Such monuments as the Volotovo frescoes cannot be understood apart from the iconographic tradition, which in the countries of the East, Rus in particular, was held sacred.
According to the custom, the image of the Almighty was to be in the dome. So it was in Volotovo. The forefathers and the prophets were to be placed on the bands and the vaults, the evangelists—in the wings, the Mother of God with the infant—at the end of the apse, the Communion of the Apostles—lower in the apse, preevangelic and evangelic events—on the walls of the church, the standing figures of saints—on the pillars, half-length figures in medallions—on the girth arches. All this was a time-honoured tradition, sacred, canonical, generally recognized and revered. Any iconographer of the past and of the present would attribute this arrangement of church painting to the submissiveness of art to theology. An artist not observing this tradition would not have been understood by his contemporaries.
But there are also some new subjects in the Volotovo frescoes, those which appeared in Byzantine art only in the fourteenth century. First of all it is the representation of the Divine Liturgy with the participation of angels and fathers of the Church. This scene is very poetically rendered in the Mistra Church of Periblepta where a host of angels in snow-white robes form a harmonius procession. The subject is believed to have been introduced in Byzantine art by Hesychasts. At any rate, it was a needed reminder that angels are invisibly present in the church during a religious service. Another innovation of the fourteenth century was the half-length figure of the dead Christ which was placed so that during a church service it could be looked at by the priest.
Then there are several subjects in the Volotovo murals that were suggested to the artist by his patrons. These are primarily the portraits of the Novgorod Archbishops Moses and Alexis in whose term of office the church was built and decorated. It may also be the scene from the Prologue story “About an Abbot who was tested by Christ in the guise of a beggar”. In Russian art this edifying subject is not represented anywhere else. This scene could be understood as a reproach to the monkhood as well as the rich and the nobles who were not very generous about giving alms to the poor. An allusion to social inequality and secularization of the clergy was not quite unexpected in the free town of Novgorod, especially in a monastery usually crowded with beggars. Probably the Volotovo master was well disposed towards this theme, as it agreed with his own tendency to treat the evangelic legend as a meeting of the heavenly and the earthly.
We can suppose that it was also by request of the patrons that some dogmatic and allegorical scenes were painted on the vault over the entrance, among them “Wisdom Buildeth Its Temple”, a subject directed against Novgorod heresy. Jacob’s Ladder was a subject symbolizing the main idea of the painting: connection between the Heaven and the earth. (As a prophecy of the birth of Christ it was included both in the painting of Volotovo and in that of Kahrye Jami). This biblical subject is related to the image of the Virgin-Affectionate painted in a medallion by its side. The inclusion of these subjects does not mean, however, that the master only followed the instructions of the patrons.
Strange as it may seem to our contemporary spectator, the individual approach of the master is most evident in the traditional scriptural themes. The small size of the church did not allow him to depict a great number of such themes, some of them had to be sacrificed. It is the choice of these themes that makes the Volotovo paintings in a way unique and different from the related paintings in the Church of St Theodore Stratilates.
The selective approach to the traditional subjects can throw some light on the artist’s personality. Obviously, the themes preferred by him were those which conformed with his art. It is noteworthy that in the Volotovo cycle many scenes from the life of Christ are not represented, especially his passion: “The Betrayal of Judas”, “The Lord’s Supper”, “Christ before Kayaf’, “Putting On the Wreath of Thorns”, “The Castigation”, “The Carrying of the Cross” and “The Descent from the Cross”. There is no scene of the Judgment Day on the western wall. But it may be noted that the most conspicuous place above the altar is occupied by the scene of The Descent of the Holy Ghost. An equally prominent position is occupied by “The Souls of the Righteous in the Hand of Lord”—the only case in the history of mural painting. It is not quite clear why the fresco over the main entrance represents the Resurrection and not the Assumption to which the church is dedicated. (A digression from the canon also occurred in another Novgorod church of the fourteenth century—the Church of St Theodore Stratilates where the scenes from “The Passion of Our Lord” were painted in the altar). If it is true that subjects for mural painting in ancient churches were picked at random, then the presence of some or other scenes in a cycle is not a matter of importance. But recently it has been noticed that Byzantine cycles constituted a whole. In the eleventh-twelfth centuries they were in the nature of a menologyan yearly round of church feasts. Nicholas Cabasilas, a Thessalonica bishop of the fourteenth century, said that during a service there must be images and scenes of suffering before the worshippers to evoke their compassion. Those who visited the Volotovo church before the tragic years of 1941—1942 remember the impression of the wholeness of its painting. All the space of the dome, the band, the walls and the pillars was covered by frescoes arranged in seven tiers. Each picture was closely connected with the whole. Their arrangement was logical and harmonious. The frescoes forming the lower tier, just above the floor, showed what had happened on earth in “the historical times” and was in the memory of people. They included the figures of two Novgorod Archbishops, the appearance of Christ on the earth in the guise of a beggar, scenes from monastic life, images of canonized monks and the Divine Liturgy in the altar, the images of St Joachim, St Theodore Studite, Johannes Klimakos, Mary of Egypt Receiving the Holy Communion from St Zosima, St Varlaam and St Josephus. In the middle of the main part of the church we see the story of the incarnation of Christ. These scenes include the manifestations which can evoke the feelings of joy and tenderness and, to a lesser degree, His passion. Finally, there is a scene showing the apotheosis of the evangelic legend: the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles, with the souls of the righteous people finding peace in God’s hand. The Volotovo painting is neither a philosophical treatise nor a theological dogma. It is a wreath of poetical images woven by the artist for the glory of universal harmony. For him the iconographic canon is like the text of a prayer in which one can put so much personal feeling. The lower and the middle tiers of the painting are distinctly divided. The difference between the fresco representing the parable “About a Certain Abbot” and the scriptural scenes is so great that you would think they were executed by different artists. However, they belong to the brush of one master, only he performed them in different registers of his clavier. Strange as it may seem, the figures of the feasting people are quite expressive, but at the same time they are immobile and flat; the cupola church in the background is depicted very faithfully, nevertheless, it also looks flat. On the other hand, the figures in the scriptural scenes are plastic, three-dimensional; they are moving and taking part in the action. Evidently in these scenes the master tried to convey his idea of “the true life”.
The difference between the registers in the Volotovo paintings is not accidental. The figure of St Theodore Metochites in the Kahrye Jami mosaic, for all its individualized and characteristic features, also looks flat, while the figure of Christ to whom he is offering worship is more plastic. In Volotovo the difference between the two registers can also be observed in the rendering of faces. The portraits of the archbishops are very individual: the frowning, beetle-browed face of Moses and the moving, affectionate face of Alexis. In the scriptural scenes the faces are not so distinctly individualized, but they are more spiritual and, therefore, more lifelike. In the scene of the feast the Abbot is different from all other characters, his face strangely resembling that of Archbishop Moses.
A cursory look at the Volotovo painting may lead our contemporary to the conclusion that the scriptural scenes in these frescoes fully conform to the established traditional types. If he wants to get to their true meaning, he must carefully and patiently, like a philologist studying variant reading of a text, compare all the available representations of each theme. However, the contemporaries of the artist, to whom the world of his images and ideas was intimately known, would not have made a mistake as to what was traditional in his creation and what was new.
Nearly every scene in the Volotovo painting bears the stamp of the master’s personal feeling and understanding. The life-story of Mary abounds in details and features illustrating a novel approach to the traditional types: in “The Rejected Offering of Jacob” it is the submissive, trusting look of Jacob and Anna, in the scene “Jacob among the Shepherds” it is the solitude of Jacob grieving in the rocky wilderness; in “Praying Anna” it is her posture, dignified and lofty, at the moment of the appearance of the angel; in “The Prayer for Shepherd’s Crooks” it is the kneeling of the pious old man waiting for a miraculous sign; in “The Betrothal of Mary” it is the questioning glance of the girl directed to the high-priest.
Even in such a traditional scene as “The Nativity” the Volotovo master introduced some details of his own: the figure of a little shepherd in the cleft of the rocks listening to the herald angel, and the figure of another shepherd above the riding magi who is playing a reed-pipe with a nonchalant air, and a third shepherd standing near the aggrieved Joseph. In “The Purification” the infant in the arms of St Simeon the God-Receiver, frightened by the strange old man, is stretching his tiny arms to Mary who is standing lost in thought. In “The Raising of Lazarus” our attention is attracted not only by the sisters of the dead man who, kneeling at Christ’s feet, are imploring him for a miracle, but also by one of the miracle-struck beholders who is stopping his nose with a kerchief (“he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days”, St John, II, 39).
In “The Giving of the Holy Communion to the Apostles” the apostles approaching Jesus who is holding out the Communion express their emotion with touching simplicity in their gestures and glances. One of them is turning to another, a second is stretching forth his arms, a third has brought his hands close to his face, a fourth is bent in a low bow in token of reverence. For some obscure reason the group is headed not by the Apostle Peter but by the traitor Judas, which is confirmed by an inscription made above him.
“The Descent of the Holy Ghost”, like a similar fresco in the Mistra church, does not represent the peoples of the world or the old Cosmos but a female figure. It resembles an analagous figure in Hellenistic painting. It is not a hieratic image which is to be worshipped. With her thoughtfully inclined head, the woman herself looks as if she were aggrieved by something. The contrast between her little head on a slender neck and her widely spread arms and the large folds of the Grecian tunic is an expression of artistic hyperbole. The woman is holding a towel with the apostles’ rolls, which is to imply that the teaching of Christ will be carried all over the world. The towel is ornamented with a coloured braid, like a peasant towel. She is spreading it over the world, as the Holy Virgin spreads her veil in the scenes of “The Intercession”. This is a noncanonical image which can be called a plastic myth because its meaning is expressed only through the pictorial means (as in the case of “Madonna of Mercy” by Piero della Francesca). In Volotovo this image is given a place of honour: above the Virgin in the altar apse.
There are three remarkable scenes in the cycle—”The Descent into Hell”, “The Ascension” and “The Assumption of the Holy Virgin”—that attract attention not so much by the appearance of individual figures, as by the spirit of the crowd, the unanimity and ecstasy of all the people. By their synodical character these scenes are very different from other representations of this theme which are to be found in Byzantium, in the Balkans and in Novgorod itself. A fragment of such a fresco preserved in the Novgorod Church of Theodore Stratilates shows that it was closer to the traditional type than to the Volotovo version.
In the portal fresco of “The Resurrection” some motifs have their prototypes in fourteenth-century painting; the open sarcophagus may be a western influence. But in the main the artist is guided by his imagination. The resplendent angel sitting on the top of the sarcophagus—nothing like this can be found in contemporary works (even in the icon of Andrei Rublev’s school in the Zagorsk Trinity Cathedral). At the other end of the fresco, the figure of Christ who has been recognized by the Magdalene does not look statuary and majestic, as is the case in most of the works by Byzantime masters (and later in the picture by Alexander Ivanov). Christ is shown as hurriedly leaving the scene and in this respect the image resembles Christ in the guise of a beggar represented in the fresco of the lower tier. The miracle in the Volotovo “Resurrection” is shown as something that cannot be comprehended by a mortal. No matter what episode from the Scriptures the Volotovo master turned to, every time his imagination suggested a stirring meeting of man with the messengers of Heaven, the joy of this meeting and the brevity of the miraculous moment.
A Serbian master of the early fifteenth century decorating the Church of Manasseh was to depict Christ appearing in the image of a boy before St Peter of Alexandria. But evidently the master had no idea of what a miraculous vision could be like, and he merely confronted the figure of the Saint in his crossembroidered vestment with the statuary figure of the boy. You need only to remember the Volotovo fresco in which the abbot recognizes Christ to understand that the miracle of a divine manifestation on earth could only be conveyed by a talent equal to that of the Novgorod master.
In monumental painting of the eleventh-twelfth centuries, the motionless figures of saints, turned fullface to the spectator, express submissiveness to the heavenly hierarchy. Such was the case in the frescoes of the Novgorod Nereditsa. Contrary to this, in the Volotovo frescoes something is always happening, all the people are taking part in the action and there is some kind of connection between them.
Even the prophets in the dome are turned to each other as if they were speaking, and the apostles in “The Communion” are shown engaged in a conversation. The evangelists, absorbed as they are in their work, are not quite alone either: the charming female figures of the Holy Omniscience of St Sophia are shown by their side. These figures are not just standing by, as they are in most of the fourteenth-century Serbian frescoes, but inspire the evangelists, take part in their work. The female figure standing by the side of St Matthew is touching his arm with her gentle hand, another is leaning on the shoulder of the stooping St Luke, a third is shown leaving St Mark and, as a parting sign, touching the pages of his book. But most strikingly the inner unity of people is displayed in the mass scenes, when they behold a miracle.
The old Adam in the Kahrye Jami “Descent into Hell” is stretching his arm towards Christ, but his whole figure, and especially his face framed by carefully brushed hair, remain imperturbable and calm. He is only an unconcerned assistant in the ritual. Probably the master from the metropolis thought that excessive passionateness and a face showing too much emotion did not conform to the dignity of man. In the Volotovo interpretation of this theme Adam, with dishevelled hair and a trusting look directed to the Saviour, is full of hope, love and ecstasy.
The faces of the saints painted in Volotovo on the pillars show a greater reserve. They must serve as a model of restraint and moral integrity. They do not display so much agitation and ecstasy as the hermits and stylites of Theophanes, but there is more sincerity and warmth in them. Some of them can be identified by inscriptions, others by their attributes (as, for instance, Abel—by a shepherd’s crook) or by their own appearance (the long curly beard of St Arsenius). Spirituality and inspiration mark the faces of King David, St John the Divine and St Simeon the God-Receiver.
The figure of the Archangel Gabriel by the side of the entrance is one of the master’s best achievements. A comparison between this image and that of Nereditsa or the angel in the Kahrye Jami frescoes will show that the Volotovo fresco is quite original. The Nereditsa archangel is a celestial guard in the luxurious dress of a bodyguard. The Kahrye Jami angels are slender and graceful but rather ceremonial, in the Byzantine way. The Volotovo angel is very different from them. There is no trace of Byzantine luxury in his tunic and mantle, and his manner is quite unconstrained. The image vividly illustrates the master’s tendency to go back to evangelic simplicity. Many students of Novgorod frescoes have pointed out the democratic style of their characters. In this they definitely differ from Serbian frescoes where we almost always see kings arrayed in luxurious Byzantine clothes. There is one more point on which the Volotovo fresco differs from other comparable works. While in the Kovalevo Church of the Saviour, Christ in the composition, which also included the Virgin and St John the Baptist, was shown enthroned, arrayed in rich clothes, in the Volotovo fresco He is represented as an obscure beggar dressed in tatters.
The circle in the archangel’s left hand, whatever may be its significance and origin, is quite different from the traditional sphere of an archangel. The fact that in Novgorod monuments it is unusually big must have some explanation, as it is not just another variant of a traditional attribute. In fact, it is a transparent object, either of glass or of crystal, reflecting and blending all the colours of the world: the azure of the sky, the purple of the clouds, the sandy colour of earth.
It we want to get a clearer idea of what lay at the root of the master’s deviations from the canons, we must try to get to the meaning of the earlier cycles. In Nereditsa, the figures standing separately, even those who take part in the action, are in effect bystanders who hypnotize the spectator, the visitor of the church by their stern looks. In the Kahrye Jami mosaics, whatever you see pleases your eye by its grace: the figures, the beautiful costumes, the landscapes and the palaces in the background. In the arrangement of the portal frescoes one can feel a moralistic tendency: “The Descent into Hell” and “The Judgment Day” are seen best of all. The impression you get of Theophanes’s figures in the dome of the Saviour-Transfiguration Cathedral is that they are just majestically towering over all the rest; the hermits in the Trinity Chapel look as if they had completely renounced the world. What happens in the Volotovo church is entirely different from all this. No matter what is shown in every particular fresco, what is the role of any particular figure, all the numerous population of the pictures is taking part in one mystery play, everybody is stirred by the general sentiment, everybody is inspired by something which is lofty but elusive, like voices blent in choral singing. The forces of nature are at work too: the wind is swaying the cloth, the steep mountains rise to the sky and break, the houses tower over each other. The world is charged with electricity and a distant rumble of thunder is heard.
The Volotovo master does not confine himself to the role of an obedient performer of a given program, an artless relator of legendary events, an assiduous and devout image painter. The mystery reveals itself to him, he hears the sound of harps. Like Pushkin’s prophet, he sees what is hidden from the view of most of the other people. Though he does not yet conceive the celestial happiness, the radiant joy which later will be conveyed by Dionysius in the frescoes of the Ferapontov Monastery, he feels that his lot is to immortalize in painting the awakening of man, the reconcilement of dream and reality, the concordance of the soul and the world, the confidence that there are no interdicts to a sincere and loving heart. As a symbolical work, the Volotovo painting has a dual meaning. Literally it represents the evangelic legend and the host of the blessed. At the same time, the tiers from which the whole is composed symbolize the. steps by which the human soul ascends from the transient earthly world to the realm of eternal and true existence. In this little Novgorod church we see a presage of a harmonious order which will be established in Russian churches when before the altar they will set up an iconostasis with the Deesis range and the church feasts.