In our time we are used to looking at a picture without much regard for its position in space. An easel painting can easily change the place, its position is not an essential part of its entity. However, this approach to mural painting, especially in early Russian works, will not allow us to see its full and real significance.
In different historical periods there were various ways of including individual parts of mural painting into the architectural space. The dominant tendency in such churches as Nereditsa was to represent as many scenes and figures as possible. The frescoes spread over the walls in belts, scenes and figures blend in one pictorial narration. In Nereditsa and later, in the church of the Novgorod Skovorodski Monastery, the frescoes were placed on the wall without architectonic differentiation.
In the portal mosaics of Kahrye Jami the arrangement is more discriminative. The frieze with the life story of Mary and Christ extends from vault to vault, from one wall to another, forming graceful garlands, and is interrupted by figures on the girth arches and intervals. In the Ochrida Church of St Clement and the Salonika Church of St Nicholas, the multifigure scenes are arranged on the walls and the vaults while the standing figures are represented on the pillars or in the lower tier of the walls. But the general differentiation of the painting is not very noticeable. In the altar of the Staro-Nagorichino church numerous similar figures of prelates in cross-embroidered chasubles are squeezed side by side in a narrow space. When you look at the walls and the vaulting you get an impression that icons are hanging all over them.
The Volotovo painting is quite unlike most of the murals of that time, as it is consistently divided into separate parts in accordance with the different architectural parts of the church. It would hardly be correct to say that the Volotovo frescoes are included into the small building of the church. They are not included, that is, not brought in from outside, but constitute its inalienable part. Moreover, they only acquire their full significance and beauty inasmuch as each of them has found its proper place in the cupola, the vaulting and the walls of the church.
The architecture serves as a properly-shaped setting for the frescoes. Though the whole space of the walls, pillars and vaults in the Volotovo church is covered by frescoes, they do not produce an impression of being crowded, as every one of them occupies a place of its own from which it cannot be moved anywhere else. The frescoes do not blend into a carpet because the multifigure scenes interchange with single figures and also because of the difference of size. The figures on the pillars are larger and more imposing, the figures on the walls are smaller and not so well distinguishable.
The Volotovo frescoes have a notable feature: they do not only cover the walls of the building, their presence is felt inside the architectural space. This rare effect, almost unique in the history of mural painting, has not been properly appreciated up till now. The Volotovo master was to solve a difficult problem: to arrange his cycle inside a church which was so small that even the pillars had to be rounded so as to make it less crowded. It must be said, however, that the master successfully overcame the difficulties. The small size of Novgorod churches was not responsible for the decline of mural painting in the subsequent period. The difficulties only stirred up the master’s inventiveness.
On the northern wall of the church he could fit only the middle part of “The Nativity of Our Lord”, so he conceived this composition as a triptych and arranged its lateral parts with the riding magi and the grieving Joseph on the adjoining eastern and western walls. The whole scene of “The Nativity”, like an amphitheatre, surrounds the spectator on three sides. “The Ascension” is arranged in exactly the same way. Here again the figure of the ascending Christ, which did not fit in the wall, is painted on the adjoining vault, so that the visitor sees it over himself.
The composition of the wall covered by the frescoes of “The Nativity” includes the space of the window. The artist decorated it with his favourite ornament and it looks like a crib with a baby in swaddling-clothes lying in it. There are windows inside some other frescoes. In “The Ascension” because of the window the artist shifted the traditional place of Mary. A window occupies the whole wall in “The Presentation in the Temple” and a smaller part of it in „The Betrothal of Mary”.
A high arch cuts off a part of the wall occupied by the fresco “The Purification”. Here the master found an ingenious solution: the old Joseph and the Prophetess Anna are shown walking hurriedly along the edge of the arch. So they appear as if they had stepped out of the picture and entered the inner space of the church. Likewise, the sheep in “The Nativity” are moving by the edge of the window. In subsequent periods this form of synthesis could be found in Italian painting of the Renaissance.
In “The Rejection of Jacob’s Offering”, where the distressed old man is leaving the temple, he has raised his leg as if he were about to step over the frame and into the space of the building. In the scene of the worship of St Cosmas of Mayum and St John of Damascus, a heavy girder occupies a part of the pier with the figures of the saints. The need to place the figures in such a narrow space was used by the master to demonstrate their reverence: he made both songsters bend in a pious bow before Mary. These figures also produce an impression of being in the space of the church.
It has been noted more than once that the Volotovo frescoes, more than any other old Russian murals, have the effect of being three-dimensional and spatially deep. Those who judge any art by standards of the Renaissance express regret that the optical perspective in the work of the Volotovo master is not quite correct. However, the space medium in which his characters live cannot be adequately conveyed through optical perspective. But the fact that the Volotovo frescoes are three-dimensional testifies to the improvement of the pictorial techniques.
We can agree with those authors who point out that the Volotovo master displays particular interest in depicting objects inside architectural forms, as is the case in the fresco “Meeting at the Golden Gate”. It was an achievement of art of the Paleologue period. In some of the Volotovo frescoes we can distinguish at least five planes of painting following one another in perspective. However, the Volotovo master did not see his task in what the Italian masters called “bucare il muro” (making a hole in the wall). He concerned himself more with making his characters appear as if they were inside the building, together with the spectator. In “The Annunciation of Anna”, the stone basins in the garden accentuated by the socalled inverted perspective “push forward” the figure of the woman thus making her prominent in the composition. But it cannot be said that this principle is observed in all the frescoes of the cycle.
The Volotovo frescoes did not have illusory effects in the form they could be found in Italian painting of the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries. For this reason it is difficult to agree with the authors who speak of “pictorial illusionism” in Novgorod frescoes. In Italian painting such illusionism can be illustrated by G. Romano’s paintings in the Hall of Giants of the Palazzo del Te in Mantua. The Volotovo master did not intend to achieve illusory effects. Optical illusion would have seemed to him unworthy of art. Neither the spacial depth nor the egress from the plane performed by some figures are quite evident. They only present one of the possible interpretations of the picture. The holy personages of the legend live in a special, ideal sphere which should not be identified with the reality surrounding the spectator. This can also explain peculiarities in the perception of time. Looking at the twelfth-century frescoes you would think the time has stopped. The Nereditsa “Judgment Day” has an atmosphere of eternal, continuous waiting for a severe judgment. The Volotovo master opens his art to everything that is transient: a human impulse, a casual gesture, a cursory glance. And it is through these momentary glimpses that the supreme blessing is revealed to man.