Russian Medieval Painting
History, Characteristics of Icon Paintings, Fresco Murals, Mosaics.

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Holy Virgin of Vladimir (c.1131)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
A masterpiece of medieval art,
the celebrated Vladimirskaja is
Russia's most famous Icon Painting.

Russian Medieval Painting (c.950-1100)


Types of Medieval Painting
Icon Paintings
Origins & History of Early Russian Icons
Holy Virgin of Vladimir
Characteristics of Icon Painting
Religious Murals

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

For the best oils/watercolours,
see: Greatest Paintings Ever.

The city of St Petersburg did
not exist during the Middle Ages
in Russia. It was only built
during the era of Petrine art,
when Czar Peter the Great
decided to construct a new
Russian capital city which
overlooked the Baltic sea.
Peter spent huge sums on
the development of Russian
architecture, sculpture and
painting. For portraiture,
murals and landscapes, see:
Russian Painting 18th-Century.

Types of Medieval Painting

Until the end of the 16th century Russian art - especially painting - was virtually confined to religious subjects, which had furthermore, to be depicted in the specific manner defined by religious tradition. These religious paintings were either executed on wooden panels, which are called icons, or upon church walls. Illuminated manuscripts were comparatively rare in Russia, and, as far as is known, most mosaic art of the Middle Ages was the work of Byzantine artists sent to Russia specifically for the purpose. (See also: Christian Art, Byzantine Period.)

Generally speaking, the same artists produced both the icon painting and the mural painting, and a similar technique was used for both. The ground, whether masonry or wood panel, was covered with a hard foundation of white gesso, and this was polished when dry. The outlines were then sketched out, usually in red, and the background filled in, either with gold or silver leaf or with white paint. The picture itself was then painted in vivid colours dissolved in egg yolk: a technique known as tempera. (An alternative but lesser used technique was the encaustic method.) Ochres, reds and greens were the predominant colour pigments. When the picture was completely dry a coat of darkish varnish was applied. (For a comparison with art and culture in Germany during the Middle Ages, see: German Medieval Art.)

For an overall introduction, see:
Romanesque Art (c.1000-1200)
For church mural frescoes, see:
Romanesque Painting.

For details of the modern school
see: Russian Painting 19th-Century.


Icon Paintings

Icon paintings were the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of early Italian religious panel paintings, but whereas Italian artists were at liberty to depict secular and mythological scenes, Orthodox painters were confined to Christian art, and had, in addition, to present these subjects in the manner prescribed by the Church. In consequence painters were automatically debarred from experimenting in composition, and as a result, until the 16th century, they were not concerned with problems of linear perspective or foreshortening or other methods of portraying schematic depth. They were uninterested in realism, thus had no need for Italian Renaissance techniques like sfumato or chiaroscuro, and felt no impulse to express their individuality by originating new forms. Instead they confined themselves to the illustration of scenes from the Scriptures, with as much religious emotion as possible. Their object was, in fact, to create beauty through perfection of feeling, line and colour, and not by novelty in composition or design. As a result icons differ fundamentally from Western painting, and until quite recently Western Europeans considered them to be devoid of all artistic merit, even if they had some value on the grounds of their religious content. It is only since the start of the twentieth century that Western critics and art-lovers have come to realize that fine icons are indeed true works of art, to be judged alongside the "Primitives" of any other school of painting.

History & Origins of Russian Icons

The ultimate descent of icon-painting can be traced back to Egyptian art - specifically, the tomb-portraits of Roman Egypt - a form of religious art which were developed by the early Christians into a means of acquainting the illiterate with the more important episodes in the Scriptures, so that scenes soon came to be depicted as well as individual figures. The idiom soon spread to Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul) where it became the dominant form of Byzantine art. Indeed, these panel pictures acquired such rapid, and in some cases exaggerated popularity, that in the fourth century an attempt was made by the Byzantine authorities to ban them. However, public opposition to this measure proved so strong that the Church was forced to sanction icons; once legalized, they became the focus of much excessive adoration and a ban was again imposed in the eighth century and maintained in force for roughly a hundred years. As a result many of Byzantium's icon-painters had to seek refuge abroad. The majority settled in Italy; some probably penetrated even farther west to France or even to Britain; others established themselves in the Caucasus; it is more than likely that some also found hospitality among the Greeks settled along the northern shores of the Black Sea in cities like Theodosia and Kherson. According to Russian chroniclers, Vladimir was baptized at Kherson, and on leaving the city he is reported to have carried back to Kiev a number of icons, crosses and books, in addition to twenty-five large statues and four great copper horses. He erected the horses (which appear to have closely resembled those which now stand above the west door of St Mark's cathedral in Venice) outside the church of the Virgin of the Dime, and hung the icons inside it. Soon after he sent to Byzantium for further supplies of icons, since those he had brought from Kherson were insufficient to meet Kiev’s requirements.

NOTE: Kiev was also a centre of Byzantine goldsmithing and precious metalwork, between the years 950 and 1237, where both cloisonné and niello enamelling became a speciality.


Holy Virgin of Vladimir

No icons from the 9th/10th century have so far been found in Russia, but one of the finest of examples of late medieval painting - the famous 12th century icon of Holy Virgin of Vladimir - has come down to us largely intact. This exquisite panel was brought to Kiev from Constantinople in the twelfth century, and transported shortly afterwards, to Vladimir, The Russians instantly recognized it as a masterpiece, and from the start its influence on Russian painting was considerable. Although it is unquestionably of Constantinople workmanship, and of the very finest quality at that, and though it strictly follows the rigid composition decreed by Orthodox tradition, the icon is not typically Byzantine in spirit. In contrast to the majority of contemporary Byzantine paintings, the Virgin in this panel is as much an individual as she is the symbol of motherhood; the child again, whilst retaining his holy character, is yet an intimate and affectionate child, not merely a monument of Faith. The icon is imbued with a humanism which is rarely to be met with in Byzantine art. Such humanism was, however, essential to the simple, individuality-loving Slav, who required an intimate rather than a formal religion, and it is tempting to argue that the icon was specially commissioned for Kiev, and that it set out to meet Russian rather than Byzantine requirements. Many Russian artists strove to express the same humanism within the iconographic framework. The Virgin in a twelfth-century icon of the Annunciation in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow shows the measure of their success. This icon is perhaps less beautiful, certainly less accomplished, than the restrained yet tender Lady of Vladimir. It is again less elegant and gracious, but in its own simpler way it is as sincere and as moving. The Virgin's features are those of a Russian, not of a Greek, and this introduction of the national type is now recognized as a fundamental characteristic of surviving icons of Kievan Russia prior to the arrival of the Mongols. (See also Medieval Christian Art.)

Characteristics of Icon Painting

Until recently nothing was known even in Russia of Russian icon-painting at this early period, but in the 1920s the Moscow State Restoration Workshops, under the directorship of Igor Grabar, were entrusted with the task of cleaning the older icons, some of which had only been discovered during the revolution. Their remarkable achievements in preserving the various over-paintings, removed in order to reveal the originals, are of the utmost importance to art students. A number of fine early masterpieces were then uncovered and carefully studied, and important new conclusions regarding the history of early Russian painting were made possible. Professor Anisimov was in charge of much of this work. In his opinion, icons produced in Russia prior to the Mongol invasion were intended either for processional use or for setting up in whatever part of the church seemed appropriate; unlike later ones they were not meant for erection in a specific place in the church. As a result, both sides of the panels were usually painted and, to prevent warping, slats were fixed at the top and bottom, not along the back, as in all post-thirteenth-century icons. Icons again varied in size from the quite small to the very large, whereas at a later date sizes were more constant, since the panels were meant to fill special vacancies in the iconostasis or elsewhere. Precious and semi-precious stones were set in the borders as well as in the saints' haloes; later the borders became far less important and were left plain. The saints were given individual faces of Russian type and, in contrast to Byzantine icons, each was physically recognizable, and not merely because of a conventional iconographic attribute. This move towards portrait art is, in Anisimov's view, essentially Russian, and so also was the technique of facial painting, whereby the heavy moulding of the forehead, eyebrows and aquiline nose resulted in a sunken bridge to the nose. The eye-sockets, too, were heavily inset, with the top lids raised to the uttermost, so as to give the saints an inspired expression. The figures were well proportioned and not elongated, and the drapery of the robes was made to reveal the underlying form of their limbs. This almost classic handling of drapery was later inherited by the Novgorodian school, where it was put to excellent use.

Anisimov distinguishes two trends of painting in these icons. The first set out to conform, and even to copy, the great masterpieces of the day, such as the Virgin of Vladimir. In these the artist concentrated on line, and his colours were subdued. In the second the painter allowed himself a certain measure of liberty in colour and line and endeavoured to express the Russian's innate love of symmetry and rhythm. He applied his colours impressionistically, and used a brighter palette, consisting mostly of reds, vermilions, greens and white. This style, which Anisimov terms "the national", was however, relegated to the reverse side of the panels. In contrast to earlier scholars, Anisimov believes that the Mongol invasion did not arrest Russia's artistic development - on the contrary, Russian art made great strides in the thirteenth century, developing if anything more rapidly than it would have done had Byzantine tutorship remained in force. This is almost certainly true in so far as the country's national consciousness is concerned, since the Mongol occupation undoubtedly stimulated its development. Furthermore, since every renaissance must have its spiritual antecedents, we may best explain the development of the magnificent Novgorod school of icon-painting in this way. Anisimov's contention does not, however, hold good if applied to the country's artistic output as a whole, for the few fine works which were created during the Mongol occupation were produced either in regions enjoying autonomy or those in which the Mongols were inactive.

Religious Fresco Murals

Fewer examples of mural painting dating from before the Mongol invasion have come down to us than icons. The church of the Virgin of the Dime is known to have contained fresco paintings and mosaics executed by medieval artists in the Constantinopolitan style. The decorations in St. Sophia were likewise essentially Byzantine, though already marked differences are to be seen between the paintings there and contemporary Constantinopolitan work, which certain scholars, notably Muratov, ascribe to local taste. Thus in the wall-paintings which survived to our day in the staircase at St. Sophia the figures were presented frontally against a vertical perspective, and crescent discs similar to the Sasanian symbol of the Moon God were included. The latter closely resembled discs which figure in paintings of the Sarmatian age at Kerch in the Crimea. Such discs had appeared in Byzantine art at an earlier date, but were completely foreign to the developed Constantinople-style art of the eleventh century, as was the use of vertical perspective. The subjects depicted, however, were more Byzantine, for they consisted of elaborate hunting scenes, and included acrobats, mimes and various incidents drawn from the games played in the Hippodrome. These games occupied an important part in Byzantine life, and it is very probable that Yaroslav was taken to see them when he visited Constantinople. They must have caught his imagination, for he seems to have introduced something of the same nature at Kiev; in any case, the historian Klyuchevski has found many references in Russian folk-lore to the games played at the Court at Kiev on Sundays. What more likely, therefore, than that the Prince, with his pagan heritage still strong within him, insisted on decorating the staircase of the cathedral with these secular scenes?

The mosaics in St. Sophia and in one or two of Kiev's lesser churches were definitely of Byzantine workmanship, and, so far as is known, no Russians ever acquired the technique, perhaps because it demanded long years of apprenticeship at a time when there was more than sufficient work to keep painters employed. Some painters seem, however, to have tried to imitate mosaic work, among them the decorator of the church of St. Cyril's Monastery, situated just outside Kiev. Prior to World War II there survived there three fragments of wall-paintings which, according to Muratov, were painted in the simple frontal style usual in mosaics of the period.

The Monastery of the Caves at Kiev was again decorated in the Byzantine manner, perhaps even more lavishly than St. Sophia. In addition to its icons, it glowed with marble revetments, mosaics and wall-paintings. Its decorations were completed within six years of the laying of its foundation stone - a fact which suggests that Kiev must have had a very large number of artists, whether Byzantine or Russian, at her disposal. This supposition is borne out by the fact that many provincial churches also contained elaborate wall-paintings. Some, like those at Ostra and Starogorodok, survived till the last war. They dated from the twelfth century. The majority have, however, been so damaged or over-restored that it is impossible to judge of their quality.

Nevertheless there is quite sufficient evidence to show that religious painting was well established in Russia by the tenth century. It had to adapt itself to Russian taste almost from the start, and by the twelfth century much work was being done by Russian artists who had broken free from Byzantine control, though they followed the Byzantine tradition. These talented but anonymous Old Masters superimposed Russian elements upon the Byzantine model, preparing the ground thereby for artists - like Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-1410) and Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430) - who were later to produce in Novgorod the finest masterpieces of medieval Russian painting - see, for instance, The Holy Trinity Icon (c.1411). One of their number, Dionysius (c.1440-1502), was an important precursor of the Moscow school of painting, represented by artists including the Stroganov brothers, Procopius Chirin, Nicephorus Savin and the renowned iconographer and muralist Simon Ushakov (1626-1686).

Works reflecting the style of this art movement can be seen in some of the oldest churches and best art museums in Russia, including in particular the Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Kiev (also known as the Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Art), the Tretyakov Gallery and Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, the Novgorod Museum and the Vladimir & Suzdal Museum.

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

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