Dionisy and Andrei Rublev
When approaching the extensive topic of “Dionisy and Rublev” related to art, theology and study of culture it should be noted that there is no unanimous ‘canonical’ assessment of the work of these masters.
Art historians agree in opinion that Rublev and Dionisy are the greatest artists of Old Rus (as a rule adding the name of their Byzantine predecessor Theophanes the Greek).
Today it seems obvious that it was Andrei Rublev who, at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, created an established and recognizable style of Russian medieval painting (the Moscow school of painting) which having later acquired canonical features set a model for Old Russian art in general and is sometimes regarded as “classical”.
It is undeniable that Dionisy’s historical place is that of Rublev’s successor. The extent of the latter’s influence is so great that one cannot ignore or avoid the subject of its specific character. Nor can one help but discern a distinctive ‘dionesiesque’ manner differing him from the other.
This is, however, one of the few things art historians can agree on. A number of authoritative scholars, experts in Old Russian painting, originated a certain Rublev-focused viewpoint where Dionisy holds the honorary “second place”.
Such a point of view leads the inevitable comparison of Rublev and Dionisy to the no less inevitable question as to why Dionisy is inferior. When compared to Rublev, Dionisy is said to be more festive, buoyant, more into “special effects”, colours and rhythmical repetitions in composition, even mannerism, as opposed to Rublev’s theological profundity, wisdom and spiritual and bodily harmony.
Art per se in a way displaces spirituality. The origins of such view can be found with one of the first art critics of Dionisy V.T. Georgievsky, whose monograph The Frescoes of the St. Ferapont Monastery initiated their study:
“Dionisy like Rublev strived for representation of heavenly beauty, for portrayal of people whose appearance inspired purification and moral perfection, Georgievsky writes”.
He was likewise attracted by a state of inner contemplation. He liked to convey the power of wisdom, righteousness and resignation through his icons and frescoes. That’s where his affinity with Rublev lies. However, new trends forced their way. First of all, it was reinforcement of artistic canons manifesting themselves in repetition of the same movement and other techniques. Faces of saints had a certain monotonous resemblance lessening their psychological expressiveness while proportions and outlines of bodies revealed fragility which sometimes seems affected and which was absolutely alien to Rublev.
The will and strength of the 14th century art were replaced with softness and harmonious roundness of forms. Thus Rublev’s serenity turned into Dionisy’s buoyancy which in itself impairs the elevated spirituality of the iconographic image.”
Traces of such interpretation of Dionisy’s style can be found in numerous works of the 20th century including well-known monographs of I. Grabar, M. Alpatov, and V. Lazarev. For example, Alpatov writes about Dionisy: “In Dionisy’s art there is a lot of spirituality, moral nobility, and delicacy of feelings that connect him with the best traditions of Rublev… but for all that there is also a touch of triumph and splendour unknown and alien to Rublev and his contemporaries.”
On the other hand, academics, whose assessment is not Rublev-focused and is based on Dionisy himself and on the unreserved interpretation of Dionisy’s perfected and distinctive style as the highest achievement of Old Russian art, could not agree with such hierarchy.
Another approach to the issue of “Rublev and Dionisy” can be shortly formulated as follows: “These are two medieval geniuses working within the same theological and aesthetic tradition (hesychasm), who set and met their own artistic and theological challenges at the highest possible level.”
An illustration of such up-to-date approach (that seems more productive as it cancels the need to contrast Dionisy with Rublev and ‘belittle’ one against the other in any aspect) can be seen in particular in the recently published book Icon Divinity by I. Yazykova:
“On the whole, working like Rublev within the Byzantine painting tradition, Dionisy contributed something principally different from his great predecessors into Russian art.
Dionisy changes the very structure of the artistic image by abandoning antique themes typical of Byzantium. Idealization of the image reaches the highest point of detachment, aimed at ‘de-materialization’. The space is treated conventionally by slight touches. The drawing becomes scanty though extremely attenuated and light, the rhythm gets more meaningful. Impression of sublime detachment of representations is built by a particular treatment of colours and light. The colour range becomes lighter; large patches of colour play a significant role, the role of silhouette is heightened. The feature of Dionisy’s style is the luminescence of images, partly dependent on lavish use of white colour, which makes adjacent colours lighter. Dionisy avoids sharp contrasts preferring a subdued range as if the colour is not applied to its full capacity. The luminous effect is intensified by lightening that does not disturb the ideal form. This imagery is void of dramatic tension. Any action is represented as timeless and transfigured by the Uncreated Light.
The origins of such art undoubtedly go back to the ideas of the Byzantine hesychasm of the fourteenth century assimilated by Russia and developed in the writings of Old Russian devotees of the 14th-15th centuries (e.g. Dionisy’s contemporary Nil Sorsky) as well as in the creative work of Andrei Rublev, whose tradition was inherited by Dionisy, who in his own way interpreted the hesychast teachings on the uncreated light in his icons.
The best preserved frescoes of the Virgin Nativity Cathedral of the Ferapontov Monastery give us a chance to uncover these methods to some extent”.