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Yuri Arzamastzev, Annunciation, oil on canvas, 1997, 80 by 80 cm
Russian Icons As Primary Sources For Developing
Russian Contemporary Art
by Yuri Tsapayev
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Yaroslavl School

The Yaroslavl had their own school in the 13th century and the Yaroslavl masters produced two
large icons, the Virgin Orans and the Virgin of Tolga. These two works were monumental and had
powerful emotional expressions. Changes were noted in the artists’ presentation of the Virgin as
seen in the large panels of Virgin Orans from from the Monastery of the Saviour at Yaroslavl. The
icon was of the “highest quality; in it the spacing of the figures, the nobility of their expression, and
the delicacy of the brushwork is matched by the sensitive, well-balanced, luminous, and expressive
colours.” (T.Rice 42) Figures were more elongated and patrician features were typical in the
Vladimir-Suzdalian period (43).
The period was interrupted by the Tartar invasion and Russia had to defend western Europe from
the Mongols. From 1223, the Tartars destroyed and plundered major Russian cities (Grabar,
Lasereff and Demus 17).

Further Developments of Russian Icons

In the previous discussion, the Constantinople influences were traced beginning from Vladimir’s
conversion to Orthodox Christianity. A second significant development was attributed to the role
played by Eastern schools of Syria and Anatolia (Rice 17). David Talbot Rice believed that the
Eastern schools had direct influence by way of Caucasus. The connection was seen in the Russian
Southeast between Asia and not South Russia and Constantinople (17-18). The Eastern influences
via Caucasus were seen in architecture and sculpture. Its effect on painting was by way of style,
color and iconography (18). In iconography, a distinct Eastern ordering system were seen in some
of the works such as the scenes progressing from right to left in contrast to Western traditions of
presenting the subjects from left to right Coloring was rather strong and gravitated towards primary
colors (Rice 18).
A third but less significant influence in the development of Russian icon art was Pre-Christian Russia
(20). What made some icons distinctly influenced by Russian pre-Christian art was the artists use of
“a strange, brilliant yet dark, harsh yet delicate, colouring.” The mysterious attitude “reproduce the
style and manner of some earlier pagan Russian work, and even to mirror to some extent the spirit
of that violent yet thoughtful society, that enigmatical yet strangely sympathetic landscape, which
together form the background of Russian culture.” (21) All three influences from Constantinople, the
East and pre-Christian Russian art all played an important role in the development of Russian icon
art. In the later periods, all three elements were synthesized and became difficult to make out the
distinctive characteristics.

Novgorod School

Novgorod was spared from the Mongol invasion and was able to preserve their culture. It was a
commercially and geographically strategic location that made it prosperous. Novgorod mainly
traded with the Scandinavians and it was a stronghold of the Hanseatic league that welcomed “a
definite artistic influence.” (Bunt 82) Color played an important aspect in distinguishing the
Novgorod school from its rivals. The three distinctive elements include “predominating bluish-green
tint; another has the flesh tones darker and brownish; a third searches after the lighter effects
obtained by a free use of the ochres.” (Bunt 83) Another feature distinctly of the Novgorodian
school was the use of color and form. The colors are brighter and typical characteristics of figures
portrayed include “the form of a champagne bottle, sloping and elegant, but lacking somewhat in
substance.” (Rice 23) Religious figures were no longer shown as the “aloof shaggy ascetic,” instead,
they were depicted as “ethereal, almost effeminate intellectual.” (23)
Throughout the Novgorod period, the artists had every opportunity to create icon art because of
the numerous churches built at that time. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the iconostasis or
fixed screen covered panel was a popular choice where icon art was found. This feature was also
unique to Greek and Russian cultures. The characteristics of the Novgorod school was succinctly
described by Rovinski:
The design is clear-cut, the lines are long and straight; the figure is usually short--seven to seven-
and-a-half heads in height; the face long; the nose drooping a little over the mouth; the robes
painted in two colours--or their various parts outlined in thick lines of black and white; the ozhivki,
or fine white lines round the eyes, on the forehead and nose and also on the joints of the hands and
feet are one of the outstanding attributes (Cited in Bunt 83).
The Novgorod artists created the most exquisite pieces towards the end of the 14th and 15th
centuries. Novgorod artists avoided “the complicated, intricate symbolic subjects which are so
widespread in later Russian icon-painting.” Their themes were simple (Grabar, Lasereff and Demus
17). Novgorodian artists included a range of subjects in their works that include “all the major
iconographic scenes which had become traditional throughout the Greek-Orthodox world.” Being
practical, they favored depicting saints that were especially venerated because they were thought to
assist ordinary Russians go about with their lives (T. Rice 70).

Pskov School

The Pskovian school was closely associate with the Novgorodian school. Its development began in
the fifteenth century and peaked during the sixteenth century. Notable characteristics of the
Pskoivian was its love for decoration and dramatic execution. Many of the icons produced by the
school were smaller when compared to the Novgorod school. This was attributed to the fact that
churches in Pskov were smaller compared to those in Novgorod (Rice 26).
Pskovian artist typically combined “the archaic manner of presentation with a taste for sombre
expressiveness.” (T. Rice 66). Typically seen in the “the fine fifteenth-century icon of St Demetrius
of Salonica, [the work] retains the formal manner, frontal presentation, and static form belonging to
the twelfth-century Byzantine icon of St George.” The saint’s face in the St. Demetrius Icon was
Pskovian where “the highlight on the tip of his long nose being a characteristic feature of the style”
appeared (66). (See Figures 4 & 5) Elements of folk-art also appeared in many Pskovian icon
paintings (66).

Figure 4 - Icon of St George; twelfth century (T. Rice 66)
Svetlana Stepanova, Archangel Michael and Joann Predtecha. 1997, oil on canvas, 67 x 87 cm

Figure 5 - Icon of St Demetrius of Salonica; school of Pskov
(T.Rice 67)





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