By Catherine Tsounis
During the Cold War, I was unable to visit Russia to discover my Byzantine heritage. The treasures of iconography and churches of Byzantium are not open to women on Mount Athos. All the areas of Western Anatolia have destroyed churches, while Greece’s treasures are in Venice and Rome. My goal was to learn about Theophanes of Constantinople in Moscow and Novgorod. From late September to early October I saw the masterpieces of Theophanes through my Moscow guide Irina and St. Petersburg guide Olga, arranged by expresstorussia.com and intourist.com. Everyone was courteous. Few knew English and were startled to hear English in the streets. I spoke Greek to my companions throughout the trip. Many Greek tourist groups from Thessaloniki were in Moscow at the same time.
Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street, Novgorod
Theophanes the Greek was born about the 1330’s to about 1410. According to the THE RUSSIAN ICON, p. 124. “information on the career of this outstanding Byzantine painter is available only from Russian sources- Novgorod and Moscow chronicles and a letter written about 1415 by the Moscow religious author Epiphanius the Wise who personally knew the artist.”
In Russian, he is called “Feofan Grek”. Wikipedia believes he was one of the greatest icon painters of Muscovite Russia. He was the teacher and mentor of the great Andrei Rublev. Theophanes was born in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. He studied Art and Philosophy at the University of Constantinople (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophanes_the_Greek).
“Before his arrival to Russia, Theophanes worked in Constantinople, Chalcedon, Galata and Kafa (Feodosiya in the Crimea) where he executed murals for more than forty churches but none of them is extant now” (THE RUSSIAN ICON, p. 124). “He introduced to Russia progressive Byzantine art- vigorous, picturesque, demonstrating great creative freedom. In his works light is an active element that gives life to human forms…The art of Theophanes who was not only a painter but religious philosopher was appreciated and admired in Russia (THE RUSSIAN ICON, p. 150-152) “In 1378 Theofanes the Greek decorated the Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street in Novgorod. It is the only one that has documented confirmation. It is the basis for art historians for identifying his other works. The frescos exist in fragments, making it impossible to restore the system of painting completely”, (https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/art/theophanes-the-greek/).
The Trinity, Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street, Novgorod
On my last day in Russia, October 3rd, we went on an eight-hour round trip ride to Veliky Novgorod from St. Petersburg with guide Olga. We met with Novgorod guide Dmitri and went off the beaten trail: to the Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street. Dmitri was accommodated us in our quest for early Byzantine culture which began in Veliky Novgorod.
We noticed the domes were different from other churches. “They are shaped like helmets and are closer to Byzantine domes,” explained Olga. “The church was built in the Byzantine style.” According to Wikipedia, “The current building was built in 1374 and frescoed by Theophanes the Greek (Feofan Grek or Феофан Грек in Russian) in 1378. Substantial portions of those frescoes still remain, including the Christ Pantocrator in the dome, a number of saints inside the south entrance, and The Old Testament Trinity in the western vestry, as well as others. The current building is now a museum, part of the Novgorod State Museum-Preserve. A church stood on the site since at least the 12th century. The Icon of Our Lady of the Sign was originally housed there.” The current church is painted white, because it is more suited to the Russian geography. Part of the original Greek brick exterior is displayed.
“The most breathtaking painting in the temple is a half-figure image of Christ Pantocrator in the dome. In addition to the dome, Theophanes painted its drum with the figures of the Ancestors of Christ and the Prophets – Elijah and John the Baptist,” according to https://www.aceb.pro/en/byzantine-routes/russia-the-heritage-of-theophanes-the-greek. “The apse murals have also survived until our days including the fragments of a Deesis tier with saints and «Eucharist», part of the figure of the Virgin Mary on the south pole of the altar, «Christening», «the Nativity», «Candlemas», «Christ preaching to the apostles» and «the Descent into Hell» on the vaults and the walls adjacent. The best preserved are the frescoes in the Trinity side-altar. These include an ornament, figures of saints (front view), a half-figure of «Our Lady of the Sign» with the angels, a throne with four saints approaching it; and in the upper part of the wall there are the Stylites, the «Old Testament Trinity», medallions with John Climacus, Agathon, Akaki and a figure of Macarius of Egypt.
Pantocrator, Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyin Street, Novgorod
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».” This is the tragedy of the Fall of Byzantium in 1453: loss of civilization records, architecture and art work.
Around 1395, Theophanes moved to Moscow where he decorated churches, private houses, designed book manuscripts Epiphanios the Wise described Theophanes work as extraordinary. “When he was drawing or painting, nobody saw him looking at existing examples, as would do some of our icon painters. He appeared to paint his frescoes with his hands while walking back and forth, talking to visitors, considering inwardly what was lofty and wise and seeing the inner goodness with the eyes of his inner feelings,” (https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/art/theophanes-the-greek).
“Theophanes’ style in icons differed greatly from his style in murals. In icon painting he mainly used beautiful and saturated colors and pure forms, laying the foundations for mature Moscow icon painting,” according to (https://russiapedia.rt.com/prominent-russians/art/theophanes-the-greek). “Theophanes must have painted many icons throughout his life, but based on historical evidence, scholars believe that the following nine are his: The Virgin of the Don and The Dormition of the Virgin (Novgorod period), The Savior in Glory, The Virgin Mary, St. John Chrysostom, Archangel Gabriel, St. Paul, St. Basil, and St. John the Baptist, all of which were painted in 1405 for the Deesis tier in Moscow’s Cathedral of Annunciation. It was the first iconostasis in Russia in which the figures of the saints were presented at full-height. At two meters high, the figures are impressive and full of significance and incarnate a prayer from mankind to the Savior.”
Part of the original Greek brick exterior is displayed
According to recent evidence though, this iconostasis might not be the original of 1405 and could have been brought to the Annunciation Cathedral after its restoration in 1547, when a devastating fire destroyed most of the icons. Nonetheless, the iconographic style, the use of various difficult drawing methods and the high spirituality of the icons suggest that they were painted by the talented master Theophanes.” THE RUSSIAN ICON, p.79 states the Deesis tier is that of Theophanes and “all the art historians unanimously ascribe it to Theophanes the Greek.”
Our guides Olga and Dimitri worked diligently to show us icons of early Russian history. For more information, contact Moscow guide Irina at [email protected], Saint Petersburg guide Olga atolgamelnyandex.ru, Novgorod guide Dimitri at [email protected], expresstorussia.com andintourist.com.
Editorial Board of the Russian Orthodox Church, THE RUSSIAN ICON. St. Petersburg, 2011. Print
Ivan Fiodorov Art Publishers, “NOVGOROD THE GREAT”. St. Petersburg, 2004. Print.