I thought I would do a short series (I intend three at this stage) of articles focussing on paintings by thue gothic artists, looking at two of my favourites Fra Angelico and Duccio. Fra Angelico, the 15th century Florentine artist is normally considered late gothic in style. Duccio, from Siena, worked earlier, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Duccio’s work represents the more iconographic based style and Fra Angelic the more naturalistic. Looking at these two exemplars of early and late gothic art gives us a good sense of what characterises this tradition.
This is not just for the purpose of an art history discussion. I think that there is much to benefit from artists today who are trying to spark the ‘new epiphany of beauty’ by looking at the gothic tradition. First, it is one of the three authentic Catholic liturgical traditions cited by Pope Benedict XVI in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Also, I often find in conversation that his work appeals to people who have a similar understanding of the Faith, the liturgy and Catholic culture as I do. It seems that for many, Fra Angelico in particular has the balance of naturalism and idealism that nourishes the prayer of modern man. John Paul II gave him a special mention in his Letter to Artists. I think therefore that perhaps this could be a good starting point for artists to study and from which a distinctive art of Vatican II could develop in the future (just as the baroque, which developed from the base of the stylistic developments of the High Renaissance, might be considered the art of the counter-Reformation and of the Council of Trent). Only time will tell if I am right in this regard, of course.
The gothic style arose from a different understanding of man’s perception of the natural world through his senses. The ideas that drove it developed from about 1000AD onwards with the rediscovery of the philosophy of Aritotle and the subsequent incorporation of his ideas into Christian thinking by figures such as St Thomas. The love of nature of Franciscan spirituality was also influential in popularizing the ideas. I have written more about this here.
As I wrote in a commentary on his Annunciation, Fra Angelico working late in the period is very interesting to study for his selective use of the features of the well observed naturalism such as perspective, shadow and figures in profile; and his retention at other times of those features of iconographic art.
If we look his Resurrection a fresco from one of the cells in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, we see Christ rising in an almond shaped mandorla, the traditional symbol of His glory, carrying the red and white Resurrection penant. The background is shadowy and dark and we see the tomb drawn with naturalistic perspective. The angel is in profile, which would never be seen in an iconographic painting, though shining with uncreated light which one would expect in iconographic art.
There is one stylistic feature that Fra Angelico uses that interests me greatly. This is his habit of putting the face of Christ in shadow. On first sight this is strange, since he shows the rest of the person of Christ shining with light and the face of the angel, a great, but nevertheless lesser being is totally in light. When I first noticed this I wondered why? A Dominican friar in England told me his interpretation of this: Fra Angelico is showing a light that is brighter still. In fact it is so bright that it blinds us – it is too much for us, fallen human beings who are observing Him, to bear. I find this explanation convincing, especially because we see in in other paintings by Fra Angelico, for example the Transfiguration and the Sermon on the Mount have the same feature.
SAINT ANDREY RUBLEV: SAINT AND ICON PAINTER
Rublev’s famous Trinity icon, 1411 or 1425-27. Source: Press Photo
Andrei Rublev’s happy fate
It is safe to say that fate was kind to Andrei Rublev. He gained fame and recognition while he was still among the living, and there are numerous mentions of him in historical chronicles.
Rublev’s customers included princes and large monasteries, and he lived and worked in Moscow, Vladimir, and Zvenigorod. He was not forgotten after his death; Rublev’s fame as Russia’s most eminent iconographer has survived through the centuries. The Stoglav church synod of 1551 recognized his works as a standard to emulate.
The Russian Old Ritualists also thought very highly of Rublev’s work. His icons were valued by art collectors, who saw them as an embodiment of canonical iconography and ancient piety.
That is why even in the 19th century, when the art of iconography seemed to have been forgotten, the name of Rublev was still famous as the golden standard of ecclesiastical art.
During the Soviet period, Rublev was a symbol of medieval Russian culture. In 1960 UNESCO held international events to mark Rublev’s 600th anniversary. There is a museum of medieval Russian art in Moscow named after Rublev. Meanwhile, scientists have studied meticulously the collection of his icons and frescoes in the Tretyakov Gallery.
Piecing together Rublev’s life
But what do we really know about the iconographer's life as a man of faith? Biographical information about him is extremely scant; researches have had to piece the story of his life together bit by tiny bit.
He was born in the 1360s, but it is impossible to determine a more precise date. The day of his death, however, is well known: it is January 29, 1430.
The last judgement, 1408. Source: Press Photo
Those were dark times in Russia: The country was occupied by the Tatar invaders, who pillaged towns, churches and monasteries, and took people into slavery.
Meanwhile, the vassal Russian princes kept squabbling for power between themselves. Moscow and Nizhniy Novgorod had two epidemics of plague in 1364 and 1366. A large part of Moscow burned to the ground in the devastating fire of 1365. In 1378 the city was invaded by Lithuania’s Prince Algirdas, and there was a famine in 1371.
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It is amid that chaos that the future creator of the images of heavenly harmony was brought up. Unfortunately, we know nothing about Rublev’s parents or his social background.
Nevertheless, the very fact that he even had a surname is quite telling, because at the time, only members of the nobility or very wealthy people had surnames. Besides, "Rublev” may be an indication of his forefathers' trade. The name Rublev probably derives from the verb rubit (to cut wood) or from the noun rubel, which can be either a long wooden pole or a tool used by tanners.
We don’t know where Rublev learned iconography, or who his teacher was. Neither is there any information about his early works. The first mention of Rublev is made in a 1405 chronicle, in which it states that the Annunciation Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin was decorated by a team of three craftsmen commissioned by Grand Duke Vasiliy Dmitrievich.
The craftsmen were Feofan the Greek, Prokhor the Elder from Gorodets, and the monk Andrei Rublev. The fact that Rublev’s name is mentioned at all in the chronicle suggests that he was already a highly respected craftsman at the time. But he is mentioned as the last of the three, which means that he was a junior member of the team.
Since Rublev was a monk, his fist name, Andrei, was probably given to him when he took the vows; his birth name must have been different. The vows were probably taken at the Trinity Monastery under Nikon Radonezhskiy, a disciple and successor of the Reverend Sergiy Radonezhskiy.
This is mentioned in chronicles dating back to the 18th century. Many of Rublev’s most famous works were created at the Trinity Monastery, or at the monastery’s commission. He spent his last years at the Spaso-Andronikov Monastery, which was founded by another of Sergiy Radonezhskiy's disciples, Reverend Andronik.
A standard of ecclesiastical art
The second mention of Rublev’s name is made in a 1408 chronicle in connection with the decoration of the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir.
The monument to Andrei Rublev. Source: Petr Adam Dohnálek
Rublev worked on that project with another iconographer, Daniil Cherny, who is described as Rublev’s “friend and fellow-faster."Cherny was also a monk, probably a Greek or a Serb, as his last name suggests.
Cherny is mentioned first in the chronicle, meaning that he was either the elder of the two, or held the more senior rank. He figures prominently in Rublev’s subsequent life.
The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir was one of the main cathedrals of the Russian Church, so decorating it was an extremely important project.
The cathedral itself was built in the 12th century, but all its frescoes and icons were lost in 1238 during the Tatar-Mongol occupation. Grand Duke Vasiliy Dmitrievich therefore commissioned a restoration project.
In the mid-1420s Rublev and Cherny oversaw another project at the Trinity Cathedral of the Troitse-Sergiev Monastery. The frescoes have been lost, but the iconostasis has survived.
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Rublev’s famous Trinity icon, which is regarded as the highest artistic expression of the Trinitarian Dogma, was also created for the Trinity Cathedral. According to the chronicles, Nikon Radonezhsky commissioned the icon “in memory and glory of Reverend Sergei.”
He spent his last years at the Spaso-Andonikov Monastery. Unfortunately, the frescoes and icons of the monastery’s Spassky Cathedral created by Rublev have not survived.
Shortly after Rublev’s death in the 15th century, locals began revere him as Reverend Andrei the Iconicist at the Troitse-Sergiev and Spaso-Andronikov monasteries, where he had spent many years. He was canonized a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988.