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Ukrainian Icon Painting from the 12th to the 19th cc.
Having adopted the Byzantine religious system, Kyivan Rus strove, however, for independence and originality of its culture. It introduced its own church feasts (like the Intercession) and sanctified Rus saints. The first of them became Borys and Hlib, sons of the Grand Prince Volodymyr, who were treacherously killed in the internecine struggle for the Kyiv throne. They were revered both as martyrs and as warriors, defenders of the native land. The canonization of Borys and Hlib took place in 1072, and it was then that first images of the princes were created. One of the early-known icons, Saints Borys and Hlib, dating to the thirteenth century, from St. Sawa-of-Vishera's Monastery near Novgorod, has Kyiv roots and a certain "historical" background. It approaches, most likely, the olden prototype — the icon at the Vyshgorod Church near Kyiv.
In the mid-thirteenth century the upsurge of Kyivan Rus art was suddenly interrupted: the mighty Kyivan state perished under the blows of the Mongol-Tartar hordes. Nevertheless, its cultural tradition did not disappear but kept on living and became a forceful incentive for the origin of new Slavic cultures. Thus, the Halych - Volynian principality appeared as a direct heir of Kyivan Rus, enjoying political power and authority among European states of that time.
From the second half of the fourteenth century a tragic period began in the history of Ukraine, determinative in many aspects for her subsequent history. Ukraine's lands became the field of aggressive wars and fierce battles, which resulted in their annexation by neighboring countries: the Polish Kingdom joined Halychyna, the Great Principality of Lithuania Volyn and Dnipro regions, Hungary — Transcarpathia, while Moldova annexed Bukovyna. Nevertheless, just at that time almost in all Ukrainian lands under extremely unfavorable conditions the formation of the common national culture was going on, the culture that was rooted in the spiritual and cultural integrity born in previous epochs.
Long wars, led in the Ukrainian territory for centuries, impeded certainly the development of culture. However, the artistic process never ceased, only in different periods centers of art shifted from one land to another. Along with Kyiv that still retained the role of the important artistic centre, Halychyna and Volyn gradually acquired greater significance. No wonder that the majority of icon-painting monuments have come from those lands. Annals mention beautiful icons that decorated old Volynian churches. There existed an important artistic centre and the fact is testified by Volynian icons of the thirteenth —fourteenth centuries, among which is the recently restored The Mother of God Hodegetria from Dorohobush, which has become a sensation of our time.
An admirable monument of the fourteenth century, The Mother of God of Volyn, from the Intercession Church in the town of Lutsk, has a variant iconographic type of Hodegetria, that of Perivlepta (the Beautiful). Following the Byzantine canon, the Perivlepta acquired a more lyrical look. The image of Saint Mary bending to the Child shows greater emotion and kindheartedness, though She retains severe majesty and solemn sublimity. It is the most tragic image of the Mother of God in old Ukrainian icon painting. The great power of motherly love and a feeling of doom are reproduced in the mournful eyes of Saint Mary with forceful yet laconic means. Beautiful and refined features of Her face are permeated with spiritual chastity. Perfect forms, the skilful and delicate painting technique, bright and pure colors, and linear rhythms prove the Volynian master's adherence to the classic tradition.
The fifteenth century left a more appreciable trace in the evolution of Ukrainian icon painting, and the number of extant monuments is considerably greater. In the late fourteenth —early fifteenth century, the iconostasis appeared and began developing, becoming an integral architectural component of an Orthodox church. Icons were placed in it in a strictly fixed order determined by the ideological essence of the religious system. So, the demand for icons grew, their subjects and stylistics became defined, and their role and significance increased. It was the golden age of the Ukrainian icon, the period of its greatest achievements. At the same time, it was also an important stage in the formation of national icon-painting school in the context of the general artistic process in Slavic countries. Ties with Byzantium gradually weakened and came to an end after its conquest by Turkey. Links with the Balkan countries were maintained and many Greek and Serbian artists moved to Russia and Ukraine, where they worked alongside of local icon painters. Contacts with the Athos monasteries were also fruitful as well as with Moscow and Novgorod, the traditional icon-painting centers.
Ukrainian icon painting of that period endeavored to take an independent road, to find its own style within the framework of artistic traditions and popular aesthetic conceptions. Hence, the versatility and consummation of the art of that time. Though adherence to spiritual ideals and classically precise monumental forms dominates the representation, a tendency to lyrical, poetic interpretation of the subject appears at the same time. Monuments dating from that period retain the perfect harmony of old icon painting and concurrently attain a special painterly refinement.
The icon Saint George and the Dragon is a brilliant example of the refined style of the second half of the fifteenth century. The poetic approach and sparkling pure colors enhance the emotional impact of triumphal symbolism. Saint George, the conqueror of the terrible monster, piercing the dragon with his lance with natural ease, appears here as a gallant knight. Lyrical and contemplative tenor imparts the poetic legend a new tinge, relieving it of dramatic tension and enhancing the harmonious integrity of the icon. The genre motif of a medieval castle which is guarded by knights is a tribute to Gothic that had an insignificant influence on the Ukrainian icon. This icon is a striking example of beautiful melodious icon-painting idiom with its rhythmic spatial construction, fluid and flexible lines, and resonant colouring.