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Byzantine Russian Art Painting
Brief History: Russian Art Movements
For a millennium beginning with the 9th century conversion of the country to Orthodox Catholicism, up until the 19th century, Russian Art was almost exclusively defined by icon painting. This Byzantine artistic practice of painting saints and biblical scenes was largely dictated and influenced by church canons. The late 19th century saw the shift to Russia’s version of the Arts and Crafts movement that mostly relied on traditional Russian applied arts. It was during this era that Style Moderne or Art Nouveau was predominantly embraced by Russian artists like Mikhail Vrubel (Charlton 23).
The early 20th century Russia was a time of political upheaval which consequently fueled Russia’s artistic growth. It was during this era that Russian Avante-Garde movement flourished. It is characterized by angular shapes, vibrant colors, and representative of the urban landscape and lifestyle that effectively replaced the rural scenes that were the major subjects of the previous era. Abstract art were represented through genres of Futurism, Rayonism, and Suprematism. Belarusian Marc Chagall, Kasimir Malevich, and Mikhail Larionov were some of the artists that defined this movement. Political upheavals that characterized most of the 1920s up to the 1930s played a role in harnessing the creativity of free-thinking artists as their works were used for propaganda materials, posters, sculptures, and public spaces. It was the ‘propaganda poster’ movement wherein artistic expressions where predominantly aligned with political ideologies. By the late 20th century, when freedom is achieved and a new millennium is dawning, artistic constrictions pave the way for bold, experimental artistic expression (Charlton 23-24).
Byzantine Russian Art
Highlighting Byzantine Art movement of Russia is an interesting topic because it was in this country that this artistic movement is most enduring. Unlike other European countries, Russia’s artistic movement did not undergo a Romanesque or a Gothic phase. It did not even experience any comprehensive renaissance. Byzantine art endured and virtually remained unchanged despite the wars, racial migrations, Mongol rule that lasted for two centuries, up to the 15th century, when the country acquired a sense of nationalism (Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art).
Byzantine artistic expression took many forms—sculptures, architecture, and painting to name a few. In terms of visual art, Byzantine art is best expressed in fresco paintings and mosaic arts that could be found in Russian churches, monasteries, and cathedrals. One of the more famous and iconic Russian painters who managed to infuse and elevate this medieval art and truly make it ‘Russian’ is Andrei Rublev.
European Art History
Andrei Rublev was born in a time of monastic revival wherein Russia was beginning to reverberate back to Orthodox Church. Although Rublev is more famous to Catholics as a saint, he was a Russian iconic painter whose works have graced various monasteries, churches, and cathedrals across Russia. But as famous as his works were, little is known about his personal life. It was believed that he was born between 1360 and 1370 in a town near Moscow. Rublev entered the Holy Trinity Monastery at a very young age where he began his life as a monk. By 1405, he moved to Spasso-Andronikov Monastery where he met Theophanes the Greek—who is to become his iconography instructor. After three years of apprenticeship, Rublev, in 1408, together with Daniel Chorny, painted the frescoes in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir. When he gained his confidence, Rublev was able to paint a Greek ship, by himself, in the interior of the cathedral of the Merciful Savior in the Andronikov Monastery (Bigham 94-95; Bunge 69).
Before his death, in 1430, Andrei Rublev was able to paint the Holy Trinity which has become one of his enduring works in terms of quality and artistry. As was the words of Bigham “Rublev’s reputation for holiness and artistic quality was such that a century after his death he was still considered the model to be followed.” He also added that Rublev “painted many icons, all of them miraculous”(Bigham 96). Though the miraculous aspect of Rublev’s work would be a subject for another topic, Bigham did make an important point: that his work is indeed of fine quality and artistry that best represents Russia’s Byzantine art movement. A particular work that is of most interest for me is his Holy Trinity.
The Holy Trinity is a model of his work as it exudes the artistic skill and simplicity of his style of painting. His spirituality and religious belief played an important role in his work because it is through it that he derives his inspiration for his arts.It also portrays his ability to go beyond pictorial constraints with spiritual and religious ideas as dictated by the Church canons. Known for its ‘lyrical and rhythmic quality,’ the Holy Trinity was an expression of infusing truly Russian artistic perspective to a Byzantine art movement. The use of warm and cool colors creates a vivid image that is very evident in all of Rublev’s work. It was this dramatic imagery that makes his work stands out. It is also probably this style and the quality of marksmanship needed for each art work that helped Byzantine art become so enduring in Russia.
Byzantine Art movement is an artistic movement that has swept over most of the European countries. But it was far more enduring in Russia—some might say this could be attributed to political upheavals or religious influence among the people. But I believe Byzantine art tradition was most enduring in Russia because of the quality of art pieces that the Russian artists’ were able to produce during this period. Andrei Rublev’s work is just but one of the many Russian artists that could be a testament to the creative capacity and artistic ability of Russian painters.
Bigham, Steven. Heroes of the Icon: People, Places, Events. California: Oakwood Publications, 1998.
Bunge, Gabriel. The Rublev Trinity: The Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev. New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2007.
Charlton, Angela. Frommer's Moscow & St. Petersburg. New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2010.
Encyclopedia of Irish and World Art. Russian Art (c.30,000 BCE - 1920). Web. 14 December 2010