Theophanes the Greek
Theophanes the Greek was one of the greatest medieval Russian painters, a famous sage, a wise philosopher, and the best of icon-painters.
Theophanes was born in Byzantium, and was therefore known in Russia as the Greek. When he came to Rus he was 35-40 and already decorated more than forty stone churches in Constantinople, Chalkidike and Galata. In Rus Theophanes found a fruitful outlet for his enormous talent. His art, based on Byzantine traditions, both influenced and came under the influence of Russian culture.
His first paintings done in Russia were the frescos in one of the splendid cathedrals of Novgorod—the Church of Our Saviour, built in 1374. The boyar Vasily Danilovich and the citizens of Ilyin Street commissioned the frescos, which have been partly preserved. In the cupola there is a depiction of the Pantocrator (Christ the Almighty) and four seraphim.
All the saints painted by Theophanes the Greek are different, each with individual, complex features. But at the same time they all have something in common: the wrathful, mighty Pantokrator the wise, majestic Noah, the sombre Adam, and the menacing prophet Elijah are all strong in spirit and steadfast in character, people torn by contradictions, people whose outer calm conceals their inner struggle against raging passions.
Theophanes’ figures have a powerful emotional effect and strike a moving, tragic chord. There was a sharp, dramatic quality in his very manner of painting, which was impetuous and spirited. He fashioned his figures with bold, vigorous strokes, applying vivid highlights to achieve emotionality and intensity of expression.
Theophanes contemporaries were impressed by his originality of thought and by the range of his creative imagination.
The frescos in the Church of Our Saviour are among the most precious examples of Novgorod monumental art and influenced the work of many other icon-painters. Closest to them are the murals in the Fyodor Stratilat Church and the Church of the Dormition in Volotovo Pole, which were probably done by Theophanes’ pupils.
Theophanes worked in Novgorod for quite a long time and he went to Moscow. From 1395 to 1405 the artist decorated three cathedrals in the Moscow Kremlin — the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (1395), the Cathedral of the Archangel (1399) and the Cathedral of the Annunciation (1405).
Together with Andrei Rublyov and the monk Prokhor from Gorodets Theophanes painted the iconostasis in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Annunciation, which is the only one still extant. Theophanes and Rublyov were two artists who created the classical form of the Russian iconostasis.
Where the painter spent the last years of his life is unknown. He appears to have died between 1405 and 1415, since a letter written by Epiphany the Wise mentions that in 1415 the great artist was no longer alive.
From: Fifty Russian Artists. Raduga Publishers. 1985. Moscow. (Translated from the Russian by Angus Roxburg)