue, and liked to see the dim green or pale yellow outlines of a landscape in the far distance. Bright drapery, as for instance white or green with shadows laid on in pale blue or in two shades of green, or white with yellow shadows, were the favourite complements to such backgrounds.

Murals at Snetogorski Monastery

A more emotional approach characterizes the fine wall paintings in the Snetogorski Monastery near Pskov, dating to 1312. It was conveyed by greater diversity of gesture and pose and by varying the angles at which the saints' heads were inclined. Their faces were elongated, and their eyes, set in deep cavities, gazed with such intentness that the murals had a spirituality all their own. Robes were more elaborately draped than was customary in Russian art, variety in colour was replaced by variety in shade, ranging, for example, from pink through bright red to yellow. On the other hand, greys, violets and blues seldom appeared, and in the scenes which had been cleaned and restored before the last war there was no trace of green. The essentially Russian love of contrast was satisfied by the emphasis on light and shade effects, which was responsible for practically all reds being flecked with white, whilst flesh tints were either very dark, of a red or violet shade, or almost white.

Greatest Exponents of the Novgorod School of Icon Painting

The wealth and variety of Novgorodian painting are infinite, but practically all the creators of these numerous masterpieces have remained anonymous, and the names of only the three greatest Old Masters stand out as by-words among lovers of Russian art. In Russia, as in the West, practically all exponents of medieval Christian art were monks who worked for the glory of God and their monastery rather than for personal notoriety. These medieval artists rarely signed their panel paintings, and the three men whose names are in repute throughout Russia made no exception to this practice, but they were artists of such outstanding merit that their genius brought them fame in their own day and renown in ours. For more details, see:

Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-1410)
Russia's El Greco. Only fragments of his religious wall-paintings and a handful of his icons survive. His approach may savour of the sophistication of Constantinople, but his skill is definitely that of a great master, and his spirit is pre-eminently Russian. In addition to endowing Russia with some of her finest paintings, Theophanes holds an important place in the history of Russian art as Andrei Rublev's master.

Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430)
Russia's greatest icon-painter, whose work embodies all that is most excellent in the field of medieval painting during the 14th century. Often categorized as a master of the Vladimir-Suzdal school or the early Moscow school, but his style is rooted in the Novgorodian tradition. Renowned for his Biblical icon panel painting The Holy Trinity Icon (1411), painted for the Monastery of the Trinity and St. Sergius.

Dionysius (c.1440-1502)
If Rublev was content with the old iconographic tradition, Dionysius was much more experimental in his composition. The visit of a group of Italian Early Renaissance artists to Moscow had a major impact on both his wall-paintings and panel pictures. His best murals are in the Ferapontov Monastery; his best icons in the Volokolamsk Monastery. His art laid the groundwork for the coming Moscow school of painting.

Works reflecting the style of the Novogorod school of painting can be seen in some of the best art museums in Russia, including the Vladimir & Suzdal Museum, the Novgorod Museum, the Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Kiev (also known as the Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Art) and the Tretyakov Gallery.

• For the meaning of important medieval murals and panel paintings, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
• For information about Russian painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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