The Walters Art Museum

About the Walters Art Museum

Donate Today

Oct.13, 2005

Media Contact:
Amy Mannarino
410-547-9000, ext. 277


Most of the icons and archeological objects have never been seen outside Russia.

Baltimore–On view from Nov. 19 through Feb. 12, 2006, the Walters Art Museum will present Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod, featuring approximately 290 objects, including about 35 extraordinary icons, that examine the art and culture of Russia's oldest medieval city-Veliky Novgorod or Novgorod the Great. Introducing an array of icons, sculpture, textiles, metalwork and archeological finds, Sacred Arts and City Life will trace the artistic and material culture of Novgorod from the ninth century, through its Golden Age in the 14th century, to its eclipse by Moscow in the 16th century. Precious ecclesiastical objects from Novgorod's numerous churches highlight the cultural achievements of its Golden Age. This exhibition was organized by the Walters Art Museum in collaboration with the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg and the Novgorod Museum Federation.

"As the only U.S. venue of the exhibition, the Walters Art Museum is pleased to present Novgorod's magnificent heritage," said Walters Director Gary Vikan. "Visitors will see the transcendental world of religious art juxtaposed with a vivid window into the rugged everyday life of people, who some eight hundred years ago, inhabited the frosty Russian North."

Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod is generously sponsored by The Concordia Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding and the Women's Committee of the Walters Art Museum.

About the Exhibition

Thanks to archaeological digs throughout the city, Novgorod's early history is remarkably well- documented, and the city remains one of the world's most important centers for studying medieval urban life. The exhibition begins by examining the walled city's geography. Recorded as early as 859, Novgorod-100 miles south of St. Petersburg-was founded on the banks of the Volkhov River, the principal water route uniting the Baltic and the Black seas. This strategic location on the Volkhov made it a vital center for importing and exchanging commercial goods and ideas between the lands of Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire.

In 988, the Byzantine-Orthodox form of Christianity was accepted in Russia. Novgorod's adoption of Christianity from the Byzantine Empire determined the eastern orientations of its religious culture and supplanted indigenous pagan cults. Objects marked with pagan symbols and totems gradually were replaced by Christian imagery and amulets. One of the most important sites in Novgorod is the Cathedral of St. Sophia, built in stone from 1045-50. It is the city's spiritual center and one of its most impressive architectural monuments. In a city constructed almost entirely of wood, the erection of stone churches, especially of St. Sophia, testify to the desire to construct religious edifices symbolic of the permanence of heaven. A rare set of monumental gilt-copper doors and an open-work lamp from the Cathedral of St. Sophia will be displayed together with selected icons and scale models of some of the other churches that established Novgorod's reputation as a major center of religious life.

In contrast to the simple forms and sparsely adorned exteriors of these churches, the brightly painted icons of important saints, civic images and metalwork displayed inside them imparted an otherworldly character to the interiors, creating an image of heaven on earth. Icons offered worshippers a window through which they could communicate with the divine. These devotional images, known by the Greek word icon, meaning "image," were believed sacred by virtue of their participation in the sanctity of the figure portrayed. Like the church interiors in which they were displayed, they were instruments of sacred communication or "doors to heaven."

Some icons emerged as civic symbols and were used to summon divine aid during crises, such as the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign, represented in the exhibition by an early 16th-century replica of the 12th-century original. This icon played a major role in a heroic moment in Novgorod's history in 1170, when it saved the city from a siege by the prince of Suzdal. The miraculous event is represented in another remarkable icon included in the exhibition, The Battle of the Novgorodians and the Suzdalians, which shows the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign perched above the city's walls. Another highlight of the exhibition, the earliest surviving Russian icon to feature George's triumph over the dragon, St. George with Scenes from His Life (first half of the 14th century), testifies to George's special status in Novgorod as the champion of good over evil.

Now a common feature of Russian Orthodox churches, an iconostasis, or a wall of icons separating the nave from the sanctuary, appears to have emerged first in medieval Novgorod. The city's abundant timber sources allowed for increasingly complex wooden screens that soar above the churches' naves. A two-tiered screen reassembled in this exhibition is composed of icons from different locations and evokes the grandeur achieved by the iconostasis in Novgorod by the mid-15th century. At ground level, the so-called "local tier" features icons that were particularly significant to the church for which the iconostasis was created. The largest icons comprise the Deisis, or supplication tier, in which the heavenly court of saints and angels stand before Christ enthroned in glory and serve as intercessors on behalf of the faithful. The standing saints and angels come from the same iconostasis, and achieve a monumental grandeur; their simple forms are especially characteristic of 15th-century Novgorod icons.

Exhibited separately, a set of gilt bronze Iconostasis Doors (1330s-1350s) could have formed part of the central iconostasis for St. Sophia. Symbolizing the juncture between heaven and earth, it bears images of the Annunciation and the Four Evangelists and is one of only two such objects to survive. The brilliant metalwork combines both Byzantine and western Romanesque artistic traditions, reflecting Novgorod's status as a point of contact between East and West.

Although many icons are large panel paintings intended for churches, some were also created on a smaller scale, for private chapels or houses, where they were contemplated during moments of personal prayer. Worshippers used these icons to request the help of the saints depicted and often looked to these saints for help with specific activities, including their livelihoods. This is exemplified in the exhibition by a 15th-century Icon of Sts. Florus and Laurus with Sts. Blaise and Spyridon, depicted respectively with a steed of horses and a herd of cattle. Known as the protectors of domestic animals, these saints were looked to for divine support during breeding seasons. This will be one of the first exhibitions to integrate icons with objects from daily life, demonstrating the connection between religious imagery and the concerns of the city's citizens.

Novgorod offers a remarkably intimate glimpse into the daily life of a medieval city. Its special soil, which retains water on account of its clay deposits, has preserved intact organic materials on a scale unrivalled in any other archeological site from the Middle Ages. Beginning in the 10th century, the townspeople improved their streets every 20 to 25 years, putting a new layer of rough-hewn pine logs on top of old ones. Each layer can be scientifically dated by means of dendrochronology (the study of the year-rings in tree trunks), objects such as wooden toys, leather goods and even birch-bark letters that have been recovered intact from the soil can be precisely dated by the layer in which they were unearthed. In places, as many as 20 to 30 layers have been uncovered, creating a cultural deposit unsurpassed in Europe. Large photo murals of the excavation will be part of the exhibition.

Novgorod was a city full of craftsmen who worked to produce objects used at every social stratum of the burgeoning city. Excavations have yielded the remains of approximately 150 artisans' workshops, offering a glimpse of a remarkably advanced and prolific system of craft production. The vast forests of Novgorod provided abundant raw material for the woodworkers who excelled at carving complex patterns that enlivened the surfaces of objects used in daily life. Selected objects-musical instruments, minstrels' masks and toys-speak to the experience of urban life with a remarkable sense of immediacy and stand in contrast to the otherworldly character of the city's religious art. An example is Doll-Horse on Four Wheels (mid-12th century), a wooden toy on wheels inscribed with a saddle and stirrups.


The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory Of Medieval Novgorod, published by Palace Editions in association with the Walters Art Museum and available in both hardcover and softcover in the Museum Store. Combining 10 essays by archaeologists, art and architectural historians, and historians, this book is one of the first in English to focus on Novgorod from a wide range of disciplines. The book, which also includes entries on all of the objects featured in the exhibition, will be illustrated by new color and black-and-white photography.

Admission and Hours

Admission to the special exhibition is included in general museum admission, which is $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens (65+), $6 for college students with ID (18-25), $2 for children ages 6-17 and free for children under 6 and for members. Admission to the permanent collection only is free on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-noon and all day on the first Thursday of every month. Admission to Sacred Arts and City Life will be half-price at those times. Museum hours are Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. The museum is also closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The Walters will be open Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 27 and 28 and is open on New Year's Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The Walters Art Museum

The Walters Art Museum is located in Baltimore's historic Mount Vernon Cultural District at North Charles and Centre streets and is one of only a few museums worldwide to present a comprehensive history of art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century. Among its thousands of treasures, the Walters holds the finest collection of ivories, jewelry, enamels and bronzes in America and a spectacular reserve of illuminated manuscripts and rare books. The Walters' Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Ethiopian and western medieval art collections are among the best in the nation, as are the museum's holdings of Renaissance and Asian art. Every major trend in French painting during the 19th century is represented by one or more works in the Walters' collection.

Peabody Court is the official hotel of the Walters Art Museum. This historic property is just around the corner from the museum and features George's, a full-service restaurant. For hotel reservations, call 1-800-292-5500 and ask for the special Walters discounted rate.