Off the Beaten Trail: Byzantine Civilization of Veliky Novgorod

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Tier from the Cathedral of St. Sophia. 1041?, Novgorod State Museum.

My glimpse of global Hellenism and Orthodoxy was a visit to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod, in the fall of 2015. “Are you sure you want to go to Novgorod,” said Galina of EXPRESSRUSSIA.COM Tours. “It is an eight hour round trip from St. Petersburg.” I wanted to see where Christianity began in Russia, since it’s impossible to see Kiev, in war time Ukraine. This exceptional Russian tourist organization arranged this trip with a brilliant guide, Olga. She arranged a unique tour of Byzantine sights with Novgorod guide Dmitri.

During my stay in Russia, I learned to translate Russian words with google translator. I was able to see and write about Byzantine civilization that can only be acquired by going in person to Russia. As a product of the St. Demetrios of Astoria Greek-American parochial system, I was able to understand this intense love for Russia written in the Greek textbooks. We viewed the Monastery of St. George and Vitoslavlitsy Old Russian village museum, which I will write about in future articles.

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The Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior

The Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior, built in 1374, has Theophanes the Greek’s frescoes painted in 1378. It is a museum, allowing us to take photographs. “Cultural relations between Moscow and the Byzantine Empire were incredibly intense. Beginning from the 1380s the Greeks went to Muscovy for alms and returned with relics and works of art. The Russians also often went to Constantinople for pilgrimage and returned from there with artistic values… In the early 1390s a brilliant Byzantine painter named Theophanes the Greek arrived in Moscow… He brought with him a unique, unheard-of in Rus’ painting technique. His expressive style is characterized by freedom and simplicity, incredible mobility and sometimes by sketchiness. The artist, who was perfect in “school-level” painting, refused from classical harmony and serenity in favor of maximum expressiveness of composition, figure poses and gestures.”1

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Fresco by Theofanes the Greek.
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All Seeing Christ Pantocrator by Theophanes the Greek.

“Frescoes in the Transfiguration Church have remained partially only. Most of them have been lost but what remains is the only monumental works by Theophanes the Greek survived in the world. However, even small pieces of frescoes make it possible to appraise both an overall design of the ensemble and the unique brushwork of Theophanes that Epiphanius called «unknown and unusual painting technique.”2

            St. Nicholas Cathedral is the oldest cathedral on the Yaroslav’s Courtyard, on the Trade side and among all cathedrals in Russia consecrated to St. Nicholas. It was built in 1113 – 1136 and consecrated in honor of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Worker, who was highly revered in Rus. In 1992 the cathedral was listed as UNESCO World Heritage. St. Nicholas Cathedral is located in the territory of the former prince yard. Being of about the same age as Veliky Novgorod, the cathedral has been located in its heart, on the Yaroslav’s Courtyard, for nine centuries.3 The Novgorod Veche (citizens’ assembly) held its meetings by St. Nicholas walls. Merchant units built stone churches. 

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St. Nicholas Cathedral
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St. Parasceva Church.

            St. Parasceva Church was built in 1207 with the money of foreign merchants and consecrated in the name of St. Parasceva the Friday, because she was believed to be the patron saint of trade. The upper part of the church was rebuilt several times; however, the church has preserved some remarkable features of facade decoration which were untypical of Novgorodian architecture. Originally, the facades had trefoil arches, which became traditional for Novgorodian churches in the 14th – 15th centuries.4 I am impressed with “Old Russia’s” remembrance of early Christian saints.

Veliky Novgorod was the cradle of the early Russian nation. The Rurik dynasty ruled from almost 700 years till 1596 A.D. They established an important trade route, “from the Varangians to the Greeks”, through war with Constantinople. They expanded Christianity, preserving the Orthodox Faith.5 The historic monuments of Novgorod and surroundings is a World Heritage site. I had one focus: see iconography, the crowning achievement of Byzantine civilization. This was a once in a lifetime journey.

The Cathedral of St. Sophia, that stands out across Novgorod’s kremlin wall has byzantine domes that look like helmets. This is only in Novgorod churches. “St. Sophia became a model of ecclesiastical architecture, but was never surpassed anywhere in Russia…Novgorod’s Sophia, built by byzantine craftsmen with the help of masons from both Kiev and Novgorod, is grander and more imposing… (than the church of the same name in Kiev)”6 The drum of the central dome has 12th century frescos of the Prophet Solomon and Daniel dressed in byzantine clothes.

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Cathedral of St. Sophia

I visited two St. Sophia’s: St. Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople to the Greeks) and St. Sophia in Novgorod. The latter St. Sophia kept its Orthodox character. The icon of the Mother of God “Of the Sign”, made in 1170 was venerated by many worshippers the day we were there. We saw 4 to five oversize Pullman of tourists. Our guide, Olga, said “you are not the only persons interested in Novgorod.”

We were not allowed to take photographs of iconography at St. Sophia, named after Agia Sophia Cathedral on Constantinople. We took photographs of the icons and art work in the Novgorod State Museum. The art work present included: the multi- tiered iconostasis from the 14th-17th century; 15th century icon of “Sophia, Wisdom of God” icon; and the Cathedral central dome of the Prophets Solomon and Daniel, 12th century and other masterpieces.

The only surviving 11th century fresco in Russia is the depiction of Constantine, the emperor who established Christianity in the 4th century and his mother, St. Helen. A fresco just inside the south entrance depicts Sts. Constantine and Helena, who found the true cross in the fourth century; it is one of the oldest works of art in the cathedral and is thought to commemorate its dedication. I was spiritually moved to see an 11th century fresco of the saints from my grandmother’s beloved monastery of St. Constantine and Helen in Chios, Greece.

The oldest icon in the cathedral is probably the Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, which according to legend miraculously saved Novgorod in 1169 when the Suzdalians attacked the city; it was brought out of the Church of the Transfiguration on Il’ina Street and displayed in the cathedral and on the walls of the city by Archbishop Ilya. My recollections of St. Demetrios of Astoria parochial school history lessons, of icons saving the Byzantine Empire, came alive seeing “The Lady of the Sign”.

“Early Novgorod art up to the middle 14th century…show the influence of Byzantine art. In those days many icon were brought from Byzantium to Novgorod and numerous Greek painters lived and worked there.7 Novgorod painting, frescoes in particular, had much in common with the Byzantine art of the Paleologos (last rulers of the Byzantine Empire) reign…In the last quarter of the 14th century, the Paleologos style spread around Novgorod, reinterpreted and became an integral part of Russian art.8

The Novgorod State Museum had a wealth of early iconography. On our way to the Museum, we saw a bride taking photos and putting a lock for everlasting love at the Novgorod Bridge. This is an international custom, we saw in Moscow.

The oldest specimen of the Russian easel-painting is the icon “SS Peter and Paul”. It dates from the 11th century. It was part of the altar screen of St. Sophia cathedral. The unknown artist tried to imitate the classical traditions of Byzantine art. It is one of the few surviving samples of Old Russian religious painting which developed in the wake of the refined art of Constantinople. St. Nicholas, 13-14th c.? 16th c. is one of the icons displayed in the collection.

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Christ Pantocrator- late 14th century.

The “Mother of God Hodegetria, 15th century and “Holy Trinity” icons were donated by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III in 1987. There is a moving human interest story behind this donation. “Mrs. Rockefeller purchased the rare 15th-century icons at a London gallery almost 20 years ago. But it was not until she recently visited the Museum of History and Architecture in the city of Novgorod in the Soviet Union that she discovered her treasures were originally part of an altar screen set of 25 icons called the St. Sophia tablets that had been in Novgorod’s Cathedral of St. Sophia for centuries… she met in Moscow with the Soviet Minister of Culture to say that she wished to return the icons to the Russian people.

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“Mother of God Hodegetria, 15th century and “Holy Trinity” icons were donated by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III in 1987.

Soviet officials said it was impossible to place a value on the art treasures that will be returned to Novgorod. ”For us, they are priceless,” said Aleksandr P. Potemkin, counselor for cultural affairs. ”They complete the set.” One Soviet diplomat observed that the evening ”would play well” in the Soviet Union. ”The Soviet people in general harbor a lot of good will toward Americans,” he noted, ”but to have this come from a Rockefeller, a name extremely well known in the Soviet Union, is sort of symbolic. It will be seen as refreshing when word of this gift gets out.”

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St. Nicholas, 13th-14th c.?
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Oldest Russian easel-painting is the icon “SS Peter and Paul”.

”We are not here to talk about whether Secretary General Gorbachev will speak to the Congress or whether President Reagan will speak to the Soviet people; nor are we here to work out an I.N.F. treaty,” he told the assembled guests. ”We are here to talk about something very basic and fundamental, the history and culture and basic sense of justice that joins people.”

As Ambassador Dubinin held up the two icons, ”The Old Testament Trinity” and ”The Virgin and Child,” he observed: ”Perhaps there is another kind of symbol in this. These icons are two sides of a single tablet, and they are better when they are joined. They were made to be together, and our two countries will also be better when they are closer to each other.”9 This was 1987 America under the presidency of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

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The apostles to the Slavs, SS. Cyril and Methodius with Olga, grand princess of Kiev, Vladimir grand prince of Kiev, Saint Abraham of Rostov, Momenium monument.

            We viewed The Monument to the Millennium of Russia, built in 1862 to commemorate 1,000 years of Russian history. I was impressed with the large Byzantine crosses and the adoption of Christianity by Prince/Saint Vladimir 988 A.D. on top of the monument. The base of the monument has a frieze with  the apostles to the Slavs, SS. Cyril and Methodius, the Russian history chronicler Nestor, an 11th century Greek monk, Russian translator Maksim the Greek, a 16th century monk.

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Russian history chronicler Nestor, an 11th century Greek monk, Momenium monument.

            “Behold Theophane’s God whose eyes make clear that beauty, modest and austere, defines this city’s heart and soul. Then hear the choir in Novgorod: dome and tower resound with St. Sophia’s power to keep old Russia young and whole,” by Piotr Zolin. “Novgorod is justifiably famous for its remarkable historical interest. People quite rightly refer to it as a museum town. No other Old Russian town has managed to hold on to such a wealth of architecture and so many works of both fine and applied art. Its incomparable past has secured a special place for Novgorod in the history of the country as a whole. Long may they endure, the resolute images of Novgorod’s icons and the austere dignity of its churches: they are potent emblems of the distinctive beauty that has been and always can be, created on our land by our people.”

            “Soviet authorities executed some 200,000 clergy and believers from 1917 to 1937, according to a 1995 presidential committee report. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages or museums of atheism…Some 70 percent of Russians define themselves as Orthodox Christians in opinion polls, and opposition figures in the past have called on the church to play a mediating role between the Kremlin and protesters.”11 I listen to the sorrow of Greek-American cultural programs of the “1453 Fall of Constantinople and Greek enslavement for over 400 hundred years.” A quote by Rene Grousset gives one a positive outlook. “It was the Byzantine empire, which was to realize Alexander’s idea –  Macedonian Pan Hellenism -in face of an Asia in revolt, and realize it for the Greeks.”8

            “Soviet authorities executed some 200,000 clergy and believers from 1917 to 1937, according to a 1995 presidential committee report. Thousands of churches were destroyed, and those that survived were turned into warehouses, garages or museums of atheism…Some 70 percent of Russians define themselves as Orthodox Christians in opinion polls, and opposition figures in the past have called on the church to play a mediating role between the Kremlin and protesters.”11 I listen to the sorrow of Greek-American cultural programs of the “1453 Fall of Constantinople and Greek enslavement of over 400 hundred years.” A quote by Rene Grousset gives one a positive outlook. “It was the Byzantine Empire, which was to realize Alexander’s idea –  Macedonian Pan Hellenism -in face of an Asia in revolt, and realize it for the Greeks.”12

References:

  1. aceb.pro/en/byzantine-routes/russia-the-heritage-of-theophanes-the-greek
  2. http://www.qgazette.com/news/2015-10-14/Features/What_Was_Theophanes_of_Constantinoples_Contributio.html
  3. http://visitnovgorod.com/sights/st_nicholas_cathedral.html
  4. http://visitnovgorod.com/sights/church_st_parasceva_friday_marketplace.html
  5. Grinev, “Novgorod the Great” (Ivan Fiodorov Art Publishers: St. Petersburg 2004), introduction.
  6. Grinev, p. 15.
  7. Editorial Boardof the Russian Orthodox Church, “Russian Icon” (P-2 Art Publishers: St. Petersburg, 2011) p. 3.
  8. “Russian Icon”, p.4.
  9. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/21/us/rockefeller-gift-stirs-warm-soviet-response.html
  10. Grinev, p. 126.
  11. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/28/whos-godless-now-russia-says-its-us/?page=all
  12. René Grousset, A. Patterson, “The Sum of History”, p. 159

 

Related links:

The greekamerican experience wordpress.com

http://www.novgorod.ru/english/read/information/common/

http://quotes.yourdictionary.com/byzantine#PLlJeAGHxsJ36sJj.99

http://www.novgorod.ru/english/read/information/icons-sorted

http://www.novgorod.ru/english/read/information/icons-sorted/XII-century/

http://www.qgazette.com/news/2015-10-14/Features/What_Was_Theophanes_of_Constantinoples_Contributio.html

Picasa albums:

https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/TheophanesOfNovgorod

https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/CathedralOfStSophiaNovgorod

https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/TheMonumentToTheMillenniumOfRussia

https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/NovgorodStateMuseum

https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/StNicholasMonasteryNovgorod

https://picasaweb.google.com/105743188183721570894/StParaskeviNovgorod

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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