Novgorod and her icons

Russian history was born in Novgorod. It was here that in the lives of small Slavic communities fishing, hunting and cultivating their lands all over the endless plains for many centuries, the lightning of history struck, forged them into a state, and launched processes which have been evolving ever since. It was here that the three tribes living in the area of present-day Novgorod – two Slavic and one Finno-Ugric –, seeing the successes of the organized peoples to their west, decided in 862 to ask them for a prince. They invited the Vikings living on today’s eastern Swedish coast, whom they knew well through trade relations as Varyags (waer-gang, sworn companions) or Rus (rowers – this is how the Finns still call the Swedes). The Vikings arrived under the leadership of Rørik/Ryurik, and established the princely castle of Holmgard/Gorodishche on the shore of Lake Ilmeny, a few kilometers south of today’s Novgorod. From here they build out a large trade route from Novgorod to Byzantium through the almost interconnected networks of Russian rivers.

Nikolai Roerich: Guests from overseas, 1901 (Tretyakov Gallery). The arrival of the Vikings and their encounter with the Slavs, as the pictures below show, excited the imagination of late 19th-century Russian Symbolic and Art Nouveau historical painters.

“The midnight visitors are floating. The shelving shore of the Gulf of Finland stretches along like a light band. The water has engorged the azure of the clear vernal sky and the wind ripples on it, whisking opaque purplish stripes and circles. Flock of seagulls down at the waves, they swayed lightly, and only under the very front of the keel of the boat flashed their wings. Something unfamiliar and unprecedented has alarmed their peaceful life. A new jet is pushing through still water, it is running into age-old Slavic life, will pass through forests and swamps, will roll through a wide field, rising Slavic race who will see rare and unfamiliar guests and who will marvel at their strictly combating, outlandish custom. The boats proceed in a long line. The sun shines in red on the sky. The dragon heads on the bows of the boats rise high and slender.”

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The settlement of the Vikings in Novgorod brings something unprecedented to European history. In fact, the Viking prince and the Novgorod tribes enter into a treaty with each other, which has survived in writing in a 13th-century copy. Under this treaty, the prince cannot collect taxes in the territory of Novgorod: it is collected by the elders of Novgorod who pay the prince from it. The prince, then, is a kind of paid employee, a public servant who is employed for his know-how in public administration, rather than an absolute ruler like elsewhere – and this will only intensify in the coming centuries. The heads of the Novgorod landowner and merchant families continue to hold their regular assembly, the veche, which appoints a co-judge, posadnik, to the prince, as if to inspect him. The Viking princes do not endure these restrictions for long: Ryurik’s son Ingvar/Igor and his guardian Helgi/Oleg go south, conquering the Slavic settlements along the Dnieper, including Kiev, which they will now rule by the right of armed conquest as omnipotent rulers. To Novgorod, they only send back their sons for princes, who are still forced there to abide by the original treaty.

After the Tatars destroyed Kiev in 1235, and the ruling family fled to the north, they continued to exercise the Kiev-like full power in the northern principalities, which was also strenghtened by the Tatar influence. This also characterized the Moscow principality, rising from the late 1200s, which in 1380 defeated the Tatars at Kulikovo, and then sought to extend its power and leadership style to the other Russian principalities. In the following hundred years, Novgorod and Moscow clashed with each other several times, until finally in 1478 Prince Ivan of Moscow occupied Novgorod, executed the leading boyars, abolished the office of posadnik, banned the veche and transported its bell to Moscow. And in 1570, Ivan the Terrible massacred the city’s leading families and looted its monasteries. Historians have repeatedly raised the question since then: how the history of Russia, Eastern Europe and the whole world would have developed, had the democratic Novgorod leadership style, reminiscent of the organization of the Venetian state, become dominant in the Russian state, instead of the authoritarian Moscow style.

It is customary to say of Peter the Great, in the wake of Pushkin, that he opened a window for Russia to Europe. They only forget to add that a door wide open to Europe, Novgorod, was previously in that place, which was closed by Moscow.

Apollinary Vasnetsov: Images from Novgorod’s past / Fair in Novgorod, 1908-1909. The former in a private collection, the latter in the Perm Museum

Klavdy Lebedev: Judge Marfa and the suppression of the Novgorod veche, 1889, Tretyakov Gallery

Russian history emerged in Novgorod in another sense, too: that the first written sources on Russian soil have survived here. These were written on birch bark, which is preserved excellently in the Novgorod soil, just like all other organic remains: this is why the Medieval section of the local museum is so rich. Various documents written on birch bark have been excavated since 1951, more than a thousand thus far, half from before the 12th century, and it is estimated that there may be at least twenty times more in the earth. Most of them are letters, which shows that the common people of medieval Novgorod were literate. A school was also excavated, with three wax tablets, one of them displaying a few psalm lines in practiced hand, and the other two awkwardly copying it: they are called the “Novgorod Psalm Book”.

Another interesting thing emerges from the birch bark texts: that the peculiar dialect of Novgorod is not due to a change in the way of speaking of the Eastern Slavs who emigrated to the isolated north, but rather to the fact that the accent of the Slavs from somewhere else was assimilated to that of the Eastern Slavs. “From somewhere else” roughly means the place where I am writing this now: the area around Berlin, the eastern part of present-day Germany and the western part of Poland, which was a Slavic region at that time, before the medieval German Drang nach Osten. From here came the two Slavic tribes, the Slovenes and the Krivichs, which, together with the Finno-Ugric Chuds, founded Novgorod and invited the Viking Rus.

Novgorod, museum. 14th-century letter on birch bark: “To our lord Mikhail Yuryevich, from your peasants from Cherenshchany village, which you gave under the control of Klima Oparin. We humbly ask you. We don’t want him. He’s not a friendly person. Violent and arbitrary.” This letter not only proves that the peasants in the Novgorod estates were literate, but also that they were able to express an opinion to the landlord against the administrator sent above them, which would have been unthinkable in the other Russian principalities.

The churches and monasteries of Novgorod mentioned in this and the next post

In and around the church there were and still are many medieval churches: Novgorod as a World Heritage Site includes ca. 600 monuments. The churches were built by the leading boyars in competition with each other, as a representation of their wealth and power. The most important of them is St. Sophia Cathedral. It got its name from the church of the city to which the people of Novgorod measured themselves with overconfidence: the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, the Church of Divine Wisdom. The cathedral was built in the kremlin on the right bank of the Volkhov River, between 1045 and 1050, and it is the oldest church in Russia still standing today. The most valuable of its many treasures is the bronze main gate, made by masters in Magdeburg between 1152 and 1154 for the Płock Cathedral in Poland, and purchased from there by the archbishop of Novgorod in the late 15th century. About this beautiful Romanesque bronze gate, which mainly depicts the life of Christ, I want to write in detail later.

In the cathedral, in front of the iconostasis, the most revered icon of Novgorod, Our Lady of the Sign, is exhibited. This type of representation is named after Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”, to which Matthew 1:23 adds: “which means that God is with us.” On the breast of the Mother of God, praying with open arms, we see the child Jesus in a circle, which actually represents the womb of the Virgin. A recently-found birch bark document informs us that the icon was painted by the first Russian icon painter known by name, Olisey Grechin, and commissioned in 1155 by his father, the boyar Pyotr Mikhailovich, for the wedding of his daughter with Prince Mstislav.

The icon preserved in the cathedral also has a three-pronged handle, suggesting that it was carried in processions. And indeed, the miraculous legend of the icon with which it inscribed itself in the history of Novgorod, is connected to this.

The wealth of Novgorod quickly aroused the envy of the neighboring city-states, and in 1169, under the leadership of Suzdal, a united army of five principalities set out to occupy Novgorod. On the second day of the siege, Archbishop Ivan received a vision, which commanded him to lift the icon of Our Lady of the Sign from the Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street, to bring it into the kremlin, and to hold it up from the walls against the enemy. After this, the enemy was seized by a great fear during the night, and they began to fight against each other. Later the Novgorodians also ran out of the fortress, and slaughtered them. The story is depicted in detail on a 15th-century Novgorod icon, existing in three copies which can be seen in the Novgorod Icon Museum, the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Elementary students in the icon museum in Novgorod. The teacher explains to them in detail the miracle of the icon, setting history for them in the fabric of the city: “And you see, there is the bridge on which you also walk every day when you come to school…”

The copy of the icon in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg

The 15th-c. copy of the icon in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow

The miracle of the Novgorod icon on a 17th-c. fresco in Yaroslavl

The second most important sacral center of the city was the monastery of St. George, built in 1130 to the south, on the banks of the Volkhov River. This was especially important, because the hundreds of churches and monasteries built in and around the city were all enriched with lands to their maintenance, but this ultimately endowed the head of the Novgorod church, the archbishop, with enormous wealth and power, which the boyars, jealously guarding their equality, could not tolerate. Therefore, they decided that the archbishop should have only spiritual control over the Novgorod clergy, and in all other cases they were subordinated to the archimandrite of the monastery of St. George, who, in turn, was elected annually by the veche.

The four oldest surviving icons of Novgorod come from this monastery. Four large icons, approx. 2.5×1.5 meters, suggesting that they were exhibited on the pillars of the church. Ivan the Terrible took all four to Moscow as loot in 1570, and only one returned to Novgorod: the great icon of Peter and Paul from around 1030, which opens the exhibition of the Novgorod Icon Museum.

From the 4th century onwards, it was customary to portray the two apostles together as the “two pillars” of the church, the apostle of the Jews and the Gentiles, respectively. An interesting typological parallel to this is that the two large columns standing next to the entrance of Solomon’s temple had their own names, and the Christian exegetes identified the two apostles with them. The column to the right was called Jachim, which means “He is the founder”, as Jesus founded his church on Peter, and the one to the left was Boaz, whose meaning is uncertain, but there was a Boaz in the Old Testament who married a pagan woman believing in the true God, just as Paul turned to the Gentiles open to the unknown God. The pairing of the two apostles was such a common iconographic formula, that even in the scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit the two of them sit at the top, such as on this 15th-c. icon of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Novgorod, although we know, that Paul was not there, nor was he even a believer. But the icon is not the representation of past reality, but of the eternal heavenly truth.

Moreover, according to their legend, before their execution in 64 AD, Peter and Paul met in Rome, where they hugged each other and said farewell here on earth, as seen in the icon type “Farewell of St. Peter and Paul”, for example in the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos:

Of the four earliest Novgorod icons, two depict St. George, one in full figure, and the other in half figure. Both strongly attest the Byzantine style with their subtle, nuanced tones, the sensitive facial expressions, and the highlights rendered with gold strokes. No wonder, since of the Russian cities, Novgorod had the most intense connections with Constantinople. Many masters studied there, many Greeks came here, and they brought many icons with them. The full-figured St. George – which was the main icon of the St. George Monastery, and thus probably made for the consecration of the stone church in 1130 – is today preserved in the Tretyakov Gallery.

The half-figure icon, which has been in the Uspensky Cathedral in Moscow since 1570, was probably ordered by Prince Yuri Bogolyubsky after his patron saint. In 1174, he left the city for Georgia, to marry Queen Tamar: this indicates the ante quem of the icon’s preparation. It is very interesting, that the most popular and much-copied icon in Georgia, a half-figure icon of St. George, exhibited today in the Svaneti National Museum, which resembles very much the Novgorod St. George icon, albeit with some folk features, was prepared and popularized shortly after the arrival of the prince to Georgia.

The fourth icon coming from the monastery is the so-called Ustyug Annunciation, dated between 1119 and 1130. The interesting thing about the icon, painted with restrained gestures and hues, is that it depicts the child Jesus just conceived in the womb of Mary in the same form as Our Lady of the Sign icon. This icon was transferred to the Tretyakov Gallery from the Uspensky Cathedral, but before it was seized by Ivan the Terrible, several copies were made of it, such as the following late 14th-c. icon from the Church of St. Boris and Gleb in Plotniki, which symbolizes Mary’s virgin conception with the descent of the Holy Spirit.

We know two more Novgorod icons from this early period, but we do not know their original location. The angel-head of Gabriel in the Russian Museum of St. Petersburg may have originated sometime between 1130 and 1200. It was part of the main image sequence, the deesis of an iconostasis, Her beautiful, finely modeled face and hair, gold-streaked highlights and large, sensitive gaze testify to its Byzantine origins.

The last member of this group is one of the most sacred Russian icons, the “icon of the Savior not created by a human hand”. Both the icon and the name go back to an early legend, that Christ handed over a cloth with the imprint of his own face to the envoy of Abgar, the Syrian king of Edessa, thereby also approving the making and reverence of holy images. I will write separately about the history and descent of this image, the mandylion. For now, it is enough to note that the original cloth was already in Constantinople by the 10th century, and this Novgorod copy, the model for most Russian icons on this subject, might have made there. This motif was also born on the flags of Russian rulers fighting against foreign enemies since the Middle Ages, as seen in the great Novgorod mural of Alexander Nevsky, who in 1240 defeated the Swedes at Neva, and in 1242 the German Knights on the ice of Lake Chud.

The 13th century was an age of isolation for Novgorod. Although the Mongols were kept far away form the city by the swampy lands around it, they nevertheless occupied the southern Russian lands, cuting off Novgorod from Byzantium. Traders in Novgorod were increasingly turning to Europe. The Byzantine icon models are replaced by the influence of vibrant Romanesque paintings on the one hand, and Novgorod folk art on the other.

On this icon of St. Nicholas from 1294 (from the Church of St. Nicholas on the island of Lipno), linearity replaces the subtle hues and strong spatiality of the Byzantine icons. The depiction is completely flat, the surfaces are ornamental, with a rich decoration similar to folk costume. And although we know that St. Nicholas is the saint in Orthodox folk religiosity to whom one can turn for all troubles, it is still a loss of scale that Christ and Mary on either side of him are depicted so small.

A late 13th-century three-figure icon of St. John of the Ladder, St. George and St. Blaise from the village of Krestsi (now in the Russian Museum) also depicts the three saints without any spatiality, rigidly posed, with vivid colors and almost folk naivety, in different sizes, obviously at the customer’s request. Here we see for the first time the fiery red background which, in the next century, will be so characteristic of the Novgorod icons. The contemporary icon of St. George (in the Russian Museum) is of a similar folk style, and even fairy-like.

One hundred years later, one of the most famous Russian icon figures, St. George from Manikhin (today in the Russian Museum) will emerge from this red background. The colors and the flatness are related to the previous St. George, but the composition is brilliant. The painter omits all details which only distract the attention, and there remain only the horse in sharp contour rising on its hind legs, St. George striking diagonally downwards from its back, and the dragon curling at the bottom, whose demise is accompanied by the rocks descending to the right in the background. The knight’s coat flapping backward in the wind, is counterbalanced by the blessing hand of the Lord to the right. And what is a rarity in the icons: the painter was not afraid to increase the dynamism of the scene by allowing the momentum of the horse and rider to run out to the picture frame. From the 15th century on, this image became one of the most important compositional models for the icons of St. George.

The double icon of St. Boris and Gleb also provided a good opportunity to depict graceful horses. The two holy princes, killed by their own brother in 1015, were first depicted standing, as in this 14th-century Novgorod icon.

The subtle compositional idea of alternating the colors of the brothers’ clothes is also applied to the horses in their equestrian icon. The dark and light horses, slightly shifted in relation to each other, but stepping in unison, provide the image with a particularly nice rhythm. This composition will also be used in many other representations of double knight saints.

This composition was also transferred to the icons of the patron saints of horses, St. Florus and Laurus. They were originally 2nd-century masons, who were commissioned to build a pagan temple in Illyricum, in what is now Kosovo, but when they competed it, they consecrated it as a Christian church, and therefore had to die a martyr’s death. When their bodies were excavated, and found unspoiled, the horse plague raging in the area immediately ceased, so they were revered as patron saints of horses all over Russia, especially in Novgorod, where their church stood near the kremlin. On their 15th-c. icon (today in the Tretyakov Gallery), where horses of different contrasting colors alternate with each other, the two saints ride side by side in the pose of Boris and Gleb below, and above they stand in complementary-colored clothing next to the Archangel Michael, who holds their horses on a lead.

The themes particularly popular in Novgorod included the depiction of St. Sophia, that is, the Divine Wisdom, since the cathedral, the emblem of Novgorod, was also dedicated to her. The wisdom of God as a personified – female – entity is very common in the Old Testament, and Christianity also adopted it, identifiying it with Christ. The early 16h-c. Novgorod depictions express this duality in a complex way. The Wisdom as a fiery angel sits on the throne of the world. On either side of her stand Mary (in the form of the Lady of the Sign) and St. John the Baptist, as they usually stand on either side of Christ on the iconostasis. Christ appears above the Wisdom, and above him, the angels are already preparing the universe for the final judgment.

The Novgorod icons also knew an even more complex representation of St. Sophia. On this, the Orthodox interpretation of the Divine Wisdom was connected to the metaphor of Proverbs 9:1: “Wisdom has built her house. She has hewn out seven pillars. She has slaughtered her meat. She has mixed her wine. She has furnished her table. She has sent out her maidens. She cries out from the highest places of the city: (…) Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed. Forsake foolishness and live, and go in the way of understanding.” The house in the upper part of the icon is the Church, its seven pillars the seven universal councils. In the lower part, where we see the banquet hall, there also appears the Mother of God with the child, since she is also a “house”, built by the Wisdom, that is Christ incarnate, for himself in earth.

From the late 15th century come the twenty-five small icons called the “tablets of St. Sophia”, which were found in the sacristy of the cathedral in the early 20th century. One side of the panels shows full-figured saints, and the other a feast of the church year. The tables were placed in front of the altar at the appropriate feast, and remained there until the next feast.

From the same period comes a complex icon, from the Church of Boris and Gleb in Plotniki, which lists the most significant events of the life of Christ in a calendar-like way, from his baptism to his ascension to heavens.

The 15th century was the period of the development of Russian iconostasis. One of its earliest examples is the deesis row from the Church of St. Blaise in Novgorod. Deesis (“supplication”) originally meant the type of image where the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist, as Jesus’ closest human relatives, pleaded before the Pantocrator Christ, sitting on the throne of the last Judgment, to be merciful in his judgement of mankind. On the deesis row of the iconostasis, this triple group was expanded with other half- or full-figured saints and archangels.

The plasticity of the iconostasis in the 15th century is shown by this Novgorod icon, probably from 1467, where the deesis row was combined with the row of those for whom the heavenly saints were pleading: the citizens of Novgorod pleading for themselves. At that time, right in the middle of the wars with Moscow, they had every reason to do so.

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