Medieval Novgorodian Icons of St. George

Located in the northwest of Russia on the river Volkhov, the medieval city-state of Novgorod escaped the Mongol invasions that destabilized most of the rest of Rus′ in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Having evolved along a different political trajectory than other Rus′ principalities, Novgorod was free and wealthy. Too far from the Byzantine world to be much overshadowed by its artistic influence (unlike its political and economic rival Moscow), Novgorod had established a distinctive iconographic style by the 1370s. 

From its inception, Novgorodian iconography demonstrated a close relationship between religious art and everyday concerns. Medieval Novgorodians looked to the figures portrayed on icons for help with practical needs, and the local school of iconography was characterized by an almost innocent simplicity and a “popular” style. Before Novgorod lost its independence to Moscow in 1478, it had produced many of Russia’s best and most enduring icons, beloved today for their frankness, sincerity and chromatic brilliance. 

St. George was one of the most popular saints in medieval Novgorod. According to legend, St. George slew a dragon that had been terrorizing a town and devouring its livestock. Perhaps for this reason, St. George came to be revered in Novgorod as the protector of fields and flocks. Hymns and legends glorified him as the defender of Novgorodian civilization, and many churches in the region were dedicated to him. In one ritual believed to protect peasant flocks (admittedly Muscovite in origin), the peasant would circle his pasture three times with an axe in one hand, a candle in the other, a sickle around his neck, an egg, and an icon of St. George. Flocks and herds were traditionally put out to pasture on St. George’s Day (April 23), when, according to legend, the saint would ride out on his white horse to protect the peasants’ livestock.

One of the earliest known Novgorodian icons of St. George, made at the Yuriev Monastery between 1130 and 1150.

One of the earliest known Novgorodian icons of St. George, made at the Yuriev Monastery between 1130 and 1150.

One of the earliest Novgorodian icons of St. George, made at the Yuriev Monastery and now in the Tretyakov Gallery, is a full-length portrait of a handsome youth painted between 1130 and 1150. The saint is shown with his lance in his right hand, his sword in his left, and his shield slung over his back. The iconographer allowed the spear to intrude upon the border of the icon, but the sword is cut off. The somewhat squat proportions of the figure are typical of the Novgorodian style. The elaborate decoration of George’s clothing are uncharacteristic of later Novgorodian works, however, and may indicate that the icon was painted to please the tastes of a prince or some other person of high status. According to one authority (Viktor Lazarev), this icon’s large dimensions (about four by six feet) make it likely that this was the principle icon in its church of origin, and adorned one of its main pillars. Possibly it was commissioned by some high-ranking warrior who enjoyed having George has his patron saint. The image must also have appealed to the men of Novgorod’s citizen army. 

Another early portrait-like icon of St. George, written about 1170.

Another early portrait-like icon of St. George, written about 1170.

Another early portrait-like icon of St. George, this one half-length, was made around 1170 and now resides in the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin. Again, the saint is pictured wearing a red cloak and holding his lance and sword. The face radiates youth and virility, and is surrounded by thick, brown, curly hair. This icon was also likely commissioned by a prince, as the sword was considered the symbol of princely sovereignty. The combination of youthful beauty, princely dignity, and military valor make this a truly stunning icon and a must-see for visitors to the Moscow Kremlin.

Hagiographical panel of St. George, early fourteenth century

Hagiographical panel of St. George, early fourteenth century

A hagiographical panel of St. George from the early fourteenth century, now in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, tells the story of St. George’s most famous miracle in great detail. Unlike many other renderings of St. George and the dragon, this one shows the deed already done, and Yelisava (the princess in the Russian version of the story) leading the tame dragon on a cord as her parents and a bishop watch from a high tower. St. George seems suspended in midair above Yelisava and the dragon, and the effect is heightened by the bright red background. The combination of red and white is characteristic of the boisterous yet unostentatious Novgorodian iconographic style. George’s face is utterly calm and passive. Both the saint and his horse are totally non-threatening, and seem to be gazing off into the distance outside the space of the icon, as if already preoccupied with guarding peasants’ livestock.     

Extremely interesting are the fourteen scenes from George’s life on the edges of the panel. The saint is stoned, boiled, whipped, stabbed, tortured on a wheel, and beheaded. Scenes of martyrdom such as these are always relegated to the periphery of Orthodox icons, in order to shift the focus away from the martyrdom itself and onto its joyful outcome. In each scene, George’s face retains the same serene expression, and often his hands are lifted in prayer. Each time he emerges unharmed from the tortures his enemies inflict on him. Death is nowhere to be found on the icon, only victory over evil and oppression. 

A very fine icon of St. George from the late fourteenth century.

A very fine icon of St. George from the late fourteenth century.

A true gem among Novgorodian icons, and probably the finest icon of the lot, is a rendition of St. George and the dragon produced in the late fourteenth century, which now hangs in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. George appears larger than life on his brilliant white horse, an effect heightened by the fact that George’s hand, his flowing cloak, and one of the horse’s hoofs encroach upon the border of the icon. The saint drives his lance through the dragon’s head with joyful exuberance. George’s downward glance, parallel to his weapon, and the horse’s intense gaze in the same direction, draw the viewer’s eye down to the head of the writhing dragon. The eye then naturally follows the beast’s serpentine body back to the horse’s rear legs, whence they are drawn up again to the relaxed figure of George. The overall effect is sublimely smooth and harmonious. Each element in the icon is perfectly balanced: the dark hole out of which the dragon emerges mirrors the semi-circle of heavenly blue from which the hand of God emerges to bless George’s deed; the differing heights of the mountains balance each other out; and the axis of George’s lance and the graceful shape of the horse’s body form a pleasing X at the center of the icon.     

The flamboyant use of red and white accentuates the flatness of this icon. Nevertheless, St. George upon his white horse stands out dramatically from the rest of the scene, and even seems to be leaping forth out of the frame, as if to aid the viewer in whatever trouble he or she may be facing. Doubtless this element of victorious hope was part of what made representations of St. George so popular among peasants, subject as they often were to famine, fire, and disease.

Another St. George slaying the dragon from the fifteenth century.

Another St. George slaying the dragon from the fifteenth century.

A similar composition from the fifteenth century, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, shows the hero bent backwards over his horse’s flank, slaying the dragon underneath his horse’s back legs. Unlike the other icons considered here, the dragon has no legs at all and appears as a colossal serpent; the allusion to the serpent in the book of Genesis is unmistakable, adding a layer to the allegorical meaning of the image. No mountains or topographic features of any kind are to be seen. St. George gazes serenely at the viewer, utterly confident in his victory, which is being overseen from above. The horse is actively engaged in conquering the dragon, and seems to trample it with its hind legs. 

An early fifteenth-century rendition with showing St. George in Roman armor.

An early fifteenth-century rendition with showing St. George in Roman armor.

This representation of St. George slaying the dragon, also from the early fifteenth century and in the Tretyakov Gallery, shows the saint in decidedly Roman-looking armor, wielding not a lance but a sword. This he brandishes over his head as his horse prances confidently, appearing to actually step on the dragon, and preparing to circle back so that George can strike the final blow. The decorations adorning the horse, as in the previous icon, are whimsical and give the horse a more Russian look than his rider. The face of George is very youthful, and his head seems disproportionately small compared to his tall stature and great billowing red cloak. Though this scene takes place before the dragon is conquered, the assurance of victory is present in the confident face of the youth and power of his uplifted arm.

St. George and the dragon, fifteenth century.

St. George and the dragon, fifteenth century.

Another, very different version of St. George and the dragon, also produced in Novgorod in the fifteenth century, currently resides outside of Russia, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. George’s lance is surmounted by a cross, and his horse is a brilliant white. St. Dionysius the Areopagite believed the pure whiteness of St. George’s horse to be an allusion to the uncreated light of God, a vision of which is considered the highest spiritual attainment of an Orthodox Christian. 

St. George standing in prayer from a Deisis row, c. 1400.

St. George standing in prayer from a Deisis row, c. 1400.

Finally, an icon of George standing in prayer, made about 1400. This work, taken from the Deisis row of an iconostasis, resides now in a private collection in Switzerland. St. George wears a red robe, signifying his status as a martyr, and because he stands in the “order” row of the iconostasis, he is shown without military gear of any kind. Though there is little movement in the icon save for the pleasing rhythm of George’s robes, the saint is, as Uspenskii and Losskii put it, “full of a special inner life.” This work, like the others, portrays George as victorious yet submissive to a higher power.

John of Damascus wrote, “The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons” (and here we may appropriately substitute “dragons”).