Theophanes the Greek
Biography of Medieval Russian Icon Painter, Novgorod School.

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Madonna of Don Icon (c.1380)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
An exquisite example of 14th century
Russian Medieval painting.

Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-1410)


About Icons
Other Russian Icon Painters

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One of the earliest Old Masters of Russian icon painting, Theophanes the Greek (also referred to as "Feofan Grek") was a Greek artist from the city of Constantinople, who became one of the greatest icon painters in Novgorod and Moscow, during the 14th century. In addition, he produced some of the finest fresco paintings of the time, as well as some outstanding illuminated manuscripts and book illustration. His greatest masterpiece of Christian art is perhaps the fresco in the Church of the Transfiguration at Novgorod - surely one of the most outstanding examples of Russian art of the late Medieval era. Other important works associated with Theophanes the Greek include the series of nine icon paintings in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Moscow. A highly influential figure in Novgorodian and Muscovite art during his day, he is credited with the foundation of the Novgorod school of icon painting, and was also the teacher and mentor of the great Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev (c.1365-1430).




Born in Constantinople (formerly Byzantium, now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, all we know about him is that he moved to Novgorod about 1370 (about the age of 30), to complete a program of mural painting in The Church of the Transfiguration. Considered to be the founder of the Novgorod School, during his time in the city he executed a wide range of frescoes, devotional panel paintings, miniatures and book illuminations, though few if any surviving works can be attributed to him with any certainty. Among his Novgorod masterpieces is the exquisite icon known as the Madonna of Don (c.1380) now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. In 1395 Theophanes moved to Moscow to decorate the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. While in Moscow he completed a large number of other religious paintings for the Church of the Nativity of Mary (1395) in the Moscow Kremlin, the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin (1399), and (in collaboration with Andrei Rublev and Prokhor of Gorodets) the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin (1405). See also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.

Whether or how often he returned to Constantinople during his stay in Russia is not known, although the learned art scholar Alpatov has ascribed to him certain paintings at Kariye Camii (Chora Monastery) in the Turkish capital. Although, in accordance with convention, he painted mostly religious art, he was also one of the first painters of secular subjects in Russia, as his output included a mural panorama of Moscow executed for Prince Vladimir Andreevich.

Theophanes' personal style of Byzantine art is marked by profound feeling, elongation of the figures, delicate detail, great brightness and the linear rhythm so characteristic of Novgorodian painting. Whether working in fresco or tempera, his execution is bold and his brushwork almost Impressionistic in its vigour and dash. His work combines Byzantine craftsmanship with great learning and an unmistakable Russian spirit. Witness his panel icon of the Transfiguration of Jesus in which the geometry and brilliance of Christ contrasts sharply with the disordered arrangement of the terrestrial Apostles on Mount Tabor. The mathematical harmony of its forms, combined with its palette of earthtones and precious gold leaf, gives the work enormous power and a deep sense of spirituality. Works attributed to Theophanes the Greek can be seen in one or two of the best art museums in Russia, including the Hermitage, St Petersburg.

For a comparison with primitive panel painting in Italy, read about the Sienese School of Painting, led by the great Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Note About Icons

Derived from Eastern Byzantine art, Russian icons are typically small tempera panel paintings of Christ, the Virgin, saints and/or Apostles which function as devotional images and expressions of Orthodox piety. They are known to have existed before 340 CE, and can usually be found in the homes of all Orthodox Christians. In Eastern churches, altar screens known as iconostases are typically filled with icons. The dangers of icon-veneration developing into idolatry has led to several historical Iconoclasms in both Byzantium and Russia.



Other Russian Icon Painters

In addition to Theophanes the Greek, other important Russian artists involved in icon painting (most of whom were also accomplished fresco painters) included Andrei Rublev (c.1360s-1427), his collaborator Daniel Cherniy, and Dionysius (c.1440-1502). Later artists included Bogdan Saltanov (1626–1686), and Simon Ushakov (1626–1686) of the late Moscow school of painting. Due to the popularity of icons among all classes of Russians, a number of different schools of icon painting developed, including those of Yaroslavl, Vladimir-Suzdal, Novgorod, Pskov, Tver and Moscow. St Petersburg didn't exist during Theophanes' day: it wasn't until the era of Petrine art (1686-1725) that the city was built by Tsar Peter the Great on swamps next to the River Neva, overlooking the Baltic sea.

• For more biographical details about famous icon painters, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important religious pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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