Novgorod Churches and Their Frescoes

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Here is a start on what I hope will eventually become a much more extensive set of pages regarding medieval Novgorod architecture and the iconography of the interior of the churches.  Photographs of the frescoes are often not readily available, although excellent publications of single churches do exist in Russian.   There is one, for example, for the Kovalevo church.  Some of the images here may not be found elsewhere.  While I provide some introductory commentary, a real analysis of this material must wait for another time. 

The two sets of images here are:  1.  The Church of the Nativity of Our Lady in the Monastery of St. Anthony; 2.  The Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in the village of Kovalevo.  Others which I shall eventually add include the Church of the TRansfiguration of the Savior on Nereditsa and the Church of the Transfiguration on Il'in Street.   All images are thumbnailed; click to bring up the enlargement.

The Church of the Nativity of Our Lady in the Monastery of St. Anthony

novg7.jpg (78389 bytes)The Monastery of St. Anthony, shown on the left side of a seventeenth-century engraving from the famous travel account by Adam Olearius, is located north of the center of Novgorod on the East side of  the Volkhov River .  According to tradition, Anthony was from Rome (hence he is called "Rimlianin").  We know about him primarily from a Vita written late in the fifteenth century and a sixteenth-century sermon praising him, that is, from texts written centuries after he came to Novgorod.  His Vita relates how he fled persecution of the Orthodox by the Roman Catholic Church.  Caught in a storm while on his ship, he was saved by the miraculous appearance of a stone, on which he could stand, and when the weather cleared, he discovered he was in Novgorod, at the location where he then founded his monastery early in the twelfth century.  He is mentioned in the Novgorod chronicles under the years 1117 and 1147.  The miraculous stone was in fact later transported into the main church of the monastery, the Church of the Nativity, where it was revered for its miraculous powers--a good example of popular Orthodox belief which in many different places both in Russia and in the Orthodox East included among holy relics stones considered to possess such powers.  Miracles connected with the stone were recorded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the author of one of the most interesting accounts about Muscovy, Deacon Paul of Aleppo, who visited Novgorod in 1655, mentioned the cult of Anthony and the miraculous stone.

anton1.jpg (38979 bytes)With the exception of the main church, the original buildings of the monastery have not survived.  On the left are the 19th-century gate and the refectory Church of the presentation, built in the sixteenth century.  At one time the monastery housed the theological academy created as a result of the early eighteenth-century church reform under Peter the Great; one of the academy buildings is extant.  Here we will concentrate on the twelfth-century Church of the Nativity of Our Lady, a building which is arguably very important in the history of early Russian architecture and which contains very interesting remnants of its original fresco decoration.

00novg50.jpg (34140 bytes)The Church of the Nativity, begun in 1117, is one of the earliest still largely intact churches from medieval Russia.  At one time, it was thought that the structure followed the six-pillar plan common to early Orthodox churches in the south and found in the contemporaneous Novgorod churches of St. Nicholas and St. George (in the Iur'ev Monastery--right).  Studies done as recently as two decades ago have shown that in fact the original building had a single cupola (now it has three) and an approximately square floor plan with only four pillars.  This much was completed by 1119, and some time after the interior had been painted in fresco in 1125, a narthex, stairwell and balcony were added to the west end of the church, the basic construction being completed probably prior to 1150.  The current state of the building and a floor plan delineating the addition are here:

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The importance of this relatively recent discovery about the construction of the church lies in the fact that the three-apse, single-coupola, four-pillar church became the norm in many parts of Russia in subsequent centuries.  The argument now is made that this form may have originated in Novgorod, possibly even with the Church of the Nativity, and from there spread to other regions. 

iconos9.jpg (50552 bytes)The interior of this early church also provides interesting evidence regarding iconographic programs and displays.  Today the icon screen, which separates the eastern (altar sanctuary) end of the church from the rest, as an obligatory feature of Orthodox churches (see photo, right).  However, icon screens developed over some time, perhaps reaching their full height and complexity only in the early fifteenth century in Russia.  In earlier centuries, the main iconographic program of a masonry church would be displayed in the mosaics or frescoes on its walls.  Individual icons of importance might be attached to the forward pillars, placed on stands, or possibly hung from a crossing beam in the center between the forward pillars.  It is likely that the first "icon screens" were drapes which could be pulled to close off the sanctuary and might display a holy image. 

The Church of the Nativity dates to the period prior to the emergence of the icon screen as we know it today.  As with all early Russian churches, its original interior was much changed over the centuries.  Frescoes generally became dark or decayed from moisture; so they were painted over, the idea being that the holy imagesanton11.jpg (32185 bytes) anton5.jpg (46729 bytes)were simply being renewed, not that the sanctity of the originals or the "originality" of the early artists' work was being violated.  Originality was, after all, not a criterion in the Church art, which was the product of divinely inspired labor.  In the case of the frescoes of interest here, when the re-plastering and re-painting were done, holes were made in the original surface in order to get the new layer to adhere.  Hence the blotchy appearance of the early frescoes when uncovered.   In the church today, one can see both some of the original frescoes and what remains of the nineteenth century ones (especially in the cupola, left).  The later re-plastering included adding stucco decoration, which is visible in some of the photographs.  Apart from the re-painting, an icon screen was built, in the process concealing some of the earlier frescoes and evidence about the original construction.   In the my photos taken in 1968, the remants of the blue wood of the icon screen can be seen (right); now it has been removed entirely. 

The removal of the icon screen made it possible to establish that probably in the original church a single beam crossed the front pillars approximately "one storey" above the ground.  From it would have been hung a curtain, but on the front of the pillars just above and below it very sizeable icons were displayed.   There may or may not have been a group of small icons suspended from the middle section of the beam.  I have not attempted here to identify all the images remaining from the original frescoes (in fact, that may not be possible), but will comment on selected aspects of the iconography.  We start by looking up from below toward the front pillars and main apse of the church (the view omits the "first storey"), then look at the images of the archangel Gabriel and Mary on the respective pillars.

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The depictions of Gabriel and Mary are in fact a single iconographic image--the Annunciation, one of the important events in the liturgical calendar portraying the moment when the archangel appears to Mary and informs her she is to give birth to Jesus.   The early Russian churches adopted from Byzantium the practice of displaying the Annunciation as it is here--flanking the opening to the Sanctuary.  Since Byzantine artistic norms after the iconoclast controversy forbade three-dimensional portayals of holy figures, the Byzantine artists devised a way to combine the two dimensionality of individual paintings with the three-dimensional space created by the architecture.   Thus the Annunciation "takes place" in three dimensional space and in a sense invites the believer's gaze into the main apse, where the key elements of the Christian theology would be represented in additional images and in the liturgy itself.   Such a depiction of the Annunciation likely would be found even if a church were not dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lady, as is the case here.  Additional fesccoes in the apse area seem to have included scenes specific to the life of Mary as recorded in an apocryphal Gospel text popular in Byzantium.

anton20.jpg (50647 bytes)Below the Annunciation are four half-figure saints (that probably was the way they were originally portrayed, leaving space below for a large icon to be placed on either pillar).   The images are those of SS. Cyrus, John, Florus and Laurus, who were known for their vows of poverty.  The leftmost of these images is on the left (unfortunately somewhat blurred). 

anton14.jpg (49541 bytes)anton13.jpg (35958 bytes)The remaining early frescoes in the main part of the church are in the lower altar and apse area.   Among the themes were the Presentation in the Temple, the Beheading of John the Baptist and the presentation of his head to Herod, the Adoration of the Magi (detail, left) and the Dormition.  Of particular interest are the images of Moses (lower on right) and Aaron on the pillars flanking the central opening to the altar, emphasizing the connection of the altar with the Old Testament Temple and Ark of the Covenant.  As one can see from these images, the state of preservation is poor; in the case of the seraph in the niche, the painting is of much later date.


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The style of these early frescoes is a reminder of the international contacts of medieval Rus and Novgorod in particular.  V. N. Lazarev, a noted expert on early Russian and Byzantine painting notes their "un-Byzantine" character and connects them with some of the contemporary Romanesque art in the West.  There are numerous other examples of the art of the West making its way to Novgorod, of course not all of them attesting to the presence in the city of western artists.  In the given instance, Lazarev leaves open the possibility that western artists contributed to the decoration of the main church in a monastery founded by a "Roman."

Among the interesting discoveries in the restorations of recent years have been frescoes in the stairwell (below).  Some time scholars discovered an image that appears to be the Virgin Mary in a nimbus, holding what might have been a model of the church, and adjoining that image to its right is the figure of a man inclined toward the nimbus.  This has been interpreted as possibly an image of the architect, presenting his work to Mary for her blessing, although it is also possible that here we have simply a novgorodian praying to an image of the Virgin of the Sign.  The name "Foma" is painted  inside the nimbus, and letters have been scratched above the man's head.   Only recently, in the summer of 2000, another fresco was discovered in the stairwell--an image of a lion.  Lest one jump to the conclusion this is an example of secular art in the church (not impossible, of course), it is worth remembering that carved lions abound on the churches of the Vladimir area and tend to be interpreted in the Christian iconography as having the power to ward off evil.

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The Frescoes of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Kovalevo.

koval19.jpg (46447 bytes)The small church in Kovalevo, located on the Volkhovets River,  was built at the behest of a Novgorod boyar Ontsifor Zhabin in 1345; its fresco decoration in 1380 was paid for by Afanasii Stepanovich and his wife Maria.  The frescoes were relatively well preserved until World War II, when the church was destroyed.  In them Lazarev again sees evidence of non-Russian influences both thematically and stylistically, either as a result of copying foreign (most likely Soth Slavic) models or the work of foreign artists.   It is worth remembering that only two years before Theophanes the Greek had painted the Church of the Transfiguration on Il'in Street; the Turkish advance through the Balkans sent a wave of "second South Slavic" influence into the Russian principalities.   One of the images (left) is that of a pillar saint, a koval9.jpg (47470 bytes)koval4.jpg (57111 bytes)whole series of which were included by Theophanes in the Church of the Transfiguration.   The renewed interest in these early ascetic church fathers in the fourteenth century connects with the so-called Hesychast movement, which was popular, among other places, in the Byzantine monastic center of Mt. Athos.  Lazarev hypothesizes that the artists of Kovalevo may have come from Athos.  Another image of some interest is the depiction (right) of SS. Constantine and Elena (that is, Emperor Constantine the Great, founder of the Christian city of Constaintinople, and his mother, who was closely connected with patronage in the Holy Land and the recovery of fragments of the True Cross).  They were among the most prominent "forerunners" of the rulers in medieval Serbia and were often depicted in connection with the iconographic genealogies of the Serbian kings.  One other feature of the iconographiy in the church is worth noting  The tendency seems to have been to portray the saints largely as separate images rather than in compositions that were thematically linked to one another, as was often the case in earlier sets of frescoes (and in the work of Theophanes).   Kovalevo's art is an indication of the direction in which Novgorodian monumental art was headed by the late fourteenth century, where the tendency was for the artists increasingly to reproduce individual icons at the expense of monumentality and thematic unity.

The images shown here in color are the pieced-together originals (and in the last three cases, reproductions made from them), the culmination of thousands of hours of painstaking work on the fragments left after the destruction of the church.  The black and white photos are ones taken before the War.  The lighting conditions when I took the color slides were not ideal, nor was my film fast enough; so the images are not always quite as sharp as one would like and there tends to be a color shift reflecting the greenish flourescent lighting..

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2000 Daniel C. Waugh.  Last revised October 29, 2000.