the late 12th and early 13th centuries Russia was racked by
internal divisions. Petty local princes fought for political
supremacy and destroyed the economic strength and unity of the
nation. Outside forces were eager to exploit these divisions
and in 1237 the worst possible calumnity befell Russia when
the Mongol Khan and his Muslim army fell on Russia like ravenous
wolves. It was a very unlucky time for the Russia. On December
6, 1240 the great city of Kiev fell to the Muslim Mongols. After
a ferocious siege of the city the defences suddenly were breached.
Thousands of Muslim soldiers poured into the Kiev hungry for
loot, rape and destruction. Ignoring the sanctity of shrines
of Kiev, the churches and cathedrals of the city were set aflame
by the Mongols with full knowledge that the people of the city
- innocent men, women and children - were huddled within, praying
for deliverance. Meanwhile, tens of thousands perished in their
homes and the streets of the city, cut down indiscriminately
by the Mongols. It was the blackest moment in the history of
For sixty years the Mongols
continuously pillaged the country at leisure. After they had
carried off everything of value they could get their hands
on, the Mongols of the Golden Horde settled down in their
domination of Russia. They began a program of extortion, exacting
ruinous yearly tribute from the population. During the period
of Mongol occupation all of the arts, including ikon painting
suffered. The Mongols bled the country dry, but they were
prepared to leave the population alone as long as their heavy
taxes were collected and delivered to them by their Russian
vassals. Lucky for Russia the Mongol forces were unable to
subjugate the entire country. In the north the famous merchant
city of Novgorod the Great maintained its independence in
the face of the Mongol hordes from the east and the Teutonic
Knights pressing from the Baltic. In Novgorod and in the nearby
city of Pskov, Russian culture went on in uncertain and perilous
times. In both cities local schools with unique characteristics
in ikon painting emerged. Very little of the artistic output
of this period has survived, but remaining examples tell us
the deep well of classicism, which had flowed from Byzantium
into Russia had been cut off by the Mongol conquest. Novgorod
and Pskov ikons of this period are often harsh and austere.
Bright red backgrounds become commonplace, outlines become
simpler, and the modeling of figures is noticeably flat and
abstract. The overall effect of ikons of this period is direct
This period also saw the rise of the Muscovite
state where a new center of ikon painting emerged. The new
Moscow style of ikon painting was heavily influenced by foreign
Greek and Serbian artists who were imported by the relatively
wealthy Moscow Princes to paint the new churches of their
city. In 1378 Theophanes, a Greek artist, painted the church
of the Transfiguration in Moscow. His work in Russia was greeted
with astonishment by local artists. Theophanes worked very
fast and his style was extremely expressive and mystical.
He could draw a large figure in fresco on a wall with guide
books or drafts, a bravura performance which dumfounded the
Russia artists, who had been trained to careful copy from
pattern books. Local artists tried to imitate his style, but
their work shows how difficult it was to master his free and
During the period from 1350 through the fall
of Constantinople in 1453 contacts between Byzantium and Russia
again became frequent. Churchmen, merchants and artists from
Russia were able to see, first-hand, the splendors and ancient
Christian art of the city. Many ikons of in the distinctive
Paleologian style were imported to Russia. These had a tremendous
influence on taste and painting styles.
The Royal Doors at upper left date from around
1425 and show how deeply the Paleologian style permeated Russian
art of the time. "Royal Doors" lead from the center
of the church through a screen of ikons into the altar area.
They are a primary focus of the liturgy in Orthodox churches.
At the top of the doors is the familiar scene of the Annunciation
shown in two parts. Below are ikons of the four Evangelists.
All the figures show the small head, tiny feet, hands, swelling
bodies and fantastic architecture that are the signature of
the Paleologian style. However much they follow Byzantine
models, the Royal Doors are completely Russian in feeling,
color and rhythm. The Russian palate was different from the
Byzantine. In Russia some pigments - such as bright blues
- were difficult to locate and very expensive. They were reserved
for paintings of Christ of the Theotokos. Use of local materials
leans the Russian palate of the time toward bright cinnabars,
golden ochres and dark greens. There is also a noticeable
tendency toward wide expanses of pure color without dark underpainting.
The third ikon at left shows Christ in Glory
and dates from around 1410 and is the work of the great Andrei
Rublev, a monastic painter who has been recognized as a saint
by the Russian church. The ikon shows Christ enthroned on
a heavenly throne. In the blue halo around Him fly angelic
cherubim. In the red corners are symbols of the four Evangelists.
The small ikon is of extraordinary quality and deeply spiritual.
The technique and drawing are superb. Many of Rublev's ikons
have been damaged by repainting and excessive restoration.
This is one of the few examples which retains its surface
and hence shows us the original appearance of Rublev's masterful
The next ikon at left is called the "Trinity" and
it originally adorned the ikonstasis of the church in the
holy St. Sergius Monastery near Moscow where the body of the
St. Sergius lay in a silver coffin. The ikon has been heavily
damaged by the attachment of a heavy silver cover, repainting
and overzealous restoration in the Soviet Era. The paint surfaces
are heavily abraded and it is difficult to appreciate the
original state of the ikon today. masterful drawing, intense
spiritualism and love of the classical beauty of old Byzantium
still shines through. It was painted in 1411 and shows the
three angels who visited Abraham at Mamre and are symbols
of the Holy Trinity. In the center is the angel representing
Christ. This is evident from the purple and blue garments.
To the right is the angel who represents the Holy Spirit.
Both angels bow before the third, who represents God the Father
and the senior member of the Trinity. The ikon at bottom is
a much reduced copy of the Trinity dating from the late 1400's.
The technique does not compare to Rublev, but the colors give
some hint of the intensity of the hues in the Trinity when
it was first painted.