By Olga Yunak | Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley
The Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior on Ilyina Street is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the museum complex that includes several other historical monuments in and around Veliky Novgorod (Novgorod thereafter), Russian Federation. The Church of the Transfiguration occupies a prominent place in the architectural landscape of the city. Characterized by exquisite harmony and simplicity, this church is a prime example of Novgorodian church architecture of the 14th century. This particular architectural style has its origins in Byzantium but also carries elements of Gothic aesthetics mixed with local building traditions. The amalgamation of styles attests to the unique position of the city as an economic and cultural hub connecting the European West and the Byzantine East.
The Church of the Transfiguration is located on the market side of Novgorod, just a short walk from the eastern gate of the city’s Kremlin and its main cathedral, St. Sophia (11th century). This church is one of the oldest buildings in Novgorod. The original wooden building (1103), which was rebuilt in stone in 1374, housed the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God Znamenie, the most venerated icon in Novgorod. In 1378, Theophanes the Greek (ca. 1340 – ca. 1410) decorated the newly-built church. Theophanes, originally from Constantinople, is considered the most extraordinary iconographer of 14th-century Russia, emerging before Andrey Rublev and the myriad of notable painters of the Russian “Renaissance” that took place in the following century. The church on Ilyina Street in Novgorod is the only church whose surviving frescoes can be attributed with certainty to Theophanes. For the most part, Theophanes followed traditional church decoration canons, but he also introduced some unusual for Novgorod elements such as the Passion Cycle in the altar space. A small chamber in the upper gallery of the church displays the most complete iconographic program, offering a glimpse into Theophanes’s visionary genius.
The Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyina Street held a special place in the religious life of Novgorod. Chronicles attest to the fact that Archbishop Alexi (d. 1389) and the higher clergy of St. Sophia were present at the consecration of the church in 1378. Years later, Cyprian, the Metropolitan of All Russia and Lithuania (d. 1406), stopped there before proceeding to the main cathedral of St. Sophia. Both events indicate that the church on Ilyina Street was not simply another small neighborhood church, but an important landmark in the political landscape of the region.
Chronicles record that the “God-loving citizen of Novgorod,” Vasily Danilovich Mashkov, and “the neighboring community” commissioned the decoration of the church on Ilyina Street. This building belongs to the group of city churches that are collectively known as boyar churches. Indeed, the late 14th century witnessed the strengthening of the position of boyars (nobles whose rank was second to that of a prince), which contributed to the rapid growth of city churches. Other ecclesiastical buildings in this category are the Church of St. Theodore Stratelates on the Spring (1360–61), the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior on Torzhok (1364), the Church of the Virgin’s Nativity on Molotkovo (1379), and the Church of the Holy Trinity in Pskov (1365–67).
The architecture of the boyar churches—including the Church of the Transfiguration —exhibits a curious blending of palatial and monastic styles. Just as in the past local princes had built their palace churches with a privileged access to the upper galleries for private viewing of the liturgy, well-off boyar families commissioned their own churches with private chambers in the galleries designated for special services for their families. Also, in imitation of monastic traditions, these chambers were designed to recall the cell of an ascetic and to be used for private contemplations by those “exhibiting high spiritual authority.” The iconography of these churches often reflected this new trend of laity imitating monastic spiritual practices. The chamber in the church on Ilyina Street, in particular, features an unusually high concentration of images of ascetics, rendered in an austere, almost monochromatic, style of painting.
Theophanes the Greek was already a well-established artist who had worked on churches in Constantinople, Chalcedon, Galatia, and Kaffa before arriving in Novgorod. Like many other artists from Constantinople and Thessaloniki, he traveled through the Byzantine peripheries, bringing with him painting practices refined by the capital’s sensibilities. According to one legend, Theophanes was traveling through the Crimea when he met a Novgorodian bishop who convinced him to come to Novgorod. It is also quite plausible that he came to Russia in the entourage accompanying the future metropolitan Cyprian, a protégé of the hesychastic patriarch Philotheos Kokkinos (d. 1379).
The Church of the Transfiguration on Ilyina Street stands out not only because of its alignment with the city’s ruling circles, but also because of Theophanes’s style. Many scholars consider his work in Novgorod contributing to the development of a freer, more energetic painting style that came out of Constantinople and was transformed by the local pictorial traditions of the peripheries into a technical and spiritual tour de force of its own kind. Theophanes’s painting style—reduced color scheme and intense linearity—endows his characters with the enormous internal tension and reveals their spiritual strength.
Scholars have speculated about the sources of Theophanes’s unusual style and its theological underpinnings ever since his frescoes were first uncovered in 1910–12. Although his style is unique, it can be placed within the context of other monuments in the Byzantine peripheries. The examples of this style can be found in the already-mentioned Stratelates Church in Novgorod, the Church of the Assumption on Volotovo Field in Novgorod (1352), the Church of the Protective Veil of the Virgin at Dormotovo in Pskov (mid-14th century), the Church of Christ the Savior in Tsalenjikha, Georgia (1384–96), the Church of Ayios Nikolaos at Cheili on Tilos, Greece (early 15th century). To date, there is no systematic study of this corpus. The question as to where Theophanes fits into the bigger context of the Byzantine and European art of his time remains open to investigation.
Alpatov, Mikhail Vladimirovich. Feofan Grek = Theophanes the Greek. Moscow: Izobrazitelʹnoe iskusstvo, 1979.
The author of this book offers a new look at both Theophanes’s frescoes in Novgorod and other monumental works, works on paper, and panels attributed to Theophanes in Moscow and elsewhere.
Grabarʹ, I.Ė. “Feofan Grek. (Ocherk iz istorii drevnerusskoĭ zhivopisi)” [Theophanes the Greek. (Essay on the history of ancient Russian art)]. Kazanskiĭ muzeĭnyĭ vestnik no. 1 (1922): 13–15.
This early description of the monument put the church on Ilyina Street on the map of art history. Based on the stylistic similarities the author noted between this and other churches, the author suggested that Theophanes had decorated several churches in Novgorod.
Lazarev, Viktor Nikitich. Feofan Grek i ego shkola [Theophanes the Greek and his school]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1961.
This work is the first comprehensive look at Theophanes’s work in Novgorod, one that attempted to place Theophanes in the bigger context of Byzantine art.
T͡Sarevska͡ia, Tatiana I͡U. Feofan Grek. Freski v Velikom Novgorode [Theophanes the Greek. Frescoes in Veliky Novgorod]. Veliky Novgorod: Novgorodskiĭ gosudarstvennyĭ ob”edinennyĭ muzeĭ-zapovednik, 2018.
This book offers the most up-to-date information on the church on Ilyina Street, including a discussion of recent discoveries. Designed as a full color album, the book contains the most comprehensive collection of high-resolution images.
Vzdornov, Gerold I. Freski Feofana Greka v t͡serkvi Spasa Preobrazhenii͡a v Novgorode: K 600-leti͡iu sushchestvovani͡ia fresok, 1378-1978 [Frescoes of Theophanes the Greek in the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Novgorod, on the 600th anniversary of frescoes]. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1976.
This monograph offers a thorough analysis of the iconography of all the images in the church on Ilyina Street, not only the best surviving images in the gallery chamber but also in other parts of the church.