Treasures of Mediaeval Russia
Treasures of Mediaeval Russia
The finest works of Russian art are closely bound up with the history of Russia itself, the creative toil of the Russian people, the striving for justice, and the struggle for a transformation of society and state. The exquisite frescoes and carvings, the oral heroic poems, the folk tales and chronicles, which were always based on a profound interest in the fortunes of the state and the people, bear witness to the Russian people’s keen sense of duty and patriotic awareness, their ability to understand their country’s present and revere its past.
All the necessary conditions have been created in our country for the study and preservation of old monuments. From the very outset the new state, the state of the working people, demonstrated its concern for the cultural heritage as an important possession of the republic. An appeal issued by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies read: “The old masters have gone, and a great legacy remains behind them. This now belongs to the whole people. Cherish this legacy, cherish the pictures, statues and buildings-for they embody the spiritual strength of you and of your ancestors.”
From the very first years of its life the young Soviet Republic began to carry out Lenin’s behest-to make the monuments of Russian culture the property of the whole people. A decree passed by the Council of People’s Commissars pointed to the need “… to organise the preservation and study of art treasures of the past in Russia and to see that they are introduced to the broad mass of the population”. Today in the Russian Federation alone 115 towns have received the official title of towns of historical interest. Many masterpieces of early Russian art have been restored to their original appearance: expeditions of specialists have unearthed excellent, well-preserved specimens of painting in remote parts of the country: restoration work based on detailed scientific study is being carried out to free the works of early masters from later unskilled renovation: numerous museums and architectural preserves are carrying out active and varied work to acquaint the working people with the splendid artistic creations of early Russian masters. In all these activities state organisations receive considerable help from the All-Russia Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments which co-ordinates the efforts of more than seven million amateur enthusiasts.
A vivid illustration of the concern shown by the Party, the Government, and the Soviet people as a whole for their cultural heritage is the restoration of historical and artistic monuments in the post-war years. The nazi invaders destroyed a vast number of masterpieces of early Russian architecture. The cathedrals, mansions and old fortresses of Novgorod, Smolensk, Kiev, Chernigov, Pskov and many other towns were reduced to ruins. It seemed that no one would ever again be able to feast their eyes on these treasures which were rightly considered to be immortal. Yet only three years after the end of the Second World War, in 1948, a special decree was passed and restoration work began. Much has been lost forever, but everything that could be retrieved has either been restored completely in the last twenty-five years or is in the process of restoration. The hands of present-day craftsmen, the heirs to the skill of the mediaeval Russian architects and painters, have restored the damaged masterpieces to their former appearance.
Mediaeval Russian art and architecture attract one by their high degree of artistic perfection and profound philosophical content. The architects’ skill and feeling for the Russian landscape is quite remarkable. The unique poetry of the wooden churches in the North, the austere majesty of Novgorodian architecture, the elegance and lyricism of the white stone cathedrals in Vladimir and Suzdal, the ceremonial pomp and splendour of Moscow architecture, the colourful jubilance of the Yaroslavl churches and the lavish decoration of the Rostov Veliki kremlin bear witness to the exceptional architectural talent of the Russian people.
Yet the value of these monuments of the past does not lie solely in their exceptional charm and high degree of artistic perfection, of course. In spite of the conventional nature of their representational language, the mediaeval Russian architects and painters, drawn from the people, managed in their numerous architectural edifices, white stone reliefs, colourful icons and frescoes to talk of the great events of their day, the dreams and aspirations of the people, and to convey a strong patriotic love of their native land, and profound concern for the fate of the Russian state which had suffered many a misfortune but invariably emerged victorious from the struggles with its various enemies. N. Vinogradov-Mamont, who once accompanied Lenin on a sightseeing tour of the Kremlin, tells us that Lenin had this to say about mediaeval Russian art: “Here it is-the art of Millennia … What is portrayed on these walls? The life of the people. The toiling, suffering, sacrifice, valour, wisdom and achievement of the people …” This is why these fine works of mediaeval Russian art have been, are and always will be a powerful means of the spiritual enrichment of Soviet man, a means of cultivating not only a sense of beauty, but also a sense of pride for one’s people, deep love for one’s native land.
The art treasures of mediaeval Russia are an inexhaustible source of enrichment for the whole of modern culture as well, humanity and kindness, a clear view of the world, the spirit of freedom and humanism, glorification of the dignity of man, of his inner freedom and strength, faith in the triumph of justice-these characteristic features of mediaeval Russian art reflect a feeling which is in harmony with our age-a sense of the greatness of the world, an awareness of the bond and unity of all mankind and faith in man’s high calling.
Alongside the many frescoes and icons in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Moscow Kremlin is one of the finest specimens of wood carving-the wooden throne of Ivan the Terrible (also known as the Monomachos Throne), made by Moscow craftsmen in 1551.
Take a look at the carved scenes on the throne which are reproduced in the earlier section of this album. They give us a romantic, inspired account of various historical events-the reception of foreign envoys, the Grand Prince of Kiev in council with his boyars, the presentation of the Byzantine imperial regalia to Vladimir Monomachos. Here too we see Russian warriors assembling for the fray and the scene of a fierce battle which seems to illustrate the famous Lay of Igor’s Host.
“From dawn till dusk, from dusk till dawn the tempered arrows flew, sabres clanged against helmets, lances of Frankish steel clashed in the unknown steppe amid the Polovtsian land. The black earth beneath the hooves was sown with bones and watered with blood, and a harvest of sorrow came up over the land of Russia !”
The various subjects are all linked by the important idea of patriotism. All their themes are used to stress the need for uniting the Russian lands around Muscovy in order to create a single, strong centralised state.
The Moscow carvers managed to depart from the strict iconographic canons and give free reign to their imagination, finding inspiration in folk art. All the scenes show precise detail, natural movement and expressive figures. The compositions are simple and dignified. These realistic wood carvings on Ivan the Terrible’s throne, which are devoid of any trace of religious mysticism (although they stood in the chief cathedral of the state of Muscovy) testify to the great skill of Russian craftsmen, who handed down from generation to generation the fine traditions of folk art in which the decorative carving of wood occupied a special place.
In mediaeval Russia, a land of endless forests, wood was always the most available and widely used material. With the help of the axe alone, carpenters made exquisitely carved household and farming implements and built log cabins, wooden mansions and churches.
Russian wood carving goes back to the art of the Eastern Slavs who settled along the banks of the Dnieper, Volga, Don and Lake Ilmen in the first millennium A.D. The chronicle tells us that the walls of Slav shrines were richly decorated with carvings of people, birds and animals done so accurately and naturally that they almost seemed to be alive and breathing. The influence of Slav pagan carving was felt in Russian art for many centuries.
The Volga area, one of the most important regions for decorative wood carving, was the birthplace of the famous “boat” carving, which consisted of foliate ornament and relief figures and was originally used to decorate barques and other Volga vessels. Gradually ousting the more subdued geometrical ornament, it began to spread over the gates, porches, posts, eaves and window surrounds of Volga peasant houses in a dense tapestry. The intricate patterns of lush twining branches, leaves and flowers splayed over the carved boards making them look like embroidered towels. Here and there amid this blossoming foliage, like a fairy tale come true, were mythical Sirin birds, friendly lions with magnificent manes and beflowered tails, wondrous female figures with fish tails, herons with heads tossed back and bunches of grapes in their beaks.
The art of wood carving was also extremely popular in Novgorod the Great. The Novgorodians were often actually called “carpenters”, because they were famous in mediaeval Russia for their wooden churches, carved pillars, sledges and boats, and the huge oak pipes they used as guttering. At the end of the 10th century Novgorodian master carpenters erected the huge wooden Cathedral of St Sophia with thirteen “tops”.
The northern lands with their vast rich forests, which for a long time formed part of the Novgorodian republic, continued the traditions of Novgorod the Great. In North Russia the carpenters excelled most of all in the sphere of architecture. The North Russian churches, made of huge logs and crowned with tent roofs or clusters of domes, were remarkable for their clear lines, imposing, monumental forms and picturesque, extremely expressive composition. One might quote as an example the famous twenty-two-domed Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi, which is one of the world’s finest art treasures.
Wood carving in the Perm area is very interesting indeed. Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first People’s Commissar of Education in Soviet Russia, referred to it as something quite unique and quite remarkable. It seems to embody the full depth of human feelings, the long-cherished dreams of ordinary people for a better life, justice, and happiness.
The fine skill of the old master carvers, their ability to see and express in their material that which was basic, most important, to turn existing form into a fullbodied artistic image, showed itself most fully in everyday peasant objects. The carver always had a sure feel for his material and was aware of its plastic qualities. In carving an object he would take great care with the surface and always made sure that the ornament fitted in with the grain of the wood, the natural structure of the material.
When he carved articles in the shape of birds or boats, the craftsman did not simply copy natural forms. His prime concern was with the practical function of the article. The main value of these objects, however, does not lie in their usefulness, of course. It is that each object, whether it was a goblet, a bowl, a birdhouse or a bench, became a true work of art, a thing of beauty, in the hands of the carver.
Popular concepts of beauty pervaded the whole of mediaeval Russian art, including that of the boyars and princes which was also fashioned by craftsmen from the ordinary people. We must bear in mind, of course, that in feudal circles art acquired a more complex, “academic” character, and in periods of crisis even broke away from its popular roots. In the best works of art, however, both these layers were intertwined forming what Belinsky called “the courage of consciousness”.
In the eleventh century the Kievan state, after overcoming bitter strife between the princes and successfully repulsing the incursions of nomadic tribes from the steppes, entered a period of unprecedented political power. Its trade and culture flourished. It had diplomatic and cultural links with many states in Western Europe and the Orient. Russian merchants could be found in England, Germany, Poland, Moravia, Bohemia and the towns of the Arab caliphate. Foreign travellers who visited Kievan Russia spared no praise in their accounts of its towns, churches and wares.
The first stone buildings in Russia were erected in the tenth and eleventh centuries. As well as reflecting traditional building techniques, they also testified to new ideas-about society, man, and the world. The huge St Sophia cathedrals in Kiev and Novgorod, the St George cathedral in the Yuriev monastery and other early Russian churches all lavishly decorated with mosaics and frescoes, sumptuous cloths, gold and silver plate, and intricate chandeliers still impress one to’day by their majestic design, grandiose dimensions and masterly execution.
The early Russian church was regarded by its creators as a sort of image of the universe. This could be seen very clearly, for example, in the Cathedral of St Sophia in Kiev.
The architecture of the early Russian church is permeated with a single rhythm. Very simple forms develop upwards into increasingly complex ones and are topped with intricate clusters of domes, the whole composition being crowned by the towering central dome-everything is subjected to a strict, formal hierarchy. The interior followed the same principle: small elements and divisions are gradually increased in size, small vaults are topped by larger ones. Piers, columns, galleries and arches cluster together, forming new picturesque combinations, one after the other, when viewed from different angles. The architecture absorbs your attention totally, exerting a very strong emotional impact.
This effect is enhanced by the mosaics and frescoes covering the interior of the churches. With their exceptional rich colour, clear lines, and simple, majestic forms, they fit in well with the architectural constructions and can easily be seen at a distance.
Mediaeval Russian wall painting, like all the art of that period, was forced to adhere closely to strict rules which fitted in with the ideology and aesthetics of the mediaeval attitude towards life. In spite of these strict canons and conventions, however, one is often aware of the fabric of real life behind the religious subjects. The artists, who came from the ordinary people, reflected the features of their age, the spiritual life, hopes and sufferings of ordinary people. Echoes of social conflict frequently found their way into art.
Apart from their religious significance, mediaeval Russian churches played an important social role. They were used for receiving foreign envoys, for the solemn ceremony of crowning the princes, and for celebrating victories over the foe.
In Novgorod the town veche (council) used to meet by the Cathedral of St Sophia. The cathedral was so closely bound up with the life of the people that for many centuries it remained a symbol of the greatness and independence of the oldest Russian feudal republic. Novgorodian armies would march into battle with the cry of “To the death for Saint Sophia” on their lips. The very appearance of the cathedral seemed to reflect the character and spirit of the courageous inhabitants of Novgorod. Its architecture was extremely impressive. The massive, generalised forms, the masonry of large blocks of crudely hewn stone, the beautifully balanced proportions and the restrained ornament emphasised its epic might and austere beauty.
The St George Cathedral of the Yuriev monastery, built at the beginning of the twelfth century, is very reminiscent of St Sophia in its impressive size and bold, elongated proportions, but differs from the latter considerably in planning and general composition. The austere simplicity of the masses, the crystal clarity of the forms, the unity and compactness of the interior- these features give the cathedral an air of impregnable might, as if to confirm that it is named after St George the Warrior. At the same time the plastic quality of the walls, their powerful soaring motion, reflects the proud consciousness of the life-affirming principle which was taking hold of and elevating man.
Less than eighty years separate the St George Cathedral from another very famous Novgorodian church-the Church of Our Saviour in Nereditsa. Yet how different this small single-domed church is from the grandiose edifices of Novgorod the Great at the beginning of the twelfth century. The walls of Our Saviour in Nereditsa are disproportionately thick and slightly asymmetrical, the lines lack geometrical precision, the masonry is somewhat crude-everything bears the imprint of tastes belonging to the democratic sections of the population. The extreme laconism and the bold, austere simplicity of Our Saviour in Nereditsa were to become the main features of Novgorodian and Pskovian architecture as a whole in the following centuries.
Unlike Novgorod, the Vladimir-Suzdalian principality boasted very sumptuous, elegant buildings. The majestic edifices erected here in the second half of the twelfth century, during the period of feudal fragmentation, reflected the striving of the princes of Vladimir- Suzdal to unite the Russian lands. The mighty walls and earth ramparts of Vladimir, the stately Golden Gate, the spacious, paved squares, the white-stone palaces and churches, the golden domes, the lavish frescoes and carving, the sumptuous cloths and church plate were all designed to inspire respect for the prince of Vladimir and faith in his ability to unite Russia, which was disintegrating in dissent and bloodshed. Whereas formerly churches were connected with the life of a single town, the Cathedral of the Assumption in Vladimir was now ascribed the role of the main church in the whole country.
It overwhelmed contemporaries by its beauty and sumptuousness, combining refinement of architectural forms with extremely lavish ornament. The walls were embellished with stone carving, gilded bronze and frescoes. The spacious interior glittered with precious stones, gold and majolica tiling. The slender piers bore high arches above which the enormous dome shimmered in the light from the twelve windows. The powerful artistic impact of the Cathedral of the Assumption which, the chronicle tells us, was “fashioned with all the cunning” known to man, was produced not only by its refined lines, exquisitely precise details, and subtly balanced proportions, but also by its active role in the surrounding countryside, the apt choice of its location. Situated on high ground by the River Klyazma, the cathedral towers proudly over the whole town. Its golden dome can be seen for miles around, even from the distant undulating plains.
Russian architects have always shown a profound understanding of the harmonic link between architecture and landscape, an ability to adapt their buildings to the surrounding relief and countryside. In the cold north with its vast forest and pensive lakes, they built solid log frames and multi-domed churches similar in outline to mighty fir trees. In the rolling plains of Central Russia, the graceful white-stone churches with golden domes in copses of silver birches, on river bends or on high ground where they stood out clearly against the sky, could be seen from very far away and asserted the indissoluble unity of the vast Russian lands.
The Church of the Intercession on the River Nerl near Vladimir is one of the most poetic creations of mediaeval Russian architecture. It stands on a small hillock at the point where the Nerl joins the Klyazma. All around are meadows dotted with bright flowers. The dazzling white reflection of the church gleams in the quiet waters among the lilies. The building is inseparable from the landscape, a living part of it. The main architectural element-an arch on two slender columns-is used in various combinations and sizes. It is this that gives the building its remarkable unity. The elongated vertical lines of the divisions accentuate its slender grace. The result is an absolutely charming image, in which spiritual exaltation is subtly combined with an awareness of the joys of earthly life.
The period of intensive building in the second half of the twelfth century was crowned by the erection of the Cathedral of St Demetrius in Vladimir in 1194-97. With its horizontal band of arcading halfway up the walls and its three apses the cathedral does not differ in general design from the usual single-domed church of the Vladimir-Suzdalian type. Its outer walls are divided into three sections by slender pilaster strips with semi-columns. Above the semi-circular wall terminations (which follow the line of the barrel vaulting), rises a graceful drum with a golden helmetshaped dome. The cathedral’s most striking feature is its carved ornament which covers the upper sections of the walls from the band of arcading to the dome drum in a dense tapestry of white stone. As well as scenes from the Old Testament and the figures of Christian saints, the carving includes lions, birds, and deer, female masks and all manner of mythical creatures. Here we again encounter that strange world of images and feelings originating in Slav pagan mythology, which was reflected first in wood carving and later in stone ornament.
The sculptors of the St Demetrius reliefs, Vladimir craftsmen, managed in spite of religious bans to give graphic and poetic expression to their outlook on life, to their tastes as craftsmen with their roots in the ordinary people, and to their understanding of the world.
The Cathedral of St Demetrius was a fitting climax to the fine achievements of Vladimir architects in the twelfth century. They continued to produce architectural masterpieces in the early thirteenth century, but then the Mongol invasion of Russia occurred, which destroyed many towns including Vladimir, and retarded the development of the Russian state and Russian culture for many years to come ….
… Even in those harsh times of defeat and Mongol rule the Russian people never ceased to hope that they would eventually be freed, never lost faith in a better future. Although the invaders trampled down the flowering culture of mediaeval Russia, they did not manage to put an end to its development once and for all.
It was in Novgorod the Great, which the invaders did not reach, that the monuments and artistic traditions of early mediaeval Russian culture were most fully preserved. After a certain lull in architectural activity, one of the finest Novgorodian churches were erected in 1292-the Church of St Nicholas in Lipno, and in the fourteenth century-the churches of St Theodore Stratilates, Our Saviour in Kovalyovo, the Assumption in Volotovo and Our Saviour in Ilyina Street. These churches, which combined earlier compositional and technical devices, structural simplicity and gentle plasticity with the new tendencies of the sloping roof and pronounced ornament, became classic examples for Novgorodian architecture as a whole in the following centuries.
By the beginning of the fourteenth century many old Russian towns had begun to flourish again and some important new centres had emerged, the most important of which were Moscow and Tver.
The literature and folklore of this period is devoted entirely to the events of the Mongol invasion. While describing with great grief the defeat of the Russian hosts, the destruction of whole towns and the taking of Russian people into captivity, the stories and tales in the chronicles speak proudly of the fortitude and bravery of Russian warriors who preferred death in battle to shameful captivity, recall their country’s noble past and urge everyone to join forces and beat the enemy.
In the painting, carving and embroidery of this period one can detect an intense interest in man’s inner world, his feelings and emotions. The treatment of Old Testament subjects shows clearly a desire to record the contemporary events of such passionate concern to the people. The images of saints emphasise their individual, human features. Thus, representations of St Parasceva, who is usually known as the patron saint of women and household activities, now reflect considerable spiritual tension, suffering, will and determination-the traits of the ordinary Russian woman during the period of Mongol rule, unbroken and bearing within her the seeds of her people’s liberation. The heroic theme is expressed by the Archangel Michael, most highly revered by the people, that fiery angel with sword in hand, who inspires the people to victory in battle like a military banner, and by St George the Dragon Killer, the Protector of the Russian lands, that brave warrior in shining armour on a white steed.
The painter enclosed in his cloister Was gripped by strange visions, it seems.
Like wine with its riotous moisture,
Old legends had entered his dreams.
Before him arose like a spectre That rider, so brave yet so pale,
Fast galloping, soon to be victor,
An arrowhead trapped in his mail.
The monk seized his brush in elation,
That moment forever to stay,
As if he himself led the Russian Warriors into the fray ….
He drew-not for penance or prayer,
For haloes or wings silver-quilled.
Through paint put on layer by layer His hero with passion he filled.
In grace all archangels exceeding,
There, broad-winged, he flies to this day,
His radiant armour receiving
His life-sun’s triumphant last ray….
It was during this period that Theophanes the Greek came to Novgorod, the Byzantine painter whose art revealed itself to the full in Russia. The new age made itself felt strongly in the painting of Theophanes. His work bears the stamp of strong passions, of lively and effective thought. The prophets and church fathers in his frescoes are not shown in idyllic, passive meditation or ascetic tranquillity. We see them in a halo of suffering and struggle. This tragic note not only encouraged deep, sometimes tormented reflections and emotions. It also urged people to action in the name of truth and harmony. In this lies the essence of Theophanes’ humanism. The artist again and again affirms the proud, strong person. He paints with a sweeping, vital lack of restraint, in powerful, sure strokes which accentuate the natural freedom of the gestures. He paints almost entirely in one colour, which is both thick and transparent, which explodes into bright highlights on the dark, stern faces, and shines in the white flecks of the eyes, intensifying the inner movement, the volatility, the frenzied, frantic expressionism of these titanic figures.
In 1380 the Russian armies won a decisive victory over the Mongols at the Battle of Kulikovo Field. Having vanquished the foreign invaders and expelled them from its borders, Russia gradually rose from the ashes. The fifteenth century, which began with the struggle for liberation and the unification of the whole country, was one of the rebirth of Russia, of the unprecedented social growth and creative flowering of a people, which had realised its national greatness and was sure of the future, of that tireless builder who constantly affirms the eternal truth, a truth as simple and wise as nature itself: “Deeds! These are the most important things in human life”.
Thanks to the work of skilled Russian craftsmen a new town arose on the seven hills by the Moskva
River, a town of white stone with gold domes, a town surrounded by mighty walls-the capital of the great new power. Attracted by the unprecedented amount of building, the best architects and painters flocked here from Pskov, Novgorod, Tver and Vladimir. Theophanes the Greek also came to Moscow, where he was to continue his painting, fraught with stark and tensely tragic humanism. But soon new ideas and emotions, different attitude towards life took the place of the tragic theme begun by the passionate brush of Theophanes ….
Andrei Rublev, Theophanes’ younger contemporary, turned a warm heart to the essence of human life extolling human beauty, dignity and noble impulses. His painting shows a perfect technique, a remarkable grasp of compositional devices, richness and complexity of colour, and depth and subtlety of spiritual content.
His finest work, the clear, harmonic, musical Old Testament Trinity, seems to be woven entirely of light, bright dreams and joy. The firm, circular composition and the gentle plasticity of the figures evoke a sense of peace, tranquillity, silence and harmony. Yet the steady and at the same time throbbing rhythm of the lines seems to suggest the perpetual motion, the changeability of life. The three figures in the icon, splendid in their spiritual perfection, have that special charm of the freshness of youth. They are engrossed in revery, but their feelings are active and inspired. The rich colour helps to reveal the profound content. The character of each figure is indicated by a certain colour, the harmony of colour entrances the eye, the pure radiant tones resound in all their might, like a splendid chorale of joy and happiness. Everything in the icon expresses a single thought, everything is subjected to a single idea: There is nothing finer than man, there is nothing nobler than serving man.
Another titan of Russian art, Dionysius, continued to a large extent the fine traditions of Andrei Rublev. He was, however, very remote from both earthly life with its passions and emotions and from the penetrating humanism of Rublev’s images. At the basis of his work lies a more complex imagery, nourished by ancient Slavonic ideals.
One of the finest specimens of mediaeval Russian art are the frescoes in the Therapont monastery, executed by Dionysius and his sons Vladimir and Theodosius. They seem to be bathed in light. The action moves smoothly from one surface to the next. The gentle, slow actions and calm, affectionate glances stress the pacific nature of the images. The many genre scenes, processions and adorations are linked by a unity of colour and composition. The figures of the Righteous and saints, disproportionately elongated, refined and weightless, are treated with so little use of perspective that they seem to be hovering in space. This creates an impression of their special spirituality, their remoteness from all things earthly and material; the object portrayed acquires the significance of extratemporal events.
The palette of the Therapont frescoes is remarkably rich. The chords of sparkling soft light blues and warm, gleaming goldish ochres enchance even more the pomp, the festive elation of that which is taking place. The sky blue of the background seems to push back the walls of the church, extending the interior and making it boundless. Everything here is elevated and noble, radiating peace and confidence, expressing harmony, wisdom, spiritual and physical perfection, goodness. And, most important, that all-absorbing passion, the crown of all-love of life, nature, wonder at the beauty and harmony of creation.
While remaining within the limits of the mediaeval attitude towards life, which was constricted by religion, mediaeval Russian art nevertheless reflected real observations and events, expressing the ideals of the age with great force. The most important task facing the country at that time was to unite all the Russian lands into a single centralised state, and this could not help but be reflected in mediaeval Russian architecture and monumental art. The impressive buildings of the new Moscow Kremlin, in particular, corresponded to Russia’s growing prestige abroad and to the great idea of creating a powerful centralised state.
Its remarkable originality and artistic qualities make the Moscow Kremlin an outstanding architectural ensemble. It unites into a single organic whole the buildings of many different styles and periods: the austere and majestic Cathedral of the Assumption, modelled on the Vladimir churches and Novgorod’s St Sophia and confirming the artistic continuity between the Moscow architects and the great cultural heritage of Kievan Russia; the multi-domed Cathedral of the Annunciation built by Pskovian masters; the graceful and elegant Cathedral of the Archangel dressed in the attire of a Renaissance palazzo with elements of the Classical Order, but preserving the general type of five-domed church; and the sumptuous Kremlin Palace with its mass of belvederes and chambers.
The whole ensemble is closely bound up with its location. The Kremlin walls with their powerful fortifications and towers gently skirt the high hill by the Moskva and Neglinnaya rivers. Above the walls in breathtakingly beautiful combinations rise majestic buildings of white stone, crowned with bright yellow, gold and silver cupolas, brightly-coloured onion domes and steep, sloping roofs. And towering over everything, like a giant warrior in a gold helmet, is the Ivan the Great bell-tower.
The patriotic popular movement, the unprecedented social development, which led to a great ferment of ideas and even to criticism of religion and feudal customs, were reflected in the search for new, unusual architectural forms. On Red Square by the Kremlin walls rose a weird, fabulously beautiful edifice -the Church of the Intercession, better known as the Cathedral of St Basil the Blessed. Built to commemorate a most important event for Russia-the defeat of the Mongol Khanate of Kazan, which was constantly menacing the Russian borders-the Cathedral of the Intercession expressed in its architecture the greatness of the victory and the Russian people’s realisation of their strength. The architecture is far removed from mysticism and religious austerity. The cramped and divided interior is void of any subject painting and not very convenient for religious services. Its intricate composition, reminiscent of an exotic plant, the bright clusters of faceted steeples and carved domes, the soaring spray of lines, forms and colour, the cathedral’s whole triumphant and festive appearance resounds like a proud affirmation of man’s boundless strength, like a hymn to the joys of this earthly life.
Another famous specimen of sixteenth-century Moscow architecture, the Church of the Ascension at Kolomenskoye, is also a vivid manifestation of this life-affirming element. Erected on the high bank of the River Moskva, it dominates the surrounding broad expanse of open countryside. Its powerful walls are crenellated. The massive, open galleries spread rootlike in their efforts to hold down the soaring stone steeple.
It soars aloft, art’s solemn consummation,
A living music lending wings to stone.
Whether divine or not in dedication,
This edifice was built by Man alone.
Its form conveys no hypocritic meekness.
The unknown author, arrogant and bold,
Became Creator, free of fear and weakness;
In every stone you feel him, lofty-souled.
And so you stand upon the stone-wrought threshold
And pride for fellow-people fills your heart: Gods come and go, renewed, replaced or freshened,
While Man survives forever in his art.
The sixteenth-century passion for bold dynamic dimensions, the interplay of architectural forms, and rich ornament became even more pronounced in the following century. The Yaroslavl churches with their bold composition and lavish tiled ornament, the huge magnificent architectural ensemble of Rostov Veliki, and the whimsical seventeenth-century buildings in the Moscow Kremlin all reflect this striving for extreme variety of form and more intricate decoration. It is expressed in overall artistic treatment, in heightened attention to the plasticity of small elements, in a new realistic attitude towards the interior and in the use of perspective, and polychrome and glazed tiles.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, however, almost as if they were tired of this lavish splendour, Russian craftsmen began to search for new artistic and technical devices which resulted in more regularity and compactness, more order and classical severity. This set the keynote for the first masterpieces of Russian architecture of the New Age at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
The wooden churches crowned with spires or clusters of domes, the mighty fortress walls of massive logs, and the fascinating wooden mansions erected by mediaeval Russian mPatriarchs of the Russian lands
The first stone buildings in Russia were built in the famous old towns of Kiev, Chernigov and Novgorod. It was here too that the first monumental mosaics and frescoes appeared, to take the place of traditional Slav ornament. The unifying role of monumental art was just as important as that of the heroic epic: without both of them Kievan Russia would have been quite different. After mastering the Classical tradition through Byzantine, Russian art by the ll th-12th centuries acquired a character of its own—a unique and splendid one. The stone churches belonging to this period were lavishly decorated with mosaics and frescoes and still impress one by their grandiose scale and design.
Masters are distinguished by their monumental forms, clear lines and graceful silhouette. Their carved ornament shows a remarkable richness of imagination and refinement of taste. In the hands of the craftsman any object, be it a bench or a distaff, a ladle or a bowl, became a work of art, a thing of beauty. The traditional art of wood carving, carefully passed down from one generation to the next, had a considerable influence on the whole of Russian art.
For the purpose of preserving and studying the treasures of art and antiquity in Russia and giving the broad masses of the population every possible access to them the Council ofPeople’s Commissars hereby resolves: … To make an inventory of monuments, collections of objects of art and antiquity and also individual objects of great scientific, historical and artistic significance in the possession of societies, institutions and private persons.
Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars V. ULYANOV (LENIN)