The major artistic centers
in the Middle Ages
(14th–15th century)

The “Republic” of Novgorod in the 14th and 15th centuries

In the early 14th century, the map of Russian territories was a mosaic of principalities of very different sizes. One of the most powerful was Novgorod, in the north-west of the former Rus'; its power extended as far as the White Sea and toward the Ural Mountains. Until its annexation by Moscow in 1478, the city was ruled by a popular assembly—an oligarchy of merchants and property owners representing each of the city's neighborhoods. Novgorod belonged to the Hanseatic trading league that dominated the Baltic, bringing furs, wax, and raw materials from the hinterland. German trading posts were established in the city, a major link with the West. Like most medieval Russian cities, Novgorod had its own school of architecture and painting, boosted by the power of the archbishops and the largesse of the elites.

The major cities of medieval Russia

Most of the large medieval Russian cities had their own schools of art. This was the case with Pskov, a member of the Hanseatic League which freed itself from the control of Novgorod in 1348. After an initial resemblance to the Novgorod school, the Pskov school of painting reinterpreted the Byzantine art of the Palaiologan Period, retaining its great elegance and particular sensitivity to the effects of pure color. The city of Tver, lying north-west of Moscow on the road to Novgorod, became a principality in the mid-13th century and the seat of a bishopric around 1271. It competed politically with Moscow, and was finally absorbed by the latter in 1485. The Tver school updated traditional painting in the 15th century, remaining true to Byzantine artistic canons, with narrative interpretations and a harmonious palette featuring several tones within one dominant color.

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Icon: Sts. John Climacus, George, and Blaise

St. John Climacus is shown here between the two small figures of St. George and St. Blaise of Sebaste. The anchorite John Climacus, who died around 650, wrote a treatise comparing the spiritual life of monks to the ascent of a ladder between vice and virtue, leading to God. The difference in proportion between the figures is striking; although figures were often hierarchized in Byzantine painting, contrasting effects such as this are rare.
The style and technique of this icon share the characteristic features of later 13th-century Novgorod painting: monumental figures, red background, chromatic scale, careful attention to ornamental detail. The work is thought to have been found in Kresttsy, less than a hundred kilometers from Novgorod. This icon is the earliest preserved work typical of Novgorod art after the Mongol invasion.
Novgorod, second half of the 13th century
Tempera on wood
H. 1.08 m; W. 67.5 cm; Th. 3.4 cm
Provenance: Kresttsy (Novgorod Oblast).
St. Petersburg, Russian Museum, inv. ДРЖ-2774
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Icon: St. George Slaying the Dragon

Against an intense red background, St. George sits astride a dazzling white horse, cape flying in the wind as he thrusts his spear into the mouth of the dragon at the entrance to its cave. In the top right corner, Christ's hand emerges from a segment of sky to bless him.
Devotional images of St. George slaying the dragon multiplied soon after the conversion to Christianity. In the 15th century, the warrior saint symbolizing victory became the emblem of Moscow and patron saint of Russia.
This work was produced in Novgorod, as can be seen from its limpid composition, the contrast of red and white, the large flat tints, the sinuous, stylized draftsmanship, and the attention to detail; these elements were typical of the previous artistic tradition... but some splendid early 15th-century works reflect a deliberate revival of past forms.
Novgorod, second quarter of the 15th century
Tempera on wood
H. 58.5 cm; W. 42 cm; Th. 3 cm
Provenance: church in the village of Manikhino (Volkhov Oblast) near the mouth of the Pasha.
St. Petersburg, Russian Museum, inv. ДРЖ-2123
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Icon: Sts. Boris and Gleb

Images of Sts. Boris and Gleb show them either standing in princely clothes, or riding horses side by side as they are here; this iconography emerged in 14th-century Russia and was based on an episode in their lives when they appeared on horseback to prisoners in a dungeon. The image derives from Byzantine models of military saints on horseback—sometimes in pairs—which appeared in Byzantium in the 13th century.
This painting is usually attributed to the last third or end of the 14th century. Novgorodian traditions, observable in the sinuous lines and taste for decorative detail, are somewhat dominated by the pictorial innovations of mid-14th century Byzantine art—in particular the solemn rhythm and the expression of volume through subtle gradations of color. The synthesis of these elements gives the work a sense of majesty and heroism that raised Novgorod painting to its peak.
Novgorod, last third of the 14th century (c.1377?) and second third of the 16th century (revetment)
Tempera on limewood; gilt silver
H. 1.16 m; W. 93 cm
Provenance: church of Boris and Gleb in the trading district of Novgorod, built in 1377.
Novgorod, Novgorod State Museum, inv. ДРЖ 1068
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The Greek word panagiarion (from panagia, "all-holy") designates the paten (or plate) which, in Orthodox ritual, holds the piece of bread that monks and bishops symbolically offer to the Virgin at the end of meals and during the Orthros (or Matins) service. This panagiarion, composed of two hinged gilt silver plates, is unusual in that it has a stand and can therefore be placed at a height on a table.
The polylobed design of the base and the circlet of Gothic finials recall German 15th-century pieces, but the angels perched on lions are a splendid revival of forms originating in Romanesque art. Novgorod, open to the West in the time of Archbishop Euthymius II (1429–1459) to whom the object is dedicated, was one of the few places where such an accomplished synthesis of Western art and the highest Orthodox traditions could be created in the 15th century.
Master Ivan Arip
Novgorod, 1435
Gilt silver; gilt copper; traces of enamel
H. 30 cm; Diam. of the panagiarion: 25 cm; Diam. of the base: 22.5 cm
Provenance: treasury of St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod.
Novgorod, Novgorod State Museum, inv. ДРМ 268 / НГМ 1108
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Votive cross of the inhabitants of Lyudogoshcha Street

The inscription on the base of this cross indicates that it was commissioned in 1359 by the inhabitants of Lyudogoshcha Street for the Church of Sts. Florus and Laurus. The cross is remarkable for its elaborate shape and the appendages on its limbs. Several votive or funerary Novgorod crosses conform to the same principle.
The front face comprises eighteen medallions decorated with figures; the central ones display the Deesis (Christ, the Virgin, and St. John the Baptist)—shown seated here, which is unusual. The traditional iconographic repertory, the linear decoration, and the emphatically stylized figures are somewhat archaic for the period, and beg comparison with other stone or wood carved pieces produced in Novgorod in the first half of the 14th century.
Sculptor Iakov Fedosov (?)
Novgorod, 1359
Pinewood; traces of tempera
H. 2.16 m; W. 1.49 m
Provenance: church of Sts. Florus and Laurus in Lyudogoshcha Street in Novgorod.
Novgorod, Novgorod State Museum, inv. ДРД 144
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Icon: Deesis and Praying Novgorodians

This icon is divided into two registers: under the image of the Deesis, four men and a child are depicted on the left, and two men, a woman, and a child on the right. The latter were probably members of a Novgorod boyar family who commissioned the icon, and are dressed according to their rank. They provide a concrete image of the patrician society of the Republic of Novgorod in the late Middle Ages.
The icon combines the holy figures of the Deesis row and a row of secular figures, which was rare in Russia at that time. The work may have been intended for the funerary chapel of a rich Novgorod family; commemorative funerary icons are known to have been in widespread use among the city's aristocracy.
Novgorod, second half of the 15th century (1467?)
Tempera on limewood
H. 1.12 m; W. 85 cm
Provenance: found in 1849 in the church of St. Varlaam of Khutyn in Novgorod.
Novgorod, Novgorod State Museum, inv. ДРЖ 968
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Icon: Dormition of the Virgin

The Dormition of the Virgin (i.e., her death in the presence of apostles and of Christ, who comes to take her soul to heaven) follows the Byzantine model drawn from the Apocrypha. The twelve apostles travel miraculously to Jerusalem on clouds drawn by angels to witness the Virgin's death. In the center, the Virgin leans toward St. Thomas, the latecomer, to whom she hands her belt as proof of her death. The apostles' journey through the sky became so popular that this iconographic type was called the "Dormition with clouds."
On the lower register, Christ appears in a mandorla of angels behind the Virgin on her deathbed among the apostles; he cradles his mother's soul in the form of a swaddled figure. The icon, usually attributed to Tver, is remarkable for its meticulous technique and classical perfection, with carefully chosen harmonies of color.
Tver, 15th century
Tempera on wood
H. 1.13 m; W. 88 cm
Provenance: former collection of Ilya Ostroukhov (1858–1929) in Moscow.
Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery, inv. 22303
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Fresco: two holy martyrs

The excavations that began in 1954 in the medieval city of Pskov unearthed the vestiges of several churches that had been destroyed under Peter the Great to make way for fortifications. This fresco comes from the ruins of a church unearthed between 1974 and 1978 in the citadel of Dovmont, built by the Lithuanian prince who ensured the security of Pskov from 1266.
The dynamic treatment of the clothing, painted with broad brushstrokes, draws from the Byzantine art of the Palaiologan Renaissance in the early 14th century. The rendering of the faces, however, is distinguished by flat flesh tints, embellished with expressively arranged fine, dense strokes, in the tradition of Pskov and Novgorod. The attachment to the Byzantine movement of the early century explains the dating of the fresco to around 1350.
Pskov, second half of the 14th century
H. 1.87 m; W. 1.31 m
Provenance: Pskov, Church of the Nativity (?), citadel of Dovmont.
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, inv. ЭРИ-1187.
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Icon: St. Demetrius

The relics of St. Demetrius—the great military patron saint of Thessaloniki—were brought to Russia in the 12th century, and transferred from Vladimir to Moscow on the eve of the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380; they were believed to have played a decisive role in the victory over the Tatars.
From the 14th century onward, the many images of the saint stressed his qualities of gentleness and contemplativeness rather than his status as a warrior and protector, in a style inspired by the Byzantine art of the Palaiologan period. This icon is one of the most sophisticated (and certainly one of the latest) in a movement that flourished in Pskov in the 1420s–1440s and aimed at aristocratic elegance; its influence is perceptible in the delicate monochrome ornamentation of the armor and shield. The exceptional nature of the work suggests a relatively prestigious provenance—probably the Church of St. Demetrius in Pskov, in the citadel of Dovmont, where it may once have been the titular icon.
Pskov, second quarter or middle of the 15th century
Tempera on pinewood
H. 87.8 cm; W. 66.8 cm
Provenance: monastic church of St. Barbara in the Pskov village of Petrov, built in 1618.
St. Petersburg, Russian Museum, inv. ДРЖ 2729