Well-kept medieval Russia
Novgorod, a medieval city-state in what is now Russia, was in many ways ahead of its time. Bisected by a river that was part of the trade route to Constantinople, and accessible to Western Europe through present-day St. Petersburg, it served as a link between East and West.
The population was wealthy, multicultural and highly literate. The citizens of Novgorod communicated in letters, scrawled on birch bark, that were dashed off with the immediacy of e-mail.
Remarkably, nearly 1,000 of these documents, which were not written for posterity, have been uncovered by archeologists.
In “Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod,” an exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, the letters provide a fascinating window into the everyday lives of Novgorod residents.
One such document, which dates from 1125-50, contains a heartfelt plea from one monk to another.
It reads: “Greetings from Ephrem to my brother Hesychius! You are angry for no reason. Father Superior would not let me come. I begged him, but he sent me with Asaph to the mayor for mead.... Why, then, are you angry? I am always with you. It hurts me that you spoke ill to me.”
The artistic highlights of the exhibition are icons, depictions of saints or religious subjects painted with tempera on wood. By coupling the Christian art with artifacts from the city, the show evokes the way Novgorod’s people interacted with such images.
“The exhibition really tries to bring together that sense of the sacred material that Novgorod produces as a way of connecting its citizens to the other world, and the bric-a-brac of daily life -- the picture that the archeological material provides of what life was really like for these people,” said C. Griffith Mann, associate curator of medieval art at the Walters.
By providing more context than visitors can typically expect from an exhibit of medieval art, the show reasserts the relevance of the icons. For modern viewers, “it’s a little bit easier to respond to a letter than it is to respond to an icon,” Mann said.
Novgorod has been excavated extensively, thanks in part to its former citizens, who laid down wooden roads. The streets created distinct layers, and the wood allowed for artifacts to be dated with unprecedented accuracy.
The city has also proved a treasure trove for archeologists because the soil is both moist and low in acid content.
“When you have that combination of moisture and not that much acidity, things that are organic that would normally desiccate and dissolve and be decomposed are preserved,” Mann said.
As a result, it is known that Novgorod residents wore stylish leather shoes and used sophisticated personal grooming tools fashioned out of wood. Their children played with toy horses and leather balls. And the homes of wealthy residents had wooden columns with elaborate, knotted carvings meant to ward off evil. A fragment of one such pillar, from a home built around 1050, is on display.
The show demystifies the process of painting an icon with a display of items from an artist’s workshop -- including panels that he carved but had not painted, materials he used to create the colors for his pigments and the amber that he would have mixed with imported olive oil to create a glaze over the finished icon. Such artifacts have not been found anywhere but Novgorod.
“What’s even more unusual is that we know his name,” Mann said. “His name was Alexei Grechin, or Alexis the Greek. And we know this because birch bark letters of commission have survived.”
A letter written by a priest who had hired Grechin concludes somewhat cavalierly, “I send you my best regards. And as for payment, God will be the guarantor, or we will make the arrangement later.”
Many of the first icon painters to set up shop in Novgorod were Greek. They brought the tradition with them from the Byzantine Empire after Novgorod’s conversion to Christianity in 989. The city eventually became known for its distinct style of icon painting.
The images are bold and graphic, with red as the predominant color. The exhibition pairs a Novgorod icon of Christ breaking open the gates of hell to free Adam and Eve and other Old Testament figures with a similar Byzantine icon. While the Byzantine painting strives toward naturalism, the one from Novgorod is highly stylized, with clear, geometric forms and simplified faces.
The red “has connotations of triumph and, at the same time, is a reminder of death,” Mann said. “It’s one way of alluding to the vibrancy of life at the same time that it’s a reminder of the passion of the martyrs who are being depicted.”
One of the most striking icons is a depiction of St. George, a Roman soldier who was executed for being a Christian.
Surrounding a triumphant, ethereal image of George and his horse are scenes from his life -- most of them detailing his violent end. With a beatific expression on his face, St. George endures all manner of torture, with blood streaming from his muscled torso. In the final panel, he’s about to have his head chopped off.
Despite their cultured milieu, violence was a constant threat to the citizens of Novgorod. Another painting depicts how the use of an icon known as the Virgin of the Sign, which functioned as a civic symbol in Novgorod, was believed to have turned the tide in a battle against soldiers from the neighboring city of Suzdal in the 12th century.
The stark simplicity of the icons is what put Novgorod on the art-historical map, and the painters’ innovations continued to resonate centuries later.
“A lot of early modern artists like Matisse have a great admiration for the bold, simple, flat designs of these icons,” Mann said.
The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is the only stop in the U.S. for “Sacred Arts and City Life,” which runs through Feb. 12.