We have no written sources which could tell us how the contemporaries of the Volotovo murals responded to painting. But, undoubtedly, there were people among them whose approach to it was very profound.
Probably we shall be able to understand them better, if we imagine how such a lover of image painting, a type that at a much later date was described with great warmth by N. S. Leskov in his “Angel Imprinted”, is entering the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin at Volotovo Polye. Let us choose for this a moment when there is no service in the church.
He enters the church. He makes the sign of the cross, as befits a devout believer, and begins to look around with curiosity. His gaze rests for a while at one and then at another fresco. Everything that will come before him on these walls is wrapped in his mind in many recollections of old narratives, traditions and legends. He will see stern monks who by their very look call you to self-renouncement; the fathers of the Church, stately and steadfast; the ancient forefathers, strong and adamant, not yielding to age; the inspired prophets with a faraway look in their eyes.
All these people will surround him; he will feel their presence. And he will be grateful to the master for the honour of being able to contemplate the blessed, those who can see what is happening in the innermost depths of his soul.
He will notice two awestruck elderly people—the parents of Mary—entering the temple with an offering, a lamb in their hands. He will see how they are looking at the old priest. And then how they have to leave the temple. Jacob does it with manly decision, but Anna cannot help looking back. Does this parting look express the hope that the priest will have pity on them and accept the offering? But she only sees his retiring figure.
The visitor will turn to look at another wall and he will not realize at once that what he sees is “The Annunciation”. Here an enthroned woman with the air of an antique goddess is sitting with her back turned on an angel, as if she were not willing to listen. The angel has suddenly stopped, his head tossed back and one arm stretched forward. This impetuous gesture is followed by the flight of a long canopy thrown all the way from one building to another. He will raise his eyes and just above the altar will see a halflength figure of a woman. Her head is slightly inclined and on the outstreched arms lies a white towel. It will take him some time to grasp the meaning of this female figure, but he will finally decide that she has spread her arms over all humanity.
Whatever he looks at he sees something that arrests his attention: now it is a faithfully rendered gesture, now a passionate impulse. And the longer he will read this pictorial narrative, the more acutely he will feel the movement of the figures, their agitation heightening to the pitch of ecstasy, their obvious readiness to break off the earth and ascend to the skies. All things in the frescoes are directed skywards: the houses and the trees and the rocky cloud like hills behind them.
When all these impressions settle down in his mind he will see that in this little church the earthly and the heavenly have come together. There, in the cupola is the Lord of Heaven, the Almighty, looking down upon the earth; on the walls He is shown on the earth among people; still lower, almost level with the visitor’s eyes, He appears again on the earth, this time in the guise of a beggar. And in his mind this pictorial narrative is identified with the history of mankind, its destiny, trials, salvation. Abstract philosophical concepts turn into material things, visible and understandable. And leaving the church he will feel purified and illuminated.
It is difficult for our contemporary to understand what was experienced by the visitor when he came to the Volotovo church during a religious service. The rituals performed by the priests, in their symbolic language, told the same story that the could read on the walls. The people thronging in the church looked very much like those who where painted on the pillars and vaulted ceilings. The sonorous voices of the choir were carrying up to the cupola, where in the sun’s beams breaking through the windows the painting became airy and weightless. During the service he couldn’t examine the painting and read its narrative line after line. But it was here. It was like an absolute, incontestable truth. It was an answer to his desire to bridge the span between what surrounded him every day and what he could only conjecture, between the earthly world and the world of heaven or, as they put it in those times, between the vale of tears and the celestial heights. It was a really heroic effort to achieve the passionately wished for integrity and harmony without which the life would seem senseless and unbearable. And it took so much soul, ingenuousness and talent to achieve this perfection that we cannot help wondering even when we see the faint gleams of it that have reached our days.