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Enigma of Old Russian Ornaments
February 12, 2010 23:31

Russian ornamentation is justly considered one of the most interesting phenomena of the world art culture. It represents a unique realm of artistic images. Throughout centuries the Russian ornament was changing and transforming, but unalterably excited imagination of contemporaries with its inherent poetry and beauty of lines and colours.

The time of appearance of the first ornamental compositions in Russian art remains unknown, however, one can assume that interest in decoration was developing along with exploration of the world around. Ornaments accompanied man in everyday life. Floral, geometrical, zoomorphic and other motifs decorated the man’s home, cult and household articles, clothes, and manuscript books. The symbolic patterns painted over an item, implied fundamental principles of the universe. Ornamentation could entirely cover all the free space or decorate only certain parts of an object to emphasize their expressiveness.

The most expressive examples of Russian ornamentation belong in the architectural heritage of Vladimir&Suzdal Rus’: churches in Vladimir, Suzdal, Yuriev-Polski, and Kideksha, enchanting us with the beauty and mystery of their symbolic tracery on medieval white-stone architecture.

Russian ornamentation is also represented in old manuscript books decorated with amazing headpieces (miniature ornamental compositions highlighting the beginning of a chapter) and historiated letters (units’ large letters richly decorated with teratology elements). Russian medieval book is one of the most multifold and richly decorated monuments of world art.

Until the 12th century Russian ornaments were mostly based on the Byzantine style, but later West European (of Roman and Italian Renaissance) and Asian (Persian, Indian, Mongolian, etc) elements started to flow in and blend with the Byzantine base and local folk elements (Slavic and Finnish) and finally, in the 16-17th cc a peculiar Russian style of amazing beauty, variety and originality took shape.

Just like any other ornamentations, Russian patterns include geometrical designs and fanciful images based on the forms of animal and vegetable kingdoms. These components, however, considerably differ from other peoples’ ornaments both in their shape and the role that they play in the composition.

Floral motifs had great significance and played the foremost past in Russian ornamental art. As time passed ornamental compositions grew more sophisticated and formed complicated compositional schemes, fusing together realistic and fairy motifs. Artists’ freedom was not strictly limited in this field of art.

The most characteristic elements of Russian ornaments include interlacement of ribbon lines, which grow broader and narrower, break under various angles, curve and intertwine and turn into semblances of leaves, figures of birds, griffons, and other fantastic creatures, or, more rarely, humans.

Very often historiated letters – head letters in manuscript books – were decorated with images of various animals and birds that blended with floral curves. Such type of ornament was called teratology. Very often old-Russian masters used images of dragons, peacocks, dogs, calves, etc. The beast’s head, limb, or tail were logic continuation of the book, and sometimes altered the letter to the extent of making it hardly recognizable.

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The teratological style in ornamentation was from the earliest times associated with mythological beliefs rooted in hoary antiquity. Elements of animal style can be found in culture of different peoples – ancient Celts and Germans, for instance – but nowhere else did it reach such poetic heights as in Russian culture. Russian ornamental artists were more attentive in treating the “animals”. In miniature illuminated pictures one can clearly discern details of the beast’s head, its paws and tail against the general background of plaiting. In decoration of books masters combined diverse motifs, such as plaiting, stylized branches, flowers and teratological elements.

Motifs of flowers, branches, vines, and braids also took an important place in the structure of Russian ornamentation. Braided or floral patterns in the form of curls, leaves and sepals were widely used in decoration of Novgorod manuscript books of the 12-14th cc. Resilient tendrils can be often seen in decor of monuments of the 14-17th cc.

Quite frequently ornaments are made of tendrils that come from climber, as if vine or hop, and having a sort of a flower bunch, a cluster, a pineapple, or a cone in the middle. Sometimes, mostly in design of big areas, like in iconostases, ornamentation is represented as subtle filigree work, decorated with rosettes and pearl beading. In some cases ornaments are made monochrome with addition of gilding or silvering. In ornamental palette the major role belongs to pure bright colours, such as red, blue, yellow and green.

Both Russian and foreign researchers made attempts to study the art of construction of ornamental compositions. Archeologists, ethnographers, historians and art researchers wrote about Russian ornamentation. The attention of the research community was mostly drawn to the study of ornamentation art of the 11-17th cc. In connection with ornaments studied were not only Russian traditions, but also household items and literature.


In 1860 a unique edition - The History of Russian Ornament of the 11th -16th cc - was published under the head of researcher V.I. Butovsky. The richly illustrated album represented all possible variations of manuscript book decorations – from separate elements of Russian ornament to real size headpieces and historiated letters. Samples of Russian ornaments were published as tutorial for young artists. Understanding the necessity for beginning specialists to known national culture, which could be transmitted only via ornamentation art, V.I. Butovsky together with teachers and students worked on the “encyclopedia of Russian ornaments”. In fact, V.I. Butovsky was the first one to demonstrate the beauty and richness of Russian ornaments of the 11-17th cc.

However, Russian ornamentation remains to be an insufficiently explored area, where lots of things are yet to be cleared and explained.

More information about ornaments can be found in the following articles:
Ornamentation of Wood Carved House
National Russian Dress
White Stone Architecture of the Old Rus’



Tags: Old Russian Ornaments Slavic Symbols Old Russian House   

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