The examination and study of early Russian paintings are usually confined to an analysis of their iconographic peculiarities and pictorial techniques.
It is taken for granted that every icon or mural is a reproduction of a canonical prototype or, in some instances, of a real or imaginary object. But in ancient Russian painting there existed different pictorial registers. The image in the eleventh-twelfth-century frescoes was mainly based on certain established patterns. Such was the case in Nereditsa. Each of these patterns, like a hieroglyph, had a permanent graphic form. An image thus produced was incorporeal and flat. The veronica in Nereditsa is in some measure an incorporeal symbol imprinted on a flat surface (the face appears to be level with the frontlet ornament). In its Volotovo counterpart, the face of Christ, living and convex, stands out from the folds of the frontlet cloth. In the same way the Nereditsa archangel differs from the Volotovo image. The first image has the outline of the hieroglyph. The Volotovo archangel has a flexible, vigorous body, changeable in outline and living in space.
During the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries the figures in Byzantine and Balkan paintings, such as the frescoes in Sopochani and Kahrye Jami, and subsequently in the frescoes of the Skovorodski Monastery and Kovalevo in Novgorod were becoming increasingly statuary, solid and heavy. One would think that their convexity rendered by means of fluent painting and chiaroscuro could be felt by touch.
Theophanes the Greek does not resort to fluent, sleek painting; nevertheless, his forefathers in the dome of the Saviour-Transfiguration Cathedral look almost as tangible as the statuary characters of the Sopochani frescoes.
The figures of hermits in the Trinity Chapel, on the other hand, do not seem so tangible, but rather unattainable and unreal, the tragedy of these images being their inability to completely break away from the earthly vale of tears.
The Volotovo master greatly benefited by Theophanes’s example. Perhaps not so much by his inimitable techniques and manner of execution as by his faculty to imagine and to depict mysteriously transfigured, indistinct objects, suggesting a different, ideal existence. Though we cannot affirm that the master’s art achieved consummation in “The Assumption”, this fresco was wonderful even at the time when it was photographed by L. A. Matsulevich. At that time it was already a ruin. Still it was this badly damaged fresco that made it particularly clear that the master had attached greater importance to the general impression than to the perfection of detail. This reminds of Poussin’s Indian-ink drawings with their amazing compositional rhythm on which he based many of his pictures. When examining the Volotovo “Assumption” one should concentrate on the general rhythm of lights and silhouettes, try to grasp the leitmotiv, the movement of all bodies to Mary’s couch, the rotundity of their outlines. In these arched lines one can feel the sadness and reverence of those who stand about (even of Athos and the archangel chastising him) to the body of the deceased at the solemn moment of her death on earth for resurrection in heaven. The fresco of “The Ascension” suggests quite different—skyward, accelerated—rhythms. The zigzags of the hills above the figures of the apostles and Mary transform the meaning contained in the gestures and glances of the bystanders into a distinct formula of a symbol.
The continuous, tireless movement going on in the world, the impulses of human feeling, ecstasy, love that can be discerned in the bearing, gestures and looks of the holy characters— all this is seen in these frescoes through the haze of indistinctness. At times it is difficult to recognize some objects: they look animated and transfigured by the emotion of the artist who tries to grasp their traits and movement and fix them on the wall in bold and quick sketches. In Byzantine and early Russian painting you can always feel the tendency to turn an image into its symbol. In the eleventh-twelfth centuries almost every image went back to a certain prototype. An image was composed from several long used and rather worn out patterns as a word is composed from letters. In the Volotovo frescoes pictorial patterns are born in the course of painting, just of free strokes of the artist’s brush. They are not easy to decipher, and an apt guess gives you a pleasure.
The Volotovo frescoes breathe life in every detail. Everything lives—not only people and animals, but also inanimate objects, the light, translucent buildings, the breaking mountains and rocks, colourful cloths thrown from one building to another, the folds of dress, the mantles stirred by the wind, the curly tufts of hair and long beards of old men. The elongated form of the figures is in itself an expression of their striving, of their ability to change their appearance beyond recognition, as was the case with the apostles in “The Ascension”. In “The Raising of Lazarus” the miracle worked by Christ is accompanied by a thunderstorm; the hills in the background begin to move, they grow and break and curl like thunder-clouds. The master’s peculiar vision of life, of its mutability, spirituality, its striving for a lofty but unattainable goal made him give up clear-cut closed contours which are always felt in the art of Theophanes. All this imperatively led him to the sketchiness and the boldness of stroke which had not been known before him either in Byzantine or Russian painting. His thick, seemingly careless strokes, slips and omissions remaining in the finished work should not be regarded as faults. His pictorial diction is inseparable from his perception of life, from the living emotion permeating all his pictures. The impulsiveness of nature engenders the impulsiveness of hand: “mano che trema” (the hand trembles), as it was put by Dante. In this manner of painting you can feel the yearning to grasp the momentary flashes of imagination. The sketchy execution of the Volotovo frescoes does not diminish the artistry of the master, the wealth and diversity of his techniques. In the late fourteenth century trite methods of painting became prevalent in works of the Serbian artists. It is usually explained by the influence of icon painting on the art of muralists, though in reality it was caused by a general decline of art.
It can be seen from a comparison between the head of Theodore Tiron from the Skoplje Church of St Andrew and the head of St Boris in Volotovo. In spite of the freely arranged lights, the whole image of the Serbian fresco—the features of the face, the brows, the eyes, the nose, the moustache and the lips—is rendered schematically and smoothly by means of rounded lines; the face looks like a still mask. In the Volotovo fresco the contours and lights are not so precise, the strokes are rather careless, but there is something individual in the face, it is more alive.
The head of John the Divine in Volotovo is a masterpiece of pictorial art not inferior to the best heads painted by Theophanes, such as his Melchizedek. The patriarch with his hair and beard dropping in waves on his breast is shown by Theophanes as a man of remarkable moral strength. But the strength does not find expression; the man’s lot is proud solitude. The Volotovo John the Divine does not appear lonesome; the force of spirit is in him and about him, like a storm raging in the world of which he is an integral part. His head and his beard are sketched in the rhythm of free and bold strokes.
Besides the wide, free and bold contours to which the Volotovo master had a leaning, his pictorial manner was characterized by a tendency to subordinate the outlines of many of his figures to a regular form of circle or semicircle. To a certain degree these two tendencies are antagonistic. But this does not mean that the arcs, binding the live organic forms like a hoop, make the Volotovo painting dissonant and eclectic. In the living forms, and first of all in the image of man, the master was seeking traits of “heavenly perfection”.
In the image of “Archangel in Medallion” not only the nimbus but also the head, the contours of the shoulder and the sleeve are rounded. Together they produce an impression of general harmony. The circle as a symbol of perfection and holy beatitude can be seen around the hand holding the souls of righteous people. A wide rounded contour outlines the bent figure of the grieving Joseph in “The Nativity”. Its geometric form is a contrast to the sinuous silhouette of the young shepherd and the zigzags of the rocky mountains. Regular arcs outline the backs of St Cosmas of Mayum and St John of Damascus. The portal image of the Archangel Michael is rendered mobile due to the stirring folds of the mantle; but the huge circle in his hand introduces an element of tranquility.
The prophets from the Mistra, Ravanitsa and Kovalevo frescoes are manifestly Byzantine in character: majestic old men with rolls in hand. In the Mistra prophet you can feel his striving spirit. However, the figures of the Byzantine prophets are corporeal and heavy. The Volotovo prophet with a roll belongs to the same iconographic type, but his figure is outlined by two regular arcs: (). This regularity of form makes the body light, incorporeal, spiritualized. As in the art of any great artist, in the Volotovo murals the simple graphic forms give you an idea of the master’s conception of the world and the laws it is governed by. The Volotovo frescoes, full of movement, impetuousity, growing organic forms, tell us how important is the role played in the world by human heart. But there is also another motive force in the world of the Volotovo paintings: in its organic, living and moving elements you can hear an echo of divine harmony. Like many other monumental decorative paintings, the Volotovo frescoes are marked by a regular alternation of cool and warm tones. Their colouring, in particular, is characterized by the hues of blue in the background and the red of the framings and vestments. This alternation is observed irrespective of the local meaning of the colours. This lends the painting a musical quality, like that achieved by Venetian masters or in Iranian miniatures.
Those who had a chance to visit the Volotovo church remember how important for the general impression was the colouring of the frescoes. Photographs of fragments and copies of individual frescoes do not give a comprehensive idea of what was the colouring of the painting in general.
In the Volotovo frescoes the colouring was formed under two influences: first, the palette of Theophanes which contained a very limited number of colours, and also his system of blanks, secondly, the tradition of Novgorod icon painting of the fourteenth century with its pure, bright colours, sometimes tending to be motley. The general impression produced by the Volotovo painting: the blue in the background, the red in the framing of the frescoes. This accord of the cold blue and green and the warm red, cherry-colour lends the whole painting a vigorous, joyous aspect. In this the Volotovo painting differs widely from Theophanes’s frescoes and in a certain sense anticipates the variegated Novgorod icons of the fifteenth century. But different from the icons, the colours here are not so dense and objective, but more palpitating, permeated by light and air, sometimes showing the play of half-tones. The masterpiece of the Volotovo coloration is the image of the Archangel Gabriel to the right of the entrance. He is represented in a light-blue tunic becoming darker downwards and a crimson mantle marked by purple lights. The hues of blue are reflected in the background, on the wings and in the spherical mirror he is holding in his hands. There are also rosy reflections on the wings and in the mirror. The cold and light tones vary in luminous power. The strong figure of the archangel is permeated by light and is seen through the trepidating medium of light.
The interior of the Volotovo church was lavishly ornamented. Here the master displayed as much talent and taste as he did in his figure compositions. He expertly performed the ornament consisting of fiat plaitings and stylized floral motifs. Some bands are decorated with foreshortened blocks of the kind we can see in the work of Theophanes. Here in the representation of a flower-pot the master achieved a perfect illusion of depth. He showed himself to be a good master of floral ornament with flowers and leaves which he painted as confidently and freely as his figure compositions. A band of geometrical floral ornament is stretching above the images of St Cosmas of Fayum and St John of Damascus. Its three-lobed patterns consist of overlapping wide arcs which are interlaced in the Gothic fashion. It is noteworthy that the same principle was accepted in the construction of the three-lobed fronts of the church.