Entering the realm of the divine through icon paintings

November 20, 2005|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

It's a pity some people think the Middle Ages were a great big bore, a time in history when nothing much happened beyond the usual pillaging, pestilence and slaughter. They may miss out on a terrific new show.

Called Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod, this marvelous exhibition, which opened this weekend at the Walters Art Museum, centers on some of the greatest Russian artworks of the Middle Ages, the magnificent icon paintings created by anonymous artist-craftsmen.

These stunning works, with their vividly colored depictions of saints and other sacred figures, have a luminous presence that evokes an otherworldly sense of the spiritual realm.

The show also includes more than 200 objects -- sculptures, textiles, metalwork and archaeological finds -- representing the material culture of Novgorod. When you step into the gallery, it's like walking through a doorway into one of Novgorod's whitewashed Russian Orthodox churches: The outside is plain and simple to the point of austerity. The inside is a treasure trove of sumptuous color, exotic textures and sacred imagery.

Novgorod, a great trading and religious center on the Volkhov River some 100 miles south of St. Petersburg, flourished from the 1300s to the 1600s. Picture it as a storybook Medieval city, with crenellated castle walls, a magnificent domed cathedral, whitewashed churches and tidy wooden houses, perched on a river bend and surrounded by forest that stretches as far as the eye can see.

The city was famous for its icons, whose miraculous powers protected its citizens in war and peace. Eventually, the icons produced in Novgorod, which were admired for the beauty of the colors and the clarity of their designs, were emulated by artists across Russia and became the basis of a national style.

Church tradition strictly regulated the subject matter of icons as well as the manner of their treatment. Artists copied earlier works more or less exactly, since the closer an icon resembled its predecessor, the more likely it would be to share its supernatural power. The modern concepts of individual artistic originality and formal invention were as yet unknown.

An icon was not simply a picture, something to be admired for its beauty or the artist's skill in execution. Rather, the image partook of the same sacred power as the holy figure it depicted, thus uniting the material world with the divine.

Icons served as thresholds to a higher realm populated by spiritual beings -- the saints and members of the Holy Family -- who watch over the earth and guide those in need. An icon opens a door to the realm of the divine.

Christianity took hold in Novgorod in the 10th century under the auspices of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At first, Novgorod's artists simply copied the icons of the Eastern churches.

Gradually, however, they developed their own distinctive style, which one can see near the beginning of the show in the large painting of three saints dating from the mid-13th century.

What immediately strikes one is the brilliant red background against which the figures stand, so different in mood from the gold-leaf backgrounds of the Western tradition.

In both cases, the monochrome field represents eternity rather than temporal reality. But the Novgorod artist's eye-catching color presents a dry, theological concept in vivid emotional terms calculated to inspire reverence and awe.

The figures are also out of scale with each other. St. John Climacus, in the center, towers over St. George, on the left, and St. Blase on the right. But it is not the saint's bodies that are being depicted, but their spiritual essences -- their souls, as it were. Through the icon, these non-material, spiritual presences become available to assist those living on earth.

The belief in icons was so powerful that, when foreign invaders besieged the city in 1170, the bishop of the cathedral mounted its icon of the Virgin Mary on the citadel walls. The sight sowed such confusion among the enemy army that its soldiers turned and fled.

So the city was saved, and Novgorod's miraculous icon (which is only about 24 inches tall) became one of the most famous images in Russian art. The original Virgin of the Sign today is in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, but a fine 16th-century copy of the work constitutes one of the highlights of the Walters show.

The exhibition also features objects excavated from the area around present-day Novgorod, including items of everyday use such as coins, metalwork, jewelry, seals, letters, medals, childrens' toys, even a pair of women's leather slippers.

The show's organizers -- the State Russian Museum and the Novgorod State Museum -- intend these artifacts to convey the texture of ordinary life during the Middle Ages, but it is tough going trying to piece together a coherent picture of period from these assorted odds and ends.

Skip the archaeological tchotchkes if you're in a hurry, but don't miss the icons.

There's a haunting, uncanny beauty in these seemingly simple images of saints and martyrs that can be both strange and deeply moving.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

SACRED ARTS AND CITY LIFE: THE GLORY OF MEDIEVAL NOVGOROD / / The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. / / 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. / / Tickets $6-$10. 410-547-9000

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