Now, when the valuable monument is irrevocably lost and the historians of art are faced with the task to preserve the memory of it for the future generations, it is especially important to define its place in the history of Russian and world art.
This can only be done through a comparative study of the Volotovo frescoes and other analogous works. A comparative analysis will not only help to solve this problem but also will give a better understanding of the importance of this monument as a work of art.
The first steps in this direction were already made by the discoverers of the Volotovo paintings. D. V. Ainalov and L. A. Matsulevich rightly pointed out that there was a stylistic affinity between the Volotovo painting and Byzantine art of the Paleologue time. They were struck by the similarity between some motifs in the Volotovo cycle and the mosaics of Kahrye Jami. These motifs seemed to have been directly transferred from the walls of the Constantinople church to the little church in the far-away Novgorod.
Now, after half a century during which some new discoveries were made, we cannot agree with these conclusions unreservedly. When examining the Kahrye Jami mosaics, especially those which have been recently restored in the chapel, you can see that between the purely Byzantine and the Novgorod frescoes there are considerable dissimilarities. These distinctions cannot be explained only by different chronology, they also reflect the basic difference of the two schools.
The conclusion that the Volotovo murals do not belong to the brush of Theophanes but were painted by a Novgorod master brings us closer to the correct understanding of their historical place, though we cannot say that this clears up the matter completely. Theophanes as a representative of the Byzantine or even the Constantinople school is so highly esteemed that you cannot help thinking of him as the teacher, the tutor, the unquestionable authority, so that the creator of the Volotovo cycle appears to be only an assiduous pupil, a disciple, an imitator. The very fact of including the Volotovo paintings in a monograph devoted to Theophanes the Greek and associating them with “the second phase in the development of Theophanes’s art” shows that the independence and originality of the Volotovo master are disputed. Besides this there is much controversy about the understanding of Byzantine art of the Paleologue epoch, which makes the historical estimation of the Volotovo painting still more difficult. The disputable issues are those of classification and chronology of the Paleologue art. D. V. Ainalov, who made a valuable contribution to the clarification of these problems and was one of the first to demonstrate the achievements of that epoch which were not recognized even by N. P. Kondakov, was quite right in speaking of similarities between painting of that time and western art of the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. However, he made a mistake seeing in these similarities an indication of a direct western influence on the East. V. N. Lazarev has good reasons to dispute D. V. Ainalov’s view on many peculiarities of Byzantine painting of the Paleologue period as a result of direct western influence. However, in some instances such influence did exist. G. Millet put forward a theory that there were two iconographic schools in Byzantine painting of the fourteenth century—Cretan and Macedonian. The Volotovo paintings were associated by him with the latter school. But in spite of numerous arguments offered in support of his classification it was not accepted. More recently, V. N. Lazarev, referring to the views expressed by I. E. Grabar, put forward a theory of two phases in the development of Byzantine art of the Paleologue period: the “pictorial” phase and the “linear” phase which superseded it in the middle of the fourteenth century. The transition was explained by this author as a result of the advance of Hesychasm which he understood as a manifestation of “ideological reaction”. However, this theory is at variance with the facts: the monuments of Byzantine painting and of closely related Serbian painting bear no evidence that in the middle of the fourteenth century there was a transition from the “pictorial style” to the “graphic style”. This can be demonstrated by a comparison between such well-known monuments of the first half of the fourteenth century as the Kahrye Jami mosaics and frescoes, the Phetye Jami mosaics and the Salonika mosaics from the Church of the Apostle, the Protat frescoes on Mount Athos, frescoes of Brontochion in Mistra, the Cretan Church of St Antonius in Avdu, of the churches in Zhichi, Studenitsi, Staro-Nagorichino, Grichanitsi and Pech, Kurtea de Arjes and, on the other hand, the monuments of the second half of the fourteenth century—the frescoes of Periblepta in Mistra, of Dechani, of the Monastery of St Marcus, of Andreash on the Trestsi.
The very concepts of the “pictorial” and “graphic” styles were borrowed from studies of the Renaissance art and can be applied to Byzantine painting with serious reservations. This classification is disproved by the art of Theophanes which must be attributed to the “pictorial style” though it developed in the second half of the fourteenth century. According to this classification, Theophanes must be regarded as an opponent of Hesychasm, though in the Trinity Chapel of the Novgorod Saviour-Transfiguration Cathedral he created a remarkable monument to hermits-hesychasts.
As far as the art of the Paleologue period is concerned, where very much still remains unknown, it is better to avoid any rigid classification. Such monuments as the Mistra frescoes can be a convincing proof that valuable works of art were created in Byzantium as late as the second half of the fourteenth century. We should not try to apply the stylistic criteria of Western art to Byzantine and Early Russian art but study their own stylistic principles. From the very first stages of its development Byzantine painting included different schools. They were characterized by ideological differences, which is also confirmed by literary sources. In painting the main difference was not caused by the existence of the “pictorial” and the “graphic” styles but rather by the fact that some masters were inclined to dogmatic rigorism and were loyal to iconographic canons while others were more disposed to trust their own feeling and admitted spontaneity of expression. Works of the first group of artists could be marked by refined craftsmanship, but usually they were not so artistic and poetic as works of the second group among which were the works of Theophanes as well as the paintings of the Volotovo and Stratilates churches.
There is no doubt that Constantinople always played an important part in Byzantine art. : It was important in the epoch of the Paleologues, though it was not the only centre of Byzantine art. We cannot explain every upsurge and achievement of art by the influence of the Byzantine capital. In the fourteenth century, besides Constantinople, there were such artistic centres as Thessalonica and Mistra where art was successfully developing, rising over the traditional limitations and handicraft mediocrity.
The late fourteenth century was marked by the appearance of favourable conditions for art in Novgorod. The literary sources at our disposal are too scarce to give us a clear idea of what material and spiritual factors in the life of the town could contribute to the creation of such a masterpiece as the Volotovo cycle. Between the information provided by the chronicles and birch-bark records and such a phenomenon as the Volotovo painting there is too great a distance to allow us to find any causative relations between them.
We can only mention some of the characteristic traits of Novgorod life at the time when the local school of art was at its height. These were general economic prosperity, wide international connections, active building of new churches and demand for their decoration, a great number of people who were fond of art and were able to give commissions to artists. The artistic relics of the past, unlike other towns, had not been destroyed here by the Mongols. Finally, eclesiastical literature developed here side by side with elements of secular literature, epical art and folklore.
The gleams of free thought, the so-called Novgorod heresy of the strigolniks, also played a considerable role in those years. It must be said, however, that the Volotovo master could hardly be close to the strigolniks. The portal frescoes, “Wisdom Buildeth Its Temple” in particular, might be definitely directed against heresy. There are no signs of the worship of earth in the painting, which was peculiar to heretics. The only connection between this painting and the Novgorod heretical movement can be seen in the fact that it is not wholly devoted to the affirmation of dogmas, of the divine hierarchy, that it shows personal feeling, enables the man, apart from the ritual, to come in touch with the Deity, to express his attitude to Him. If we want, at least generally, to establish the master’s world outlook, we must remember that medieval philosophy in its later stage had two branches; scholasticism and mysticism. Scholasticism was rational, scholarly, it was attracted by ecclesiastical dogmas; mysticism at that time appealed to human feeling in which the man could find the truth, it turned to common people. Of course, the Volotovo master could not have any idea either of Thomas Aquinas or of Meister Eckhart. Here we can speak but of distant analogy between philosophy and art, as it may help us find the place of an art in the history of culture.
At any rate, the Volotovo painting is a creation of a Novgorod master. Within the stylistic range of painting of the Paleologue epoch he expressed both his individuality and his philosophy. The original traits in his painting can be defined more accurately by comparing it with analogous monuments of that time.
The prototypes of some of the figures in the Volotovo cycle can be found in the Kahrye Jami mosaics and frescoes and in some icons painted in those times. But such analogies and coincidences are only isolated instances. It can be said that on the whole the Byzantine murals of the fourteenth century differ from the Novgorod works so much that they can never be confused. The Byzantine murals do not have even a shade of that passionate and frantic manner which strikes you in Volotovo. The Kahrye Jami mosaic “Praying Anna” is characterized by numerous fine details reminding you of the Pompeian paintings, but the graceful figure of the woman does not express such loftiness of sentiment as you feel in the analogous Volotovo scene. The Kahrye Jami fresco “The Descent into Hell” does not convey impetuousity or unanimity of the people: their figures standing in effective poses seem to be indifferent assistants in the ritual. In the graceful, even somewhat affected angel rolling up the sky you do not feel the grandeur and strength that are so manifest in the Volotovo Michael. The Constantinople frescoes have a stamp of refined classicism. The Volotovo frescoes could be defined by the word “barbaric”. However, this barbarism is in fact closer to the true classics than to Hellenism which attracted the Byzantine artists.
The well-proportioned, rhythmically arranged figures of the Kahrye Jami fresco “The Raising of the Ruler’s Daughter” bear resemblance to antique reliefs, but there is a trace of pretentiousness in the movement of Christ and in the way the ressurected girl is stretching her arm to Him. In the Volotovo “Raising of Lazarus” the human feelings burst out in an uncontrollable flow. The live interest of the artist in his subject is vividly displayed in his cursive manner of painting.
The contrast between the Salonika mosaic “The Descent into Hell” in the Church of St Apostle and both Novgorod frescoes is even more striking. “The Descent” of the Macedonian school represents Christ speaking with people who have surrounded him in a crowd. Every face in the scene has a subtle individual characteristic. But this mosaic does not in the least resemble the grandiose assemblage which is so impressive in both Novgorod frescoes. In fourteenth-century painting “The Descent” is sometimes represented with the figure of Christ in a fluttering mantle (as it is done in the Studenitsa fresco). But the other characters in the scene usually play the role of indifferent onlookers. There are many narrative and dramatic elements in the Pech fresco from the Church of the Apostles: Christ pulling out Adam and Eve; the angel breaking the fetters of hell; John the Baptist preaching. But nowhere in Byzantine iconography can one observe such a complete unity of mankind as we see in the Novgorod frescoes. An attempt to represent a multifigure scene was made in the Ochrida fresco of “The Assumption” from the Church of St Clement. But most of these figures are not people but angels who are placed close to one another in a purely mechanical order. The excellent Byzantine icon of
“The Assumption” in the Hermitage has greater compositional similarities with the Volotovo fresco, though it also includes more angels than people.
When you look at the Kahrye Jami cycle you may call to mind the name of Theodore Meto-chites, a man of outstanding classical erudition and fine artistic taste. It is quite possible that the Volotovo frescoes would have offended his taste, just as the Fauvist paintings shocked the public of the Paris Salons. The passionate display of feeling in the art of the Novgorod master could be found immoderate and excessive.
The Byzantine and the Novgorod frescoes are different not only in the character of scenes but also in the mode of artistic vision. The Byzantine frescoes of the fourteenth century contain many carefully pictured details which must be looked at from a short distance. The Novgorod frescoes are mostly intended to be viewed from afar. Then their emotional impact is particularly strong: the impetuous feeling overflowing every image fuses everything into a single whole.
The search for analogies of the Volotovo frescoes may lead one to the charming, exquisite “Nativity” in the Mistra Church of Periblepta. But this fresco with its carefully outlined hills and fragile tiny figures of angels resembles a magnified icon or miniature. The earlier frescoes in Studenitsa representing scenes from Mary’s life have a similar character. In the Periblepta “Nativity” the iconographic space is handled in the old symbolical manner: all the figures are weightless, they are scattered over a steep mountain from which they do not fall. In the Volotovo fresco the miraculous manifestation of angels is taking place on earth. The figures are securely standing and moving, and the scene has elements of a poetical pastoral. The Volotovo “Nativity” stands apart from the other frescoes of the cycle. There is no ecstatic tensity in it, but, on the other hand, it is very obviously stressed that the miracle is taking place on earth.
More archaic is the style of the frescoes in the Mistra Metropolitan Church representing a group of praying martyrs. Though the appearance of the martyrs is quite typical, they seem to be only impassive participants of a ritual having none of the pious enthusiasm and devotion that permeate the characters of the Volotovo frescoes. In “The Kiss of Judas” the Periblepta master displayed a superb skill in depicting the traitor’s cloak fluttering in the wind. In such a scene the Volotovo master would have concentrated on the emotional display of the people rather than on the beauty of the folding cloth. The decorative and colourful frescoes of Pantanass are most effective when looked at from afar. They reminded G. Millet of the Impressionist paintings. But their multifigure compositions lack unity: they seem to fall into separate parts.
The Volotovo frescoes are sometimes compared to the Balkan, especially Serbian murals. A student who does not try to understand the essence of the processes occurring in art will not see considerable difference between the paintings of Ravanitsa, Dechani and those of Novgorod. But in fact they differ as greatly as the Byzantine and Russian works. The Serbian frescoes of the fourteenth century were characterized by increasing narrativeness, even loquacity. That is why their style was defined by S. Radoicic as narrative. The Grachanitsa scene of “The Raising of Lazarus” is divided into two episodes. The master showed two different moments in the development of action, but his story is too verbose. The walls of the Dechani church represent a whole encyclopedia containing dozens of cycles and a multitude of entertaining and instructive episodes. All this is very scholarly, ingenious, didactic, but neither dramatic nor emotional. The Serbian frescoes are as sleek as Byzantine painting, so that the use of free strokes and lights, like those in the Volotovo frescoes, is excluded. The only work standing apart from the other Balkan murals are the paintings in the Ivanovo cave church in Bulgaria. The high dramatism of the scenes, the mobility of figures, the dynamic architectural backgound—all this makes the work of the Ivanovo master similar to that of the Volotovo master. But direct connections between them could not exist, as the Ivanovo paintings date from the middle or even the beginning of the fourteenth century. And, what is more important, these two works, along with the similar traits, have considerable differences.
In Ivanovo the expressive figures (such as the figures of the apostles in “The Washing of the Feet”) do not violate the strictly traditional iconography. The figures and especially the buildings are moving in these scenes in a disorderly manner. The buildings are rocking, the figures are twisting and breaking, but each of them moves apart from the others and they do not form a single whole, as it happens in Volotovo. Though the frescoes are badly preserved, one can notice that the manner of execution is not so sketchy. The Ivanovo frescoes are very small, they do not constitute an ensemble and look like icons hanging about on the walls. Judging by these frescoes, the Balkan masters, in quest of greater expressiveness, sometimes veered off the trodden path. However, in the history of art the Ivanovo frescoes cannot be placed together with the Volotovo work.
A student of the fourteenth-century Novgorod frescoes cannot forget about Theophanes. The shadow of the eminent Greek always loomed behind the Novgorod master. Theophanes was not only important for him in that he shared with him the secrets of his art. Theophanes awakened in him an artist who sought to achieve creative freedom. Judging by Theophanes’s “Trinity”, his only known figure composition, still very archaic and hieratic, the Volotovo master went much farther in his scenes. But for all that was awakened in him by the Greek he must have been profoundly grateful.
Nevertheless, he did not become his imitator of follower. His philosophy and aesthetical views were quite different. The dismal, tragic spirit of Theophanes’s art was alien to him. The austere colouring, the clearness of line verging on harshness—these were not the features he had great sympathy for. In the master’s work there is an image of an old man, probably St Arsenius, which is particularly close to the saint represented by Theophanes. But the image painted by Theophanes has an expression of severity and renunciation which is accentuated by the elongated form of the head and of the curls of the beard. In the Volotovo image this expression is not so pronounced. To a certain degree it is achieved by making the outline of the head and the curls of the beard more rounded. The distinction between the two frescoes is very slight, it is only a nuance, but it is of no little importance.