Team (artel) painting as a form of work organization emerged in the Middle Ages. Wandering artels of craftsmen played an important role in cultural exchange, formation of European medieval culture and blending of West and East. Craftsmen as well as pilgrims were called ‘ships of the Middle Ages’. Historically, artels are credited to have regulated division of labour, specialization of craftsmen depending on their talent and experience as well as to have maintained the tradition and canon of forms sanctified by practice. The secrets of the trade were handed down from fathers to sons and grandsons.
Anonymous craftsmen of Vladimir-Suzdal cathedral carvings, the renowned Theophanes the Greek who just before his death became the head of a large artel of painters among whom young Rublev started work and later “Andrei Rublev and his assistants” who painted frescoes in Moscow, Vladimir and Zvenigorod, as well Dionisy and his sons, all belonged to artels.
The idea of artel work is that everyone performs a certain part of the work. At the head is the lead painter who designs and elaborates a compositional solution, colour scheme, drawing and does the most complicated and important parts of a painting (e.g. faces of saints). It is the lead painter who selects topics guided by clients’ requests, be it a prince, a church or townsmen.
In artels there used to be a balanced distribution of work according to experience and talent: some painted vestments; some did calligraphy; some outlined halos etc.
Apprentices rubbed colour pigments, kept order and, if they had spare time, they could try some simple artwork. Everyone was promoted according to his diligence and artistic talent. If the art of the artel painter exceeded the bounds of the artel, then either the artel changed its style but remained intact or the painter left the artel and set up his own.
A marvellous instance of the artel painting is the wall painting of the Virgin Nativity Cathedral in the St. Ferapont Belozero Monastery.
The inscription on the soffit of the door arch relates that the cathedral was painted by Dionisy’s artel from 6 August to 8 September 1502. An unprecedented short term of only 34 days is confirmed by the respective number of “day’s work” joints on the frescoes. According to A. Rybakov, the under-cupola part of the cathedral numbers just 34 joinings. Presumably, later the altar took 14 days, the western façade took 4 days and the fresco above the St. Martinian’s tomb on the southern wall took 1 day. All in all the wall painting of the St. Ferapont Belozero Monastery took 53 days and set a model of a unique combination of well-organized artel work and spiritual fine art.