Defining Volotovo as a work of the Russian school we imply its affinity with what was created in later periods.
As far as earlier Novgorod painting is concerned, we shall hardly find there artists who could be considered the direct predecessors of the Volotovo master. We shall not find them among the authors of the frescoes in Nereditsa, Old Ladoga, the Mirozhski Monastery, the Snetogorski Cathedral, the Skovorodski Monastery. The Volotovo paintings have few common features with the contemporary murals of the Kovalevo Church of the Saviour and the cemetery Church of the Nativity. Only in the Veronica image by the Volotovo master can we find some indications that he was familiar with the Novgorod paintings. The beautiful face, resembling by its fine finish an icon is very close in its features, proportions and expression to the twelfth-century Veronica image of the Saviour which is now on view in the Tretyakov Gallery (the icon had been probably brought to the Moscow Assumption Cathedral from Novgorod).
As it was found long ago, there is a very close analogy between the Volotovo cycle and the frescoes in the Church of St Theodore Stratilates. But their comparative analysis is difficult due to the fact that these frescoes have been preserved only in a few fragments and in the years that have passed after their discovery they have noticeably faded. The scenes of “The Descent into Hell” in both churches are very much alike. In both cases the central figure of Christ is represented in a round medallion. The figures of the assistants, however, do not stand in the same order in the two churches: in Volotovo the forefathers stand to the right of Christ, the prophets—to the left. There is another important distinction: in the Stratilates church a great number of angels are hovering over the halo. In the Stratilates “Annunciation” the figure of the archangel is more clearly outlined than its Volotovo counterpart. This crystalline clarity of form peculiar to Russian painting of the fifteenth century suggests that the Stratilates frescoes date from a later period. At any rate, the Stratilates frescoes offer a valuable proof that the Volotovo master was not alone in developing this trend and that his work was not its only example.
The historians of late Byzantine painting attach considerable importance to the influence of icon painting on mural painting. But in Novgorod art of the fourteenth century we can find more examples when icon painters were influenced by muralists. Judging by the elongated figures of the Prophets Enoch and Noah in the asketikon of Basil the Great (a work of 1388, the Moscow Historical Museum) which bear resemblance to some figures of the Volotovo frescoes, Novgorod masters were inclined to work in this style. The influence of Novgorod mural painting on its contemporary icon painting is also displayed in a free manner of representation making the images “readable” from afar.
In some of the Novgorod icons of the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth centuries one can find traces of indirect and even direct influences of the Volotovo cycle. The half-length icon of the Apostle Thomas (Russian Museum, Leningrad) has some stylistic similarities with the figures of the Volotovo church. They are particularly noticeable in the silhouette of the figure, the oval of the head and the angular folds of the cloak. V. N. Lazarev sees likeness between the faces of the Apostle Thomas and the Prophet Zacharias from the Skovorodski cycle. But there is a general difference between their whole figures and the clothes, which is probably more important. The proportions of the visible part of Thomas’s figure and the character of the folds are closer to those of the Volotovo figures. It is particularly noticeable in the figure of St Leukas standing by the side of Christ disguised as a beggar. The Prophet Elijah in the icons, as, for example, in the Russian Museum icon, resembles the Volotovo old men, though in his curly hair and beard we do not see the “brio” peculiar to the Volotovo painting. Besides, the curls of his hair and beard are all painted inside the strictly geometrical outline of his head. In Novgorod icons of the early fifteenth century some figures resemble the Volotovo characters; thus, the sitting John the Divine from the Quadripartite icon of the Russian Museum by his rounded stately silhouette resembles Joseph in the Volotovo “Nativity”. This Volotovo fresco, like some icons representing the same subject, shows little shepherds standing with their back turned to the spectator (icons from the collection of P. Korin and from the cathedral iconostasis in the Cyril-Belozerski Monastery). Figures ‘ closely resembling the riding Volotovo magi are found, quite unexpectedly, in “The Nativity” of the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity-Sergius Monastery.
This Volotovo scene can be compared with the icon “St Boris and St Gleb on Horseback” belonging to the Novgorod town museum. In this icon, a “local” work from the Novgorod Church of St Boris and St Gleb, the movement of the horses is not so impetuous and the riders hold themselves in a more dignified manner than the Volotovo magi. Besides, the : colours in the icon are not so iridescent and translucent as in the frescoes; they are more saturated and dense and they blend with the gilt with which the dress of the princes is lavishly decorated. The stamp of luxury seen in this work must have conformed to the tastes of the Novgorod boyars. But there are also some other features, such as the plasticity of the rumps of the horses and the tonality of the warm colouring, that were prepared by the experience of mural painting of the late fourteenth century.
Among the works of Russian art in which we can find traces of the Volotovo heritage the most significant and remarkable are the frescoes painted by Andrei Rublev in the Vladimir Cathedral of the Assumption. At first sight one would hardly find any relation between the ecstatic art of the Volotovo master and the harmonious, classical style of Rublev. The contrast between them is very much like the difference between such literary monuments as the writings of Epiphanius the All-Wise marked by passionate expressiveness and the Murom biographies of St Peter and St Thevronius whose style was aptly defined by D. S. Likhachev as “psychologically tranquil”. But in essence these works are not poles apart, they only represent two different stages in the development of ancient Russian culture.
Between many frescoes of the Volotovo and the Vladimir cycles one can see so much similarity, kinship, even coincidence, which can hardly be found in any other frescoes of that time, especially abroad. In most cases it is not similarity in iconographic types or the manner of execution but in the essential characterisation of the images determined by the peculiarities of artistic vision and thinking.
By way of illustration let us take the figures of the Archangel Gabriel in the scenes of “The Annunciation”. In the fresco from the Novgorod cemetery Church of the Nativity of Jesus Christ this traditional figure of the Archangel announcing good tidings is very beautiful and effective. But it is very close to the analogous Byzantine images. The small folds of his mantle remind of the figure of Judas in the Mistra Church of Periblepta. In this “byzantinized” fresco the folds of the clothing are so numerous that the general outline of the figure is hardly discernible. The charm of the Stratilates Archangel Gabriel is in a wide smooth rhythm of outline. The rounded contour of his sleeve corresponds to the similar outline of the powerful wing. In this fresco we find a highly mature, one can say classical, representation which surpasses even the Volotovo image.
But if we compare the Volotovo Michael with the angel rolling up the sky in the Vladimir fresco we shall easily see their inner kinship. It is primarily displayed in the wide and flexible contour of the back contrasting with the broken folds of the mantle. This contour adding impetuousness to the figure is in both cases accentuated by a toss of the head set on a slender neck. The proportions of these two figures are different: the Volotovo angel is much more elongated and slender than the Vladimir image. But in spite of this difference in proportions, the two figures resemble each other due to a wide arc outlining the body. In this respect Rublev’s angel is quite different from the analogous figure in the portal fresco of Kahrye Jami. They differ both in the facial expression and outline. The Byzantine angel is playful and joyous, but the image lacks impetus, the silhouette of the hovering figure is not so integral. These stylistic dissimilarities reflect more general tendencies which made Russian painting of the fourteenth century different from contemporary Byzantine art.
In Volotovo the face of John the Divine is painted in a more impetuous, expressive and free manner than the face of John in the Vladimir fresco “The Righteous Going to Paradise”. Besides, it is more elongated upwards, while in Rublev’s work it is close to a regular circle. In Rublev’s fresco the manner of execution is not so free and bold, it shows some features peculiar to the “icon style”. There are also considerable dissimilarities in the expression of the faces. The Volotovo John is looking askance, he is only trying to see and to hear something, while Rublev’s Peter is contemplating it clearly and calmly. Still there is some likeness between these two images. First of all it is displayed in the clear and simple vision, in the distinct division of the head into two parts which are almost equal: the forehead and the face. Nothing like this can be found in any other representation of a head either in Byzantium or in the Balkans. In Kahrye Jami, in Mistra, in the Serbian frescoes of the fourteenth century the faces of old people are all in furrows and wrinkles, the hair lies in dishevelled tufts. Rublev’s angels represent a more austere, regular, classical type than the angels from the Volotovo frescoes. Their neck is not so long and slender, the nose is straight and thin. But if we compare the head of the Volotovo Gabriel and the heads of the angels hovering over the apostles in the Vladimir fresco we shall find that there is a definite similarity in the general structure, in the oval of the face, in the rounded form of the head.
The head of an unidentified saint which in the Volotovo fresco is seen turned three-quarters to the spectator so much resembles the head of Isaac in Vladimir as if it were the original sketch of the more delicately executed work of Daniel Cherni and Andrei Rublev. True, the features of the face in the Vladimir fresco are smaller; broad strokes interchange with thin parallel stripes. The same similarity can be observed in the images of David in Volotovo and in Vladimir.
It is interesting to compare the Volotovo and the Vladimir representations of “The Souls of the Righteous”. An angel holding in his arms a soul in the likeness of an infant is not represented in the Vladimir fresco: here the souls are symbolized not by infants with uncovered heads but by women wearing kerchiefs. But the celestial circle around the right hand of God is identical in both cases. In these, as in other, works the Russian masters show their adherence to the circle. On the other hand, in the Serbian fresco of Rezava “The Souls of the Righteous” are confined in intersecting celestial spheres, they break the circle and change the character of the image.
Among other points in which the art of the Volotovo master and the art of Andrei Rublev are close to each other we should mention the half-length figures of angels in round medallions. In one of the Volotovo medallions the frontal figure of the angel is an influence of Theophanes.
It is hieratic, like the middle angel in Theophanes’s “Trinity”. In the angel with the inclined head one can easily see the prototype of the middle angel in Rublev’s “Trinity”. Though the faces are not alike, the flexible outline of the figure, its turn, the fact that it is included in the circle foreshadow the art of Andrei Rublev.
The similarities between the Volotovo and the Vladimir frescoes can hardly be explained by a mere supposition that Andrei Rublev visited Novgorod, saw the Volotovo cycle and remembered some of its motifs. Probably they depended on the common trends in the development of the Russian school of painting, trends that were felt both in Novgorod and in Moscow.
In the fifteenth century the Novgorod and the Moscow schools moved apart, but at the end of the fourteenth century this divergence was not yet noticeable. That is why we regard the Volotovo cycle as the first stage in a process which culminated in the brilliant art of the greatest genius of Ancient Rus. The Volotovo master was in a state of excitement sometimes verging on frenzy. This excitement is explained by the fact that he already saw the ways to the lofty goal. To achieve that goal was the lot of Andrei Rublev and this achievement filled his art with classical tranquillity and harmony.
The frescoes from the Church of the Assumption at Volotovo Polye rank among such outstanding monuments of ancient Russian art as “The Lay of Igor’s Host”, the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, “The Trinity” by Rublev, the Church of St Basil the Blissful. But it is more difficult to define their place in the history of world art. We are too used to looking upon early Russian art as only a branch of Byzantine art, and that is why we do not fully appreciate the fact that it has a place of its own in world art. The originality of the Volotovo murals as regards the method of solving the radical problems of art of that epoch is so obvious, their execution is so accomplished, that they can be compared with the most significant monuments of contemporary European art, no matter what traces of western influence might be found in them. We must define this place if only for making the picture of European art of the fourteenth century more complete. It will hardly be full if beside the Paduan cycle of Giotto we shall not see the Volotovo cycle.
Up till now the historians of art have preferred to contrast ancient Russian art with western art of the late Middle Ages, as a manifestation of backwardness with a manifestation of progress. It is true, Giotto had considerably “outrun” the Volotovo master in time. By his consistent sculptural modelling and introduction of three-dimensional space Giotto anticipated the Renaissance. We cannot ascribe such a role to the Novgorod master. But let us remember that these two artists, separated from each other by time and space, had very much in common: the same depth and intensity of feeling, the same aspiration to get at the root of things, the same unshaken faith in man, in sacredness of art. Giotto tries to achieve self-expression by establishing autonomy of the picture, by depicting organic bodies as heavy masses, organizing space, confining himself to the use of dense local colours. The Volotovo master expresses himself in the complete concordance of the murals with the building, in the impetuous movement of bodies, in vigorous iridescent colours, in the hastiness of his tireless brush. It is only in the recently discovered Italian synopses that we can find a style resembling the tachygraphy of the Novgorod master.
A reader who will be looking over this album may find that the Volotovo frescoes remind him of other paintings belonging to different epochs and different peoples, such as the frescoes of Castel Ceprio, the miniatures of the Utrecht Psalter, Japanese ink drawings, the paintings of Griinewald, Tintoretto, El Greco, drawings by Rembrandt and Poussin, the biblical sketches by Alexander Ivanov. Of course, the art of the Novgorod master is not connected directly with any of these works. But the points of coincidence, parallelism and consonance between them bear testimony to the general humanitarian importance of the Novgorod masterpiece. Meditating on the significance of the Volotovo frescoes, the reader will probably be amazed at the discovery that on such a “distant planet” one can find spiritual values which we are accustomed to associate with the newer times, and that things separated from us by so many centuries have turned out to be understandable and near to him.