Ekaterina Kvatchatadze
G. Chubinashvili National Research Centre for the History
of Georgian Art and Monument Protection, Tbilisi, Georgia

On Medieval Façade Sculpture in the Orthodox World

The development of medieval sculpture in the Orthodox world is characterized by heterogeneous creative activity. Unlike Western European sculpture, only the relief was admitted. The Orthodox Church did not accept round sculpture to decorate religious buildings almost until the end of the late medieval epoch. Over the centuries in these countries façade sculpture programs and individual representations had been manifested with different meanings and quantities. What unites them, first of all, is artistic visions and themes shared with the all-Christian ideology. The report will make an attempt to reveal the specific peculiarities of the medieval facade sculpture (those of the façade system, subjects, etc.) and their interrelation among the Orthodox countries.
The development of Georgian medieval façade sculpture can be characterized as inconsistent: in the 5th-6th centuries new Christian, Roman-Hellenistic themes (the Ascension, Biblical scenes, donors’ representations, etc.) are introduced from beyond to the Georgian sculpture (Mtskheta, Jvari, Martvili), their placement on the façades represents a clear system. Later on, up to the 10th century, sculptural pursuits mainly occur in the minor sculpture and metal work. From creative point of view, the 10th‒11th centuries are the most fruitful in the monumental sculpture (Tao-Klarjeti, Nikortsminda, Kumurdo, Vale, Svetitskhoveli). Façade décor reflects the themes of the New and Old Testaments unified by theological content. It is also remarkable that at that time (the 11th century) the tendency to use sculpture decoration for the church façades reaches its culmination. Since the end of the 11th century Georgian sculpture suffers a crisis. Medieval Georgian sculpture decoration introduces no idea which would unite the separate reliefs. In this period (12th ‒16th centuries) the church décor uses a small number of separate figure reliefs which lack monumentality and importance, they are either lost in the decorative ornamentation, or are perceived “unsystematically” and unlinked on the façades (Pitareti, Kazreti, Tsunda). A repeated “emergence” of the monumental façade sculpture system unified by a general program can be seen on the façades of the churches at the turn of the 17th ‒18th centuries (Ananuri, Sagarejo “Petre-Pavle”).
A peculiar picture and accents are observed in the medieval Russian façade sculpture, whose development can be seen in the Vladimir-Suzdal reliefs. The decoration system of the Dormition Cathedral (12th c) is still distinguished by its rigor; sculptural decoration is situated only at the upper parts of the church and is submitted to architectural forms. The décor of the church of the Intercession on the Nerl (1165) creates an excellent ensemble of architecture and sculpture. Identical composition of the three façades emphasizes a crystal clarity of symmetrical sculptural décor (David the Psalmist). The sculpture of the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius (1193‒1197) is characterized by even more lightness. Its reliefs are elegant, plane and ornamental, they create a carpet-like cover on the façade (David the Psalmist, animal representations). On the façades of the Cathedral of Saint George at Juryev-Polsky (1230‒1234) the ornamental point is much more intensified (it reveals even a certain influence of a jeweler’s art). The saints’ figures are shown mainly in an iconic manner. From the 14th century on there is no figure relief in Russian architecture, façades are excessively decorative. At the beginning of the 18th century the introduction of Classical and Western European statuary sculpture (Classicist, Baroque) becomes regular in Russia. This sculpture is used mainly to decorate palaces, though it “invades” the façades of several churches too (Dubrovitsy).
Byzantine façade sculpture developed little and, therefore, it does not reveal an evolution line of this kind.