Russian Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations     

The arts of Russia reflect the country's long history and vast size. They have been shaped by Russia's contacts with cultures to the east and west as well as by its periods of isolation.

Ancient Sources

Early Slavic tribes in the lands around the Black Sea created some of the first Russian art. Beautifully designed jewelry, leather sword sheaths and harnesses, embroidered wall hangings, and other objects have been found in the burial mounds of chieftains and nobles. The artists often used animal forms. They also decorated their work with intricate patterns. Some designs stood for natural forces: zig-zag lines for lightning, circles and diamonds for the sun.

From the 100's to the 600's, the Slavs moved north and east into areas we now call Russia. They settled in forested areas along rivers and lakes. There they worshipped nature spirits and made wooden figures to represent their gods. The old beliefs were suppressed when Christianity became the state religion. But these spirits remained important. Their images continued to appear in folk art.

Kiev and Christian Russia

Scandinavian traders entered Russia in the 700's. They sought river routes from the north to the Black Sea. One of their outposts was Kiev. It became a major city and the capital of an important state. The Kievan rulers gained wealth and strength through a treaty with the powerful Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Empire's capital, was the center of the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) Church. It was partly to strengthen ties with the Empire that Prince Vladimir of Kiev decided to adopt the Eastern Christian faith in 989.

But ancient records suggest other reasons, too. Before deciding which form of worship to make the official religion of his kingdom, Vladimir studied those of other countries. He sent envoys to the Muslims in the south and to the German Christians in the west. But they returned to say that they found "no beauty" there. At last, in Constantinople, they attended a service in the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom (St. Sophia). "We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported. "For on earth there is no sight or beauty to equal this We know only that God abides there with his people We cannot forget that beauty."

This feeling that the beauty of a church expresses the glory of God is a key to Russian religious art. Vladimir wanted his city to glorify God. So he brought teams of masons and painters to build palaces and churches modeled on those of Constantinople. The most important cathedral, begun in 1037, was dedicated to St. Sophia. Its roof was formed by 13 domes. The largest symbolized Christ. The twelve smaller domes around it stood for the Apostles. Inside, the walls were covered with mosaics. Mosaics are pictures made up of small pieces of polished stone or glass. Most of the cathedral artists were Greeks from Constantinople. As they worked, they trained helpers, and within a few years Kiev had several workshops of local artists. The city grew in magnificence. At its height, with nearly four hundred churches, Kiev rivaled the Byzantine capital.

The Northern Centers

Two northern centers were Novgorod and Vladimir. They developed distinctive styles of architecture. Novgorod was famous for its woodcarvers and for its wooden architecture. Wood was used to build churches, houses, and even the fortress (kremlin) that stood at the highest point of each town. No early wood churches have survived. But the Church of the Transfiguration (1714) on Kizhi island, with its pointed tent roof and clustered domes, gives an idea of how they looked.

In the 1100's the capital was moved from Kiev to the city of Vladimir. Churches and palaces were built there of local white limestone. Their outside walls were decorated with carvings of figures, animals, and plants. Vladimir became the home of a famous icon of the Mother of God. (An icon is a religious image, usually painted on a wood panel.) This icon became known as the Vladimir Mother of God. It had been painted in Constantinople and was cherished as a symbol of the Kievan state. It was the most treasured of all Russian icons.

The Mongol Invasion and Isolation

During the 1200's, nomadic tribes called the Mongols (or Tatars) conquered the Byzantine Empire and swept over south and central Russia. By 1240 both Kiev and Vladimir had been destroyed. Hundreds of churches and early icons were burned.

The Mongol occupation lasted for nearly 250 years. It cut Russia off from Constantinople and from Western Europe. This meant that Russian artists could no longer imitate Byzantine models. Gradually, Russian builders and painters began to develop their own styles. Regional schools of icon painting were established in Novgorod and other cities. They brought new types of figures and color combinations to religious images. Northern artists invented the iconostasis. This was a carved wooden choir screen on which rows of icons were hung. The iconostasis came to be the outstanding feature of Russian churches.

In the early 1400's several masterful painters emerged. They included Theofanes the Greek, his assistant Prokhor of Gorodets, and Andrei Rublev. One of the most deeply moving icons is Rublev's Old Testament Trinity (about 1410-20), in which three angels represent the three figures of the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The feeling of serenity and joy in this icon echoes the rising hopes of Russians as the Mongols were finally being driven from the land.

The Rise of Moscow

The princes of Moscow took the lead in driving back the Mongols. Under Ivan I (ruled 1325-41), the city rose in power. As it did, new building projects were begun. In 1462, Ivan III took the title of Czar (meaning Caesar, or emperor), and called Moscow the "third Rome." He hired architects from Italy to build new churches and palaces in the Kremlin. The Italian architect Aristotele Fioravanti built the Cathedral of the Dormition (1475-79). He based his design on the churches of Vladimir but used new building techniques from Italy. Italians also designed the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael, the Annunciation Cathedral, the banquet hall known as the Faceted Palace, and the towers of the Kremlin walls.

The Cathedral of the Intercession (1555-60) is also known as the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed. It was built on Red Square in honor of Ivan IV's capture of the Mongol capital of Kazan. The Russian architects Postnik and Barma combined forms of the Kievan domed churches with the tent-shaped roof of northern wooden churches. Their striking use of brightly glazed tiles on the domes may have been inspired by styles of Kazan and the East.

The czars were also patrons of icon painting, metalwork, and manuscript illumination (illustration). After a fire destroyed much of Moscow in 1547, the Czar called in architects, painters, and craftsmen to replace the lost works and to establish a permanent school and workshops in the Kremlin.

During the 1500's and 1600's, the czars promoted trade and artistic contact with other lands. The styles of Germany, the Netherlands, England, Italy, Turkey, and Persia (modern-day Iran) began to influence the ways Russian artists decorated buildings and ceremonial objects. In icons painted by Simon Ushakov and other Kremlin masters, figures appeared rounded and naturally shaded in the manner of Western European art.

While the arts of the church and the czars' courts were absorbing Western influences, the art made by peasants to decorate their houses, clothing, and tools kept older forms alive. Some designs on carved and painted wood articles and on embroidered textiles can be traced back to the early Slavic tribes.

St. Petersburg and Westernization

Peter the Great (ruled 1682-1725) continued the Westernization begun under Ivan III. In 1703, Peter founded a new capital, St. Petersburg, near the Gulf of Finland. To build the new city, his "window" on the West, Peter summoned architects and artisans from all over Europe and Russia.

Peter worked with his chief architect, Domenico Trezzini, to create buildings modeled after those of the Netherlands and other countries of Western Europe. One of the first projects was the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (1712-13). Its tall gilt spire is still a landmark today. It contrasts sharply with the domed churches of Moscow.

Peter's daughter Elizabeth (ruled 1741-62) also loved architecture. Her chief architect was Bartolomeo Rastrelli. He built palaces and churches in an ornate but lively style known as Elizabeth's rococo. The buildings were painted in bright colors and trimmed in white. The most famous example is the Winter Palace, on the south bank of the Neva River.

Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-96) preferred a more restrained, classical style of architecture. Like Peter, Catherine was international in outlook. She sent young artists to study abroad. Through her ministers, she purchased works of art in every major European city. Other Russian rulers followed Catherine's example in collecting art. Their collections later formed Russia's art museums, which are among the finest in the world.

The Academy of Arts was founded in 1757 under Elizabeth. It was given its permanent form in 1764 by Catherine. It was established to provide Russian artists with training equal to European standards. The Academy had its most dramatic effect on painters. Because of the long-standing icon tradition, painting was slower than architecture to adopt foreign styles. Russian painters had to learn new forms and techniques if they were to gain a place in the new, international art world.

The 1800's

Contrasting trends can be seen in Russian art of the early 1800's. The most successful artists, like Karl Briullov, mastered all aspects of European painting and spent many years abroad. Briullov was most famous for his dramatic painting The Last Day of Pompeii (1830-33). The best portrait painters were Orest Kiprenski and Vasili Tropinin. They were both peasants' sons who were given the chance to study at the Academy. Alexander Ivanov was an important painter of religious subjects.

Alexei Venetsianov was the first trained artist to abandon historical and religious subjects. Instead, his main subjects were the peasants who worked on his estate. Venetsianov's careful observation of everyday scenes paved the way for the realist movement.

By the 1860's, many artists were concerned about the hard lives of the peasants and other social issues. Ivan Kramskoi and Vasili Perov worked in a style known as critical realism. They wanted to paint works that showed what life in Russia was really like. And they wanted to exhibit those works throughout the country.

In 1871, Kramskoi and others founded the Association of Traveling Art Exhibitions. Ilia Repin was the most gifted and best known of this group. His Barge Haulers on the Volga (1871-73) showed the hard toil of the bargemen and the vastness of the river in a way that was both familiar and striking. The Association remained active into the 1900's. However, by the late 1800's many Russian artists had begun to look beyond realism toward new artistic values.

Outstanding younger painters had studied with Repin and other realists. But these artists cared more about style than about the content or message of a work. Their paintings, whether portraits, landscapes, or subjects from literature, often emphasized a mood or impression. Among these artists were Valentin Serov, Isaak Levitan, and Mikhail Vrubel.

One group went even further in promoting "art for art's sake." Led by Alexander Benois and the art and dance patron Sergei Diaghilev, they formed a society known as the World of Art in 1898. Through art exhibitions and a magazine, this group introduced modern European art into Russia. It also brought Russian art to a European audience.

In architecture and the decorative arts, European styles were combined with those of early Russia. Churches, stores, public buildings, and homes were built in this style. It became known as the Russian Revival. Early painting and decorative styles used by the Kremlin masters and by folk artists were also revived. The love of precious materials and fine craftsmanship is best seen in the jeweled enamel Easter eggs made for the royal family by the goldsmith Carl Fabergé.

The 1900's

Russian artists were involved in many of the art movements of the early 1900's. Thanks to the World of Art exhibits and to adventurous collectors, young artists could see the works of modern European painters in Russia. Many artists also traveled abroad. Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova invented neoprimitivism and rayonnism. These styles were inspired by both Russian folk art and French cubism.

Two artists whose influence extended outside Russia were Vasili Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. Both used color to express feelings and visions comparable to those of early icons and mosaics. Kandinsky at first painted recognizable scenes and images. Later he became one of the first artists to paint completely abstract works. These were compositions of lines, shapes, and colors that did not represent any real object. Chagall's dreamlike images recall his Jewish upbringing in a small Russian village.

Kazimir Malevich created suprematism, a form of abstract art, about 1913. Slightly later, a group of artists developed constructivism. This was a combination of sculpture and architecture based on modern building materials. They believed it would help in constructing a new society.

The artistic "revolution," with its new visual ideas, occurred before the political revolution of October 1917. But the artists' goals were similar to those of the Bolshevik leaders. They believed that art could work with new social theories to build a new society. The constructivists designed monuments to express the hopes of the Soviet regime.

In the 1930's the government began to limit personal and artistic freedom. Artists were allowed to work only in a style called socialist realism. This style celebrated the values of socialism and patriotism. Abstract art and other experimental styles were forbidden. No foreign art was shown in Russia for more than thirty years. A few artists tried to work according to their own ideals. But they were denounced, and their work was suppressed. Many artists left the country.

Nevertheless, an "unofficial" art movement began in the 1960's. It was led by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, the painters Mikhail Chemiakin, Oskar Rabin, and Evgeny Ruhkin, and others. Exhibits were held in parks and social clubs in the mid-1970's and early 1980's. But it was still difficult and dangerous to work outside the official system. After 1985, the cultural policy of glasnost, or "openness," encouraged artists to experiment with new styles and themes and to show their work abroad. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought Russia once again into the larger world of art.

Alison Hilton
Georgetown University
Author, Russian Folk Art and the Patterns of Life

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