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What is the Novgorod School, and why is it important in the field of art history?

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Novgorod School

The Novgorod School is a school of artistic approach to making Russian medieval religious icons and religious mural paintings. The Novgorod School was dominant in iconography during the period between the 1100s and the 1500s, which is the 12th to 16th centuries. During the 13th and 14th century Mongol occupation of Russia (1200s and 1300s), the city of Novgorod (south of St. Petersburg and east of Moscow)--where the Novgorod School of iconographers originated--became an important merchant and cultural center.

Importance to Art History of Novgorod School

The Novgorod School was important during this period, 12th to 16th centuries, because the Byzantine Greek Orthodox iconic traditions, which formed the foundation of Russian Orthodox iconic and mural art as practiced and developed in Novgorod, were preserved from Mongol influences. While, on the other hand, the strength of the Novgorod provincial distinctiveness and local vitality did make its way into Novgorod iconography and, later, into Russian art as developed in Moscow in the 1500s.

[B]efore its annexation by Muscovy, Novgorod was a free city which had its own republican way of life, its own economic structure, its own great cultural traditions. A large territory, fertile soil, abundant natural wealth and skilful economic management - all these factors had contributed to the prosperity of "Gospodin Velikiy Novgorod" (Lord Novgorod the Great), which was famed through out Eastern Europe for its wealth and business acumen. ("Novgorodian Icon-Painting," Online Novgorod)

The Novgorod School was important to art history because of this infusion of local influence that then affected the formation of Russian national art forms. Novgorod contributed the following historical influences to the art of icons, which then had a broader influence:

  • Spirituality of icons depicted without extra "embellishments or refinements" in the plain, flat, often red background of early (1300-1400) Novgorod icons. (Encyclopedia of Art History)
  • Spirituality expressed with simplicity but with the additional aid of a "finer composition," a "flowing linear rhythm," "superbly balanced ... new proportions," and a new specificity of color (1400-1500). (Encyclopedia of Art History)
  • Visionary quality of spirituality depicted through foregrounding the figure and placing action on a different, backgrounded, plane. ("Novgorodian Icon-Painting")
  • Characteristic elongation of human figures through curves and lines.
  • Symmetrical background counteracting pliancy inherent in curves in figures.
  • Expressionless faces suggest and confirm the spiritual context of the subjects while putting suffering in the abstract, separating it from the physical.
  • Rhythm derived from elements (1) suggesting movement, like flags fluttering in the wind, and (2) elements depicting rounded physical shapes, like the curve of a horses neck, and (3) elements that contrast with each other, like round objects next to rectilinear objects.
  • An "original colour scheme, vivid and glowing." ("Novgorodian Icon-Painting")

The development of the Novgorod School from its Byzantine roots to the height of its style era can be traced in a comparison of a c. 12th century icon of St. George to a 15th century icon of St. George. The early one shows St. George in a full-front position with no movement, though he has his armaments, and with his head encircled by a halo. The later icon shows St. George mounted upon a horse, with horse and man in motion: the horses neck is both arched and curved back while George's arm is raised against his billowing cape and next to his bowed head and above his arched back. The round halo encircling his head and the round shield he holds both rhythmically contrast with the straight lines of the horses straps,; the straight, thin line of his banner staff; and the angles formed by his knee and ankle.


Novgorod, Russia. Map.

St. George, Novgorod, 12th century c. 1140.

Prophet Elijah, Novgorod, c. 13th century.

St. George, Novgorod, 15th century.

Descent from the Cross, Novgorod, 15th century c. 1430.

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From the 12th through the 15th Centuries, the city and region of Novgorod was an important business and cultural center distinct from the southern and central Russian regions that would later emerge as the focus of the Russian State.  It is particularly well known, however, for its role in the history of Russian religious paintings, known as icons.  The Eastern Orthodox Church played an enormous role in the lives of most Russians, and continues to do so.  A manifestation of that fealty to the Church has long been the unique style of painting that was most prominently represented by that associated with Novgorod.  Religious icons dating to Novgorod’s greatest period of productivity are highly valued among art collectors and criminals who trade in artifacts. 

More than in other regions of Russia, particularly during the period of Kievan Rus (882-1283), the icons produced in the Novgorod region were distinctive for their simplicity and vividness, with images kept basic and colors notable for their brightness.  The subjects, such as those displayed in the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Novgorod, were often saints the importance of whom were specific to the region, including St. George, patron of warriors; St. John, the 12th Century Archbishop of Novgorod; Alexander Nevsky, among the most revered figures in Russian history and the Prince of Novgorod; St. Elijah, who provided the rain essential for the region’s agriculture; and Saint Nicholas, protector of carpenters and of travelers.  Much of the art produced in Novgorod region during its heyday features these figures. In addition, the Virgin of Mercy was a popular figure for artists, as the Virgin Mary’s sheltering image was consistent with the theme of protecting of the populace that also spurred numerous works depicting the aforementioned saints like St. George.

Much of the artwork produced in Novgorod was destroyed when the Muscovy tribes gained in power and spread among surrounding regions in the late 15th Century.