Famous Icon Painters: Dionysius


Perhaps the last of the Medieval Old Masters of Russian art, Dionysius (also known as Dionisius the Wise, Dionisii or Dionisy) grew up in the tradition of the Novgorod school of icon painting before later being called to Moscow by John III where he became the leading figure of the early Moscow school of painting at the end of the 15th century. His greatest works include his monumental mural painting created for the Virgin Nativity Cathedral at the Ferapontov Monastery, Novgorod; his Deesis for the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow; and the icon painting he completed for the Joseph Volokolamsky monastery. These devotional panel paintings along with his frescoes are regarded as the high point of the classical style in Russianreligious art.

Novgorod School of Icon Painting

There is a very marked difference in approach between the Christian art of Dionysius, the third great Russian icon-painter of the Novgorod school, and that of his great predecessor Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430). It should probably be ascribed to the interest which later 15th century Novgorodian painters began to take in composition. Whereas Rublev and his contemporaries worked contentedly in the old iconographic tradition, unconscious of any constraint, Dionysius and certain of his contemporaries deliberately experimented with balance and composition. Their preoccupation with these problems is clearly reflected in their works. A fine icon of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, for instance, reveals the lines their thoughts were following. The saint is shown against Cubist-style mountains rising steeply one above the other. Their towering verticality is emphasized on the one side by a narrow, upright chapel, on the other by a very straight tree. In contrast, the upper part of the saint's body is bent forward at right angles, and this horizontal line is repeated by the sword poised to strike at his neck. The use of such horizontal lines in an otherwise wholly vertical composition marks a new departure in this form of painting, for it introduces a dramatic spirit derived from composition instead of the customary pose and content. Fifteenth-century icons acquired a new pictorial quality from such experiments.

Whereas Rublev was a primitive in the best sense of the term, Dionysius was agitated by the questioning spirit which precedes all periods of rapid development and reform, especially in art. In this case the arrival in Moscow of a group of Early Renaissance artists from Italy acted as a powerful stimulant for evolution, and Dionysius's palette and style reveal how deeply the Italians affected his art. His colours are softer and certainly less exciting, though perhaps as insidious as those in previous Novgorodian painting, whilst his figures are even more elongated than was usual at Novgorod.

Early Works

Dionysius's earliest recorded works are the wall-paintings in the church of the Parfuntiev Monastery at Borovsk, 60 miles south-west of Moscow, which are dated to 1467-70. They were probably painted when he was still quite a young man, since he was employed there as assistant to the painter Mitrofan. Ten years later, however, his own sons were acting as his assistants, from which Grabar deduces that Dionysius must have been born in the 1440s.

Fresco Murals at Ferapontov Monastery

Again, as with Theophanes and Rublev, virtually nothing is known of Dionysius's life. His death is presumed to have occurred in 1505. His finestfresco paintings are to be seen in the Ferapontov Monastery situated in the extreme north of Novgorodian territory, not far from Kirilov on the shore of the White Lake: see, for instance, The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth(c.1480). They rank with the finest masterpieces of Novgorodian painting, and are the last mural decorations which Dionysius executed for Novgorod. All his later paintings were carried out for Moscow. Both cities thus vie in claiming him, Novgorod as the last of its great masters, Moscow as the finest of her medieval artists, working during the closing period of the Middel Ages. The Ferapontov Monastery rises from amidst gentle hillocks and fine forests. Its church is dedicated to the Virgin, and the landscape in which it stands forms a delightful setting for its wall-paintings, all of which depict scenes drawn from the cycle of the Virgin's life. All of them were the work of Dionysius, but he was assisted by his sons. Although these particular religious paintings may lack something of the intensity of earlier Novgorodian work, they make their own appeal, and their soft color pigments, mainly turquoises, pinks and lilacs, are delicately blended and balanced, whilst their impressionist brushwork conveys intense animation. They constitute the happiest stepping-stone between two periods, for they retain the best of Novgorodian painting and to a certain extent foreshadow the later Stroganov school.
Personal Style

Dionysius's personal style of Byzantine art - nicknamed "Muscovite Mannerism" - was characterized most obviously by his mastery of colour in painting. His colours are delicate and transparent, producing a range of harmonious chords, notably in solemn scenes populated with large numbers of figures. And while his figures are even more elongated than was customary in Novgorod, he escaped both artificiality and effeminacy. His drapery is moulded with a classic touch, which adds forcefulness to the whole, and the curiously coloured hills and architectural features in his backgrounds possess a fresh vitality. The perfect spacing of his figures and the highly successful disposition of each scene are not the least of his achievements, since their presence, whether on pendentive or arch, is so satisfactory that it is apt to be taken for granted. A master of numerous mediums including encaustic as well as tempera painting, Dionysius arguably had an even greater impact upon contemporary Russian artists than his predecessor Rublev: indeed, the lyrical effect of his colour schemes permeated much of the art of the early 16th century. His style was continued by numerous followers including his sons Feodosy and Vladimir, who decorated the Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin in 1508.

Icon Painting (1482-1502)

In 1482 John III summoned Dionysius to Moscow to paint the superb Deesis on the iconostasis in the Cathedral of the Dormition: (note: a deesis is a representation of Christ seated, with the Virgin on his right and John the Baptist on his left, both trying to intercede for mankind). He also decorated two of the cathedral's chapels with murals. After this, Dionysius and his sons were set the task of providing the Joseph Volokolamsky Monastery with a hundred icons. Dionysius must have enjoyed this assignment, for he devoted the remainder of his life to religious panel painting. This makes it all the more regrettable that so few of his icons have as yet been discovered. Of the hundred painted for Volokolamsk only eighty-seven are mentioned in its inventory, and several still await cleaning. Until they are restored to their original condition no exhaustive opinion can be formed of Dionysius as an icon-painter, and for the present at least his reputation must rest on the superb work which he executed for the Ferapontov Monastery and with his Moscow Deesis. These, however, suffice as proof of his exceptional skill.



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