According to Novgorod chronicles, the Church of the Assumption was built in 1352 by Archbishop Moses in the monastery situated at Volotovo Polye, five verstas (about three miles) east of Novgorod.
An entry of 1363 informs us that the Church of the Assumption was decorated with painting. Evidently this concerns only the lower layer of painting which was preserved in the altar. There are reasons to believe that the whole interior was frescoed later, possibly about 13801.
When in 1386 the troops of Dmitri Donskoi were entering Novgorod the monastery at Volotovo Polye was damaged by fire. In the early 1600s the environs of Novgorod were ravaged by Swedish troops. However, the Church of the Assumption survived the dangerous years and its frescoes remained intact.
In the mid-19th century the Church of the Assumption is mentioned in archaeological descriptions of Novgorod antiquities. The condition of the painting was described by G. Filimonov. Later it was analysed by N. V. Pokrovski in his work on early Russian murals. The first scientific monographs devoted to this monument were published in the early years of our century by V. V. Suslov and L. A. Matsulevich. It was at that time that the Volotovo murals attracted the attention of artists. This interest can be felt in some of the works by Pavel Kuznetsov. The Volotovo murals were discussed by historians of early Russian art and became known abroad.
During the war of 1941—1945, the Church of the Assumption was shelled by nazi barbarians and completely destroyed. The fate of the building was shared by the paintings. The ruins were covered by earth. Recent finds made nearby, on the site of the burnt Church of the Saviour in Kovalevo give us hope that at least small fragments of the Volotovo murals may be found too.
The destruction of the ancient manuscript of “The Lay of Igor’s Host” in the Moscow fire of 1812 made very difficult its studies in more recent times. The loss of the Volotovo painting is almost as irrevocable as that of the famous manuscript. But, fortunately, there are very good photographs which were made by L. A. Matsulevich as well as excellent copies of the frescoes performed by L. A. Durnovo, E. P. Sachavets-Fedorovich, N. I. Tolmachevkaya and other artists. They give us some idea of what were the colours of these frescoes. In the past years historians of early Russian art have often expressed their views about this monument. This, however, was mostly done in general historical reviews where this masterpiece was mentioned only as an episode in the development of Russian art and, therefore, in a rather cursory manner. Still it cannot be denied that these works have greatly contributed to a better understanding of this remarkable monument.
At the end of the nineteenth century N. V. Pokrovski approached the Volotovo murals only as an iconographer and did not see their artistic value (“Painting of no great worth”, as he estimated them). P. P. Muratov and L. A. Matsulevich were the first to recognize their importance as a masterpiece of art. It was then that the murals were attributed to that school of Russian painting of the fourteenth century which was developing the achievements of the Byzantine school of the Paleologue times. D. V. Ainalov found that the Volotovo frescoes were akin to some contemporary monuments of Byzantine and West-European painting. After the discovery of Theophanes’s works in Novgorod it was noticed that there was similarity between his and the Volotovo frescoes. For a long time the Volotovo painting was attributed to Theophanes. But a more detailed analysis finally led the scholars to the conclusion that this could only be the work of a Russian master.
The first things that strike you when you look at the Volotovo paintings are an unusual mobility of the figures, expressiveness of the gestures, sketchiness in the manner of execution. These are features that are not found together in any other piece of early Russian painting. This general impression became an established view which was expressed every time the Volotovo frescoes were brought into discussion, these features being illustrated by a few frescoes picked out of the huge cycle.
The present edition includes reproductions of almost all the frescoes which decorated the walls of the Volotovo church. This makes us more independent of the opinion that was established on the basis of a cursory impression. To achieve a more profound understanding of the monument we cannot confine ourselves to recognizing the abovementioned features or the observance of the iconographic tradition, only slightly confirmed by some accents. We must concentrate on those aspects of the master’s work which can give us an idea of his artistic approach to the subject.
If the Volotovo frescoes are not the work of Theophanes, then who is their creator and in what way was he connected with the Greek master ? We do not have any documentary material relating to the Volotovo master; we do not even know his name. The names of many contemporary Byzantine and Serbian artists are known to us: Eutichius, Immanuel Pancelin, Georgius Kalierghis, Master Johannes, Serghius, Constantine, Metropolitan Johannes and others. The fact that the names of artists began to appear in Byzantine and Balkan documents of the fourteenth century is evidence of their increased social importance. Most of the artistic works produced at that time in Rus were anonimous. The names of Novgorod craftsmen began to appear on objects of applied art from the twelfth century (Bratila, Kosta, Abraham, Ivan); the names of icon painters (Aleksa Petrov in the thirteenth century, Aaron in 1439) became known only on rare occasions. But in spite of this the individuality of the master in the Volotovo paintings displayed itself with great force. As we have no written documents, our judgment about the personality of the master can only be based on his work. His direct predecessor in the Volotovo church was the artist who some twenty years earlier had painted the figures of the angels and the fathers of the Church, of John the Golden Mouthed and Basil the Great in the lower tier of the altar. He undoubtedly was a very skillful master, but his manner was still very archaic. His majestic and serene, curly-haired and big-eyed angel heading the procession in “The Great Issue” is still quite close to the paintings of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, though a certain departure from the early tradition can be seen in the turn of his head.
It may be noted that his head resembles the head of the angel in “The Ascension” from the Ochrida Church of St. Sophia. But even these early Volotovo angels, instead of a “demoniac” look in the eyes or the serpentine locks around the face, begin to show some signs of effeminate softness characterizing art of the Paleologue epoch.
However, those who commissioned this work preferred the younger master to the older one. It was the younger master who had the honour to paint murals over the whole church. A piece of the earlier painting was found only in the altar and it had been pitilessly picked by an axe when the ground was being prepared for the work of the new master, the one whom we can rightly call the Volotovo master.
The patrons were not mistaken in their choice. Indeed the Volotovo master surpassed his predecessor by the novelty of his style, by the passion and inspiration of his art. In the second half of the fourteenth century “the new trend” of art was not yet firmly established and recognized in Novgorod. Mural painting was more advanced than the other arts. But icon painting and applied arts still preserved many archaic features. The carved patterns of the Lyudogoschensky Cross of 1359 are very characteristic specimens of the Novgorod primitive and folklore. Here the Prophet Elijah is like a sorcerer inseparable from the mysterious forces of nature, his protector is a huge fatidical raven, and his own little figure is interwoven in a floral ornament like figures in teratology. The first frescoes of the Volotovo church are as old as the Lyudogoschensky Cross, but they already represent an entirely different world, a world imbued with the spirit of antique heritage and Christian beliefs. We do not know anything about earlier works of the Volotovo master. It is hardly surprising, as only a very small part of Ancient Novgorod’s great artistic wealth has reached our time. Anyway, this work was started by him when he was already a full fledged master. Probably he had apprentices and pupils to whom he entrusted less important parts of the work. Such frescoes as “The Baptism”, “The Lamentation”, “The Crucifixion”, “The Transfiguration”, the figures of the forefathers and the archangels in the band of the cupola must be workshop pieces. They are definitely inferior to the other frescoes; the lower standard of painting and archaic features are especially evident in the figures of the forefathers. The master seems to have been well versed in iconography, which then was regarded as an important quality in an artist. May be he was also well read in the Holy Scriptures; it would not be strange, as the Novgorod libraries were famous all over Rus. In some cases he provided his frescoes with Russian inscriptions, in others—with Greek texts. This is not surprising either, as Novgorod, just like Moscow, maintained direct relations with Constantinople.
But, what was the most important, he was an artist of marked individuality. This must be particularly stressed, in spite of the established opinion that individuality in art began to be displayed only when the artists began to sign their works. He did not only know everything that a painter of his time was to know, he had his own view of the things he was depicting and did not hesitate to express it in his work.
We believe that for the Volotovo master the most important aesthetic value was not beauty as harmony of form, but beauty as the expression of human feeling and soul, beauty not created by intellect, by calculation, but born of internal impulse, of sentiment. He honoured the traditional patterns as the wisdom hallowed by centuries, but decisive for him was his imagination. Before taking up the brush he had to see what he was going to depict with his mind’s eye. He was not only a painter and an erudite, but a thinker and a poet as well. He had confidence in his ability to conjure up the invisible and listened attentively to what his soul had to tell him. It was the soul that was guiding the sure hand of the artist. There is no doubt that the Volotovo master was Russian, most probably a native of Novgorod. This is not only confirmed by the Russian ethnical type of his characters, but by the inner spirit of the frescoes.