Progression of Art
The Man of Matthew
The Khitrovo Gospel is a Russian gospel book of eight full-page miniatures from the late 14th or early 15th century. The miniatures feature four Evangelistic portraits and four pictures of their symbols: the angel, the bull, the lion and the eagle. Though some historians are willing to attribute all the miniatures to him, the angel, the symbol for the evangelist Matthew, is the only one about which there is general consensus that it is a Rublev. A young winged boy is placed within a circle. The figure's elegant line and contours, its soft coloring of azure blue and fresh green, and the boy's expressive facial features, lend the image a lightness and gayety that was typical of Rublev's style.
The Khitrovo Gospel is based on East Slavic manuscripts of the 1390s. It takes its name from Bogdan Khitrovo, a boyar who obtained the original Slavic manuscripts from Tsar Fyodor III. Khitrovo subsequently bequeathed the manuscripts to the Trinity Monastery where Rublev was a monk. Following the nationalisation of monastic libraries in the early 20th century, the Khitrovo Gospel was incorporated in the holdings of the Russian State Library in Moscow.
Russian State Library, Moscow
The Virgin of Vladimir
This piece, attributed to Rublev, is a copy or the "original" or "first" Virgin of Vladimir which now lives in the Tretyakov Gallery. The original was gifted to the Great Prince of Kiev in 1130 from the Patriarch of Constantinople and has survived to become one of the most venerated icons of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is a typical example of Byzantine Iconography and has been copied countless times. Within the Orthodox Church it is believed that the copies of a sacred icon possess the same divinity as the original. Rublev's version, though compositionally almost an exact replica, reveals some significant differences. For instance, the Virgin's head has what would be later recognized as a typical Rublev tilt, a deeply tender inclination. Even this slightest deepening of angle from the original lends a greater and more powerfully recognisable emotional connection between mother and son. In addition to this nuance, the rendering of the skin and faces of the pair in Rublev's icon have a realism of great sophistication for the time. The Virgin Mary's gaze is directed out to the left over her child's head, rather than directly towards the viewer (which was at that time a convention within Byzantine Iconography). This was an alteration in style that was to become a trait of the newly emerging Moscow School of Iconography. It gives the viewer the sense of being party to a private devotional moment and adds an intimacy to their worship before the icon.
Tempera on Wood - Museum of Valdimir Suzdal
The Nativity, The Annunciation and The Transfiguration
These three icons are from the work Rublev was commissioned to do in The Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow in 1405 with Theophanes the Greek and Prokhar of Gorodets with the three being attributed to Rublev.
True to the thematic conventions of The Nativity story, Rublev's painting represents Mary reclining in centre frame with the baby Jesus, attended by the Ass and the Ox. The three Magi ride to meet the baby from the top left corner while Joseph is isolated in the bottom left, being enticed by the devil who is trying to exploit his lesser role in the birth narrative. In the bottom right hand corner, are the midwives, symbolising the corporeal nature of the birth of the son of God. The Annunciation shows the moment the angel visit Mary and tell her of her pregnancy while The Transfiguration shows the moment Jesus returns to heaven from earth following his resurrection. In the latter, rays of light emanate from the central figure of Jesus with Elijah on his left and Moses on his right. Below the three figures of the Apostles respond with awe to the transfiguration.
All three icons are examples of the soft colors associated with Rublev's painting. Breaking with the use of brighter colors favored by the Novgorod School, they illustrate key developments in Rublev's style. The Nativity still has the non-linear representation of a whole plot line common to icons at the time yet the painted space is busy and does not contain a cohesive perspective or dimensions. It does however show the beginnings of a geometrically shaped zigzag composition making its way down the picture. It is in this respect that the painting suggests the influence of Theophanes's mathematical and philosophical education which is evident in the architectural backdrop of The Annunciation too. This icon is less populated than The Nativity and there is a stillness to the figure of Mary which resembles something close to that of the angels of The Trinity.
It is, however, The Transfiguration that is the closest to what has become recognisable as Rublev's style. In this icon any additional references to the larger plot line that were traditionally shown are left out and only the six figures central to the moment are included. The strong triangular composition is somehow abstract in its simplicity with only a suggestion of a full landscape. Rublev is relying on the positions of the characters to tell the story. The lines of the apostles generate an agitated dancing line across the base of the image with the soft curving lines of Elijah and Moses hanging gracefully poised above. The composition is held in place by the radial lines emitting from Christ's elevated central position.
Tempera on Wood - Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin
The Virgin Mary and St Andrew the First Called
These two paired-back depictions of The Virgin Mary and St Andrew from the Dormition Cathedral cannot be fully verified as Rublev's work; some believe Theophanes The Greek painted them and others think they were possibly the work of Daniil Cherny. Taken as Rublev's, however, they reveal a muted use of color that allows for a depth of sincerity and religious intensity that is wholly characteristic of his style. Indeed, it is possible to see the same noble piety in the downward cast eyes of both figures as is present in Rublev's other works (such as The Virgin of Vladimir).
The frescos and panels from the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir have been restored numerous times, making it difficult to comment confidently or effectively on the nature of brushwork or the exact color choices. The movement of line and silhouette however can be largely relied upon as being faithful to the artist original decisions. The insistently minimal composition, and boldly sweeping downward lines, are significant in their departure from the more complex and intense icons of the Byzantine style of the time. They are thus examples of the simpler, more monumental work which was to be newly promoted through the Moscow School of Iconography.
Originally Dormition Cathedral, Vladimir
Rublev is believed to have painted icons for the "Zvenigorod Row," part of the iconostasis for one of the Zvenigorod churches. Three icons, The Saviour, Archangel Michael and Apostle Paul, all of whom are peaceful and serene figures, bear the painter's signature style: The Saviour is full of kindness and attention, Paul is presented as a deep thinking philosopher while Michael represents the beauty of all humankind.
Only the face and shoulders remain of The Saviour. Even in such a small section of work, however, the direct and gentle nature of the gaze has received the appreciation of both spiritual and secular audiences and is often seen as the beginning of Rublev's so-called "Golden Age." The elegant lines developed by the Novgorod School are evident in the contours of the face but they are also teamed with a subtle modelling of the skin that is incredibly progressive for the time. The face is simplified but still possess a piercing tenderness. This combination of minimalism and intense feeling is really, at this time, only seen elsewhere in the work of the early Italian renaissance masters such as Da Vinci.
Tempera on Wood - The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
The Old Testament Trinity Icon
Rublev's masterpiece shows three angels sitting around a table in sacred conversation, blessing the head of a lamb in a goblet in the centre of the table. The icon depicts the story of the Hospitality of Abraham when three angels appeared in front of Abraham's tent beneath the Oak of Mamre. Abraham offered them refreshment as they tell him and his wife Sarah of Sarah's pregnancy.
There are many representations of this story in Byzantine and Russian Orthodox Art. The reason Rublev's painting is of such special significance lies in how he breaks with the conventions of the previous icons. He does away with the plot line choosing instead to focus on one moment. Neither Abraham nor Sarah are present, though their house, the oak of Mamre and Mount Moriah are shown in the background serving to place the viewer. Rather than simply tell a story through his painting, he describes a feeling, a moment of intense spiritual reflection and it is that spirituality he is offering up for the worshipper's reverie.
The symbolism of the piece focuses on one aspect of the story. In the New Testament, Abraham addresses the angels as a singular entity though they are always described as three. This is to illustrate their role as the embodiment of the combined trinity of the father, the son and the holy spirit. In his painting Rublev seats the angels in circle, looped in unity by their positioning and yet also open to the presence of the viewer, welcoming them into the holy contemplation.
The Spirit on the right has a sky-blue robe, draped in pale green, colors of the air, the Son in the centre is connected to the earth with his deep reddish-brown robe while the Father's robe seems to be of an undefinable color, transparent and shimmering. It is the pensive calm of this picture that was to to influence the Moscow School of painting and give Russian Iconography the recognisable Slavic softness associated with it today.
The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow - Tempera on Wood
Influences and Connections
- Theophanes The Greek
- Prokhar of Gorodets
- Daniil Cherny
- St Sergius of Radonezh
- Nikon of Radonezh
- Byzantine Mannerism
- The Novgorod School