Ancient Russian painting is an important stage in the development of world culture. The era of Old Russian painting can be attributed to the period from the 9th to the 13th century. Its importance for world culture lies in the fact that Russia adopted Christian culture from Byzantium, in the form it originated in the 4th century. 

Emperor Theodosius proclaimed Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380. After that, the Roman Empire split into Western and Eastern. The Western Empire ceased to exist in 476. 

In 988, Russia was baptized according to the Byzantine rite and from that time began to develop Old Russian painting, which was the heiress of Byzantium. In 1473, Byzantium (the Eastern Empire) also ceased to exist. The Turks destroyed painting on the former territory of Byzantium, since the rules of Islam do not allow depicting people. 

Thus, the Old Russian Painting, preserved in many Russian churches, is evidence of what painting was in the first centuries of Christianity. In Western Europe in those years, more emphasis was placed on sculptures, and Old Russian painting preserved its original traditions for centuries.

In this review of "Ancient Russian Painting" you can read about cathedrals and temples where ancient frescoes and icons are best preserved.

1.    Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov
2.    Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Novgorod
3.    Ferapontov Monastery
4.    Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir
5.    Church of the Savior on Nereditsa in Novgorod
6.    St. Nicholas Cathedral in Novgorod
7.    The Nativity Cathedral in Suzdal
8.    Church of Elijah the Prophet in Yaroslavl
9.    St. John the Baptist Church in Yaroslavl
10.   Znamensky Cathedral in Novgorod
11.   St. Sophia Cathedral in Vologda

Click on the hyperlinks to read in detail about each church and see a large number of photos

Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov

The Mirozhsky Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in Russia. It is included in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Lists as one of the most important monuments of ancient Russian painting. There is no exact date of foundation of the monastery, but it is believed that it was founded in the middle of the 12th century by the Novgorod bishop Nifont. 

The main historical value is the frescoes of the Mirozhsky Monastery, with which the Transfiguration Cathedral was painted in the 12th century. In the 17th century, the ancient frescoes were whitewashed, which contributed to their preservation. Throughout the 20th century, restoration of all sections of the temple, where the ancient Russian painting of the 12th century has been preserved, is underway.

Church of the Transfiguration in Novgorod

The one-domed Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior on Ilyina Street was built by residents of this district of Novgorod. It is of exceptional cultural value as a monument of ancient Russian painting. Only there the original frescoes of the great Russian (Byzantine) icon painter Theophanes the Greek have been preserved.

The church was built in 1374, the rich Novgorod boyar Vasily Danilovich gave an order to paint the church of Theophanes the Greek artel. Many frescoes were painted by him personally, including a monumental fresco in the dome of the Church of the Savior Almighty. The style of Old Russian painting by Theophanes the Greek is different from the works of other authors. The color scheme of his frescoes is more calm

Ferapontov Monastery

Ferapontov Monastery, located 130 kilometers north of Vologda, is a unique monument of ancient Russian painting, due to the fact that the Nativity Cathedral was painted by the famous Russian icon painter Dionysius and his artel. In 2000, the Ferapontov Monastery was included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

In 1502, the famous Russian icon painter Dionysius and his artel were invited to paint the Nativity Cathedral. In just 34 days from August 6 to September 8, they painted the entire temple from the floor to the dome. The total area of the frescoes of Dionysius is 600 m2. After the Church of the Savior on Nereditsa was destroyed in Veliky Novgorod during the WWII, the Ferapontov Monastery remained the only monument of ancient Russian painting of such scale in Russia.

Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir

The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir is one of the most important monuments of ancient Russian painting, as frescoes of the outstanding Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev have been preserved here. Vladimir Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky decided to build a temple that would emphasize the status of Vladimir as the political center of Russia. 

The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir was built in the 12th century, and in 1408 the artel of Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny was invited to paint the temple. Large-scale scenes have been preserved in the central part of the cathedral: the Last Judgment, the Abraham's Bed, the Apostles and Angels, the Procession of Saints.

Church of the Savior on Nereditsa

The Church of the Savior on Nereditsa in Veliky Novgorod is one of the most beautiful monuments of northern architecture. It is located deep in the fields on the left bank of the Volkhov River, a few kilometers from Veliky Novgorod. 

The Church of the Savior on Nereditsa in 1199 was painted with frescoes that have reached the 20th century in exceptional preservation. It was a unique monument of ancient Russian painting, even more valuable than the frescoes of the Ferapontov Monastery, since the Church of the Savior on Nereditsa in the 12th century was painted not by Russians, but by Byzantine icon painters. Alas, during the WWII, the church was almost completely destroyed. After the war it was restored. In some places at the bottom of the walls, frescoes of the 12th century have been preserved, but only fragmentary.

St. Nicholas Cathedral in Novgorod

St. Nicholas Cathedral is located in the center of Yaroslav's Courtyard. This was the name of the trading side in Novgorod. St. Nicholas Cathedral was built in 1113 and belongs to the oldest cathedrals erected in Russia. Later, several more churches were built around the temple, which have survived to this day.

In the 12th century the temple was painted by Byzantine icon painters, but in the 19th century the old frescoes were knocked down, and the cathedral was painted anew. However, in the lower part of the cathedral in the 20th century, 3 frescoes of the 12th century were discovered, which are important for researchers of ancient Russian painting. Here you can see the frescoes: Job on the pustule, the Last Judgment and the Three Saints.

The Nativity Cathedral in Suzdal

The Nativity Cathedral, built in the 13th century, is the main temple of the Suzdal Kremlin. In 1445, the Tatars burned the entire city of Suzdal and the cathedral was significantly damaged. The upper part of the temple collapsed, but it was not completely dismantled, but the upper part was built over. Thus, the lower part of the cathedral dates back to the 13th century, and the upper part to the 16th century. 

The Ancient Russian painting here includes not only frescoes, but also decorative elements made using the lost technology of fire gilding. According to this technology, images are applied to the Western Gate with lion heads. The temple was painted with frescoes in 1233, and small fragments of this painting have been preserved. Most of the cathedral was painted in 1635. The beautiful carved iconostasis is also very impressive. 

Church of Elijah the Prophet in Yaroslavl

The Church of Elijah the Prophet in Yaroslavl can be recognized as a pearl of church architecture and painting. Frescoes made by Yaroslavl masters in the 17th century have been preserved to this day in their original form. These masterpieces do not belong to the period of Ancient Russian painting, as they were made in a later period, but they can be traced to the trends in the development of Old Russian painting. 

All the main work on the decoration of the temple in the 1670s-1680s was made by the artels of local craftsmen. As a result, by the beginning of the 18th century, the Church of Elijah the Prophet was one of the best examples of the mastery of the art school of church art. All the paintings, both of the main nave and the outer aisles and galleries, have survived to this day in perfect preservation.

St. John the Baptist Church in Yaroslavl

The Church of St. John the Baptist in Tolchkovo can be called one of the most interesting examples of Russian architecture. Temples with onion domes are a distinctive tradition of Russian architectural schools, but in the Church of St. John the Baptist this image is greatly enhanced. Here you can see the only church in Russia with 15 domes. 

All the surfaces of the walls, columns and ceiling inside the temple, as well as all the walls in the galleries and even the window openings are covered with paintings. In total, you can see more than one and a half thousand plots on the themes of the Old and New Testaments. The detail of the drawings is amazing. Experts believe that by the number of frescoes and their details inside one church, this church is one of the most important monuments of ancient Russian painting.

Znamensky Cathedral in Novgorod

On the Trading side of Veliky Novgorod, on Ilyina Street, there is a large Znamensky Cathedral. Now it is a museum of ancient Russian painting. All the walls of the temple were frescoed in 1702 by icon painters from the Moscow Armory.

Despite the fires and damage during the WWII, the valuable monumental frescoes of all the walls of the cathedral have survived to this day in good condition. The main plot of the painting of the Western Wall is the scenes of the Last Judgment, and one of the figures is very similar to the figure of the Russian tsar Peter I. On the southern and northern walls there are both scenes from the Symbol of Faith and the Gospel, as well as individual figures of saints revered in Novgorod.

St. Sophia Cathedral in Vologda

St. Sophia Cathedral in Vologda was founded in 1568. Three years earlier, Tsar Ivan the Terrible declared Vologda the capital of his Oprichnina state. The importance of Vologda at this time grew significantly, and the tsar decided to build a cathedral here on the model of the Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin, the main temple of Russia. 

St. Sophia Cathedral is painted by an artel of Yaroslavl masters led by Dmitry Plekhanov. They started painting the cathedral on July 20, 1686, and finished the work in July 1688. The total area of the fresco painting of St. Sophia Cathedral in Vologda was 5 thousand square meters. On the western side of the cathedral there is a Fresco of the Last Judgment, the area of which is 400 square meters. It is the largest fresco composition in the church in Russia.  

On the right side of the fresco of the Last Judgment, the image of five European nobles in doublets and with swords catches the eye. This is a completely unique image for the church canons of Old Russian fresco painting in temples. The painting of the cathedral was carried out in the 17th century, when the Middle Ages were replaced by the era of Modern Times. At that time, bourgeois revolutions were taking place in Europe, new trends appeared in all spheres of life. Perhaps the icon painters decided to depict sinners in European clothes who are waiting for the Last Judgment.