Sergiev Posad, near Moscow
Summary of Andrei Rublev
The Russian Orthodox Church has over the centuries become renowned for its religious painters but it is Rublev's exquisite icons and frescoes that rank him the most important of all the late medieval Russian masters. His name has become inextricably linked with one of the most important periods in Russian painting and he is attributed with bringing about the revival of Byzantine art following its demise under the Ottoman rule. His fine modelling, and feel for pictorial depth, offered a subtle step away from the flat hieratic traditions of Byzantine art. Indeed, Rublev challenged the severe rules and traditions of Byzantine Christian art bringing forward a wistful perception of celestial beauty and a deeply pensive and introspective dimension to his art. Rublev lived through a deeply troubled period in Russian history yet his paintings revealed, through his devotion to God, a deep compassion and calm.
- Whereas Byzantine painting had tended towards the sinful and cataclysmic, the "Rublev rival" (as some have called it) brought a new optimism and light to religious painting. His icons and frescoes were formed of light and gentle color bringing a new harmony to the art of Russian Orthodox iconography.
- Rublev's icons possess a sense of realism that showed a level of sophistication that in some ways echoed the work of the Italian Naturalists. Hitherto, the convention of Byzantine iconography was for the subjects to engage the viewers' gaze directly whereas Rublev's subjects typically averted the direct gaze of the viewer. This strategy allowed for a more private mode of worship and it was to be duly adopted by the Moscow School of Iconography - the school allowed for a general relaxation of the severe intensity of traditional iconographic painting thereby effecting a more worldly relationship between state and church.
- Rublev would often test the conventions of icon painting by doing away with a narrative plot line, preferring to focus on a single moment. He strived to do more than tell religious stories and he used painting to evoke a higher feeling. Rather than position his worshipers outside the scene, his works invited them a route into the painting through deep contemplation and spiritual reflection.
- Rublev's peaceful and quiet figures are rendered in an economy of elegant lines and contours and a subtle, yet minimal, modelling of facial features. His work brought an element of authenticity and intense personal feeling that was only matched by those Italian masters; the likes of Giotto and Masaccio, who were associated with the period of the proto/early Renaissance.
Biography of Andrei Rublev
The exact date and place of Rublev's birth are unknown but it is likely he was born in the mid-to-late fourteenth century and was raised in the small town of Sergiev Posad near Moscow. It is a matter of historical record however that the Russia of the 1360s was a difficult and bloody country in which to live. Russia had been occupied by Tartar invaders who pillaged towns, monasteries and churches and took peasants into slavery, state control had been pushed back to the towns of Nizhniy Novgorod and Moscow, while the passage of fleeing people led to plagues in both cities during 1364 and 1366. In 1365, meanwhile, a fire had swept through Moscow destroying large parts of the city, taking many lives. These disasters were followed in 1371 by widespread famine, and soon thereafter, in 1378, Moscow was invaded by Lithuania's Prince Algirdas. There is no evidence to suggest that Rublev was directly affected by any of these events, but they do serve as a backdrop to the times in which he had grown up and possibly hint at his motivation to create the images of heavenly balance on which his legend is built.
Important Art by Andrei Rublev
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
- Theophanes The Greek
- Prokhar of Gorodets
- Daniil Cherny
- St Sergius of Radonezh
- Nikon of Radonezh
- Byzantine Mannerism
- The Novgorod School
Useful Resources on Andrei Rublev
- Hesychasm and Art: The Appearance of New Iconographic Trends in Byzantine and Slavic Lands in the 14th and 15th CenturiesBy Anita Strezova
- Concerning the Spiritual in ArtBy Wassily Kandinsky
- Russian IconsBy David Talbot Rice
- Byzantine and Russian Influences on Andrei Rublev's ArtBy Iulia O. Basu - Zharku / Inquires Journal / 2011
- Andrei Rublev: A saint and revered icon painterBy Irina Yazykova and Neskuchnyy Sad / Russia Beyond / January 7th, 2014
- Holy Icons in Today's World (Pt.2): Icons and Modern ArtBy Aidan Hart / The Orthodox Arts Journal / March 21, 2014