What is so special about Novgorod Icons? In addition to being known for their beautiful colors and lively compositions, Novgorod Icons offer a rich history and background to the study of icon writing.
Novgorod is one of the oldest cities in Russia, dating from about 859 AD. The period from the 12th to the 17th centuries was especially bountiful in producing many beautiful icons. This period of time is sometimes referred to as “the Proto- Renaissance” because it still embraced the union of religious and aesthetic ideas.
The Effects of the Western Renaissance on Icon Writing
The Proto- Renaissance that was operational in Russia was able to encompass all the cultural phenomena of its time within the context of religion and produce icons of spiritual depth without being overly influenced by Humanism.
In the West from the 14th to 16th centuries, the Renaissance moved art, even religious art, more toward man’s interests and became more human, less religious. Even Christianity in the West at this time became more rational and scholastic and emphasized the emotional experiences of the subject.
In the practice of writing icons, we tend to strongly favor copying icons from before the Renaissance for this very reason. Iconographers agree that imagery from before the Renaissance is preferred because we want our icons to reflect a culture that placed God as the center of the universe, not human reason.
Fourteenth Century Russian Culture
Russian culture of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries developed strong ties with Byzantium, particularly in Novgorod and Pskov. The great iconographer, Andrei Rublev was part of this cultural and spiritual movement. The famous Byzantine master Theophanes the Greek worked in Novgorod in 1378. His magnificent frescoes in the Church of Our Savior in Ilyina Street formed a bridge between the art of Novgorod and Byzantium.
The Artistic Language of the Novgorodian icon is simple, laconic and precise; the composition is based on large contrasting shapes. The rhythm and coloring are tense and mobile, the drawing energetic. Colors are especially important and tend to be simple and bright. Faces, while classical. Tend to have large, expressive eyes. They are painted in a gentle manner with subtle gradations of value. The linear design of the hair, lips, nose and eyes is in contrast to the subtle tonal gradations. In the earlier icons, the minimal color scheme of olive and yellow prevails.
Saint Nicholas Icon
In the thirteenth century icon of Saint Nicholas from the Novgorodian monastery of the Holy Spirit, we see clearly the simplicity of composition, the harsh linear forms, and sparse contrasting colors that complement the restraint of the image. This icon, as well as the is very characteristic of Novgorodian twelfth and thirteenth century painting.
Presentation of the Virgin Icon and Boris and Gleb Icon
In these icons of the late thirteenth, early fourteenth centuries we see the qualities of simplicity of composition combined with monumental, flat graphic qualities balanced by relative depth of form. The colors show an abundance of cinnabar, white, ochre, brown and green.
At this time, Novgorodian painting came closer to Byzantine icons of the Palaeologus period. Icons became monumental and soon were given to freer and more complex compositions. Here we find images with inner tension, power and a classical simplicity. We also see the beginnings of interest in man and his feelings and this affects both color and composition.
I need to end this here, but will pick it up again in a subsequent blog in order to continue the historical development of icons in this most important period of icon history. For further reading I suggest the book: Novgorod Icons, 12-17th Century by Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad.
Some of the best characteristics of Novgorodian icons are their rational yet popular imagery, economy of means, and a brilliant use of color. Definitely a period of icon writing worth exploring for every aspiring iconographer!
To see more of my icons visit: New Christian Icons
To see my available online icon writing classes visit: online.iconwritingclasses.com
May God bless you and your icon writing, until next month,
Christine Simoneau Hales