Monastery, shown on the left side of a 17th-century engraving from the famous travel account by Adam Olearius, is located north of the center of Novgorod on the East side of the Volkhov River.
With the exception of the main church, the original buildings of the monastery have not survived.
The interior of this early church also provides interesting evidence regarding iconographic programs and displays. Today the icon screen, which separates the eastern (altar sanctuary) end of the church from the rest, as an obligatory feature of Orthodox churches (see photo, right). However, icon screens developed over some time, perhaps reaching their full height and complexity only in the early 15th century in Russia. In earlier centuries, the main iconographic program of a masonry church would be displayed in the mosaics or frescoes on its walls. Individual icons of importance might be attached to the forward pillars, placed on stands, or possibly hung from a crossing beam in the center between the forward pillars. It is likely that the first "icon screens" were drapes which could be pulled to close off the sanctuary and might display a holy image.
This church dates to the period prior to the emergence of the icon screen as we know it today. As with all early Russian churches, its original interior was much changed over the centuries. Frescoes generally became dark or decayed from moisture; so they were painted over, the idea being that the holy images were simply being renewed, not that the sanctity of the originals or the "originality" of the early artists' work was being violated. Originality was, after all, not a criterion in the church art, which was the product of divinely inspired labor. In the case of the frescoes of interest here, when the re-plastering and re-painting were done, holes were made in the original surface in order to get the new layer to adhere. Hence the blotchy appearance of the early frescoes when uncovered. In the church today, one can see both some of the original frescoes and what remains of the 19th century ones (especially in the cupola, left). The later re-plastering included adding stucco decoration, which is visible in some of the photographs. Apart from the re-painting, an icon screen was built, in the process concealing some of the earlier frescoes and evidence about the original construction. In the photos taken in 1968, the remants of the blue wood of the icon screen can be seen (right); now it has been removed entirely.
The removal of the icon screen made it possible to establish that probably in the original church a single beam crossed the front pillars approximately "one storey" above the ground. From it would have been hung a curtain, but on the front of the pillars just above and below it very sizeable icons were displayed. There may or may not have been a group of small icons suspended from the middle section of the beam.
Сошествие во ад
Additional fescoes in the apse area seem to have included scenes specific to the life of Maria as recorded in an apocryphal Gospel text popular in Byzantium.
The remaining early frescoes in the main part of the church are in the lower altar and apse area. Among the themes were the Presentation in the Temple, the Beheading of John the Baptist and the presentation of his head to Herod, the Adoration of the Magi (detail, left) and the Dormition. Of particular interest are the images of Moses (lower on right) and Aaron on the pillars flanking the central opening to the altar, emphasizing the connection of the altar with the Old Testament Temple and Ark of the Covenant. As one can see from these images, the state of preservation is poor; in the case of the seraph in the niche, the painting is of much later date.
The style of these early frescoes is a reminder of the international contacts of medieval Rus and Novgorod in particular. V.N.Lazarev, a noted expert on early Russian and Byzantine painting notes their "un-Byzantine" character and connects them with some of the contemporary Romanesque art in the West. There are numerous other examples of the art of the West making its way to Novgorod, of course not all of them attesting to the presence in the city of western artists. In the given instance, Lazarev leaves open the possibility that western artists contributed to the decoration of the main church in a monastery founded by a "Roman."
Among the interesting discoveries in the restorations of recent years have been frescoes in the stairwell (below). Some time scholars discovered an image that appears to be the Virgin in a nimbus, holding what might have been a model of the church, and adjoining that image to its right is the figure of a man inclined toward the nimbus. This has been interpreted as possibly an image of the architect, presenting his work to Virgin for Her blessing, although it is also possible that here we have simply a novgorodian praying to an image of the Virgin of the Sign. The name "Foma" is painted inside the nimbus, and letters have been scratched above the man's head.
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