The white-stone fretwork of the walls of St. George Cathedral built in Yuryev Polsky (town) in 1234 A.D. underlies the room decor. Authentic elements of church appointments representing Old Russian architecture are placed in the space of the decorative portal.
The church had a strong emotional effect upon worshippers, strengthened their faith and helped them partake of divine goods. Church creators sought to reflect the basic ideas of Christianity in their works using all available artistic means and all their skill.
A large section of the composition is dedicated to applied art (cases 1-8). Old Russian hoards including adornments of the princely-boyar women’s head-dress originate from the biggest centres of Old Rus of the 11th – 13th centuries – Kiev, Vladimir, Chernigov. During the Mongol invasion townspeople would hide their valuables digging them in the ground or immuring them in church walls. Very few were lucky enough to recover them later. This is how priceless hoards of Old Russian culture, striking proofs of its craftsmen’s outstanding talent, got into the hands of archaeologists.
Three-beads temporal rings, especially beloved by Old Russian town-women, are quite remarkable. They are made using a filigree and particle technique. Stretching hair-thick gold and silver wires, a craftsman twisted several precious threads into a gracefully raised pattern.
The niello was accomplished by applying a blacking powder on a specially prepared silver surface. The niello technique imparted nobleness and special refinement to things. It is exactly how silver lamellate armlet pinned together long sleeves of women’s dresses. Especially beautiful were big silver kolts (temporal pendants) from the tract Holy Lake in the Chernigov Land: two thin plates forged from precious metal formed a hollow where fragrances would be placed. They were fixed on a headdress near temples on chains (ryasna) or ribbons and smelled sweet when rocked. These adornments were perceived as amulets, and very often Christian or pagan symbols were placed on them, since ancient people believed, they were capable to drive away evil spirits.
Many objects are decorated with gold and silver filigree. Craftsmen would manufacture tiny silver or gold beads and solder them onto the surface. Often a small ring could be found under each bead. A craftsman could place up to several thousand beads on a small item.
The «gold cloisonne» technique required special craftsmanship. A pattern outline was soldered onto a gold surface with the finest gold wire or plate shaped as a rabbet. Glass powder, enamel, was placed in generated cells. While heating, enamel would stick firmly to the surface. A different temperature of heating was needed to obtain different colours. Enamel working was the acme of ancient applied art; mastering it pointed to the highest level of craftsmanship.
Placed on both sides of the gates, in cases 7-12 are pieces of smaller plastic arts, widespread in Rus. Under crosses and little icons worn by people are made from all kind of materials – wood, slate, various sorts of jobbing stone, amber. Each of those articles staggers by its refinement, elegance and exquisite taste.
On display in case 9 are fragments of smalt and pieces of stained glass used in the creation of monumental wall mosaics. The unique fresco «Descent into Hell» in the decorative portal’s niche, going back to the 12th century and originating from the town of Pereyaslavl Zalessky, is one of the oldest samples of this type of art in Rus.
Here also some splendid works of bronze casting are exhibited – two arches of the Vshchizh Church. One of them clearly reads: «Lord, help Your servant Konst…». Arches are made using a complex technique of casting after a wax model, which Russian craftsmen applied in creating highly artistic works. The finds of resonators – earthenware containers built in church walls for acoustics improvement – are rather frequent.
In the first section one can see a circle brick from Vshchizh. The walls of cathedrals in South Rus decorated with figured brick looked amazingly pictorial. In North-Eastern Rus they would erect magnificent white-stone churches, whose walls were covered with graceful fretwork all along. The pillar capitals in the exterior decoration of the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir built by Great Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky are a good illustration of this fretwork.
Man’s head, a remarkable detail of a high white-stone relief in one of Ryazan churches, deserves special mentioning. Despite its slightly damaged state, the sculpture has not lost its expressiveness.
Exhibited in front of the portal is a unique object of the 13th century from Novgorod – a carved wooden «tyablo» (board) of the altar barrier. It was placed above the Tsar Gates. Depicted on the «tyablo» is «Deesis» – a composition that would later become a notional centre of the Russian iconostasis. A figure of Jesus is the main in this composition; on the left and right are the figures of Mother of God and St. John the Baptist, turning to the Saviour in a prayerful attitude. This object is one of the oldest woodcarving samples in Russian art.
Exhibited in the centre of the room (cases 14-22) are literary works of old Rus. Within a short period of time that had passed after conversion to Christianity Rus assimilated the entire genre diversity of medieval literature. Displayed in the case is translated literature, chronicles, solemn and instructive works, worship books, hagiographies, pilgrimages, Christian encyclopaedias. The Chronicle by Georgy Amartol written in the 11th century underlies the first part of The Tale of Bygone Years. The Shestodnev (six-day treatise) by Georgy Pisida written in the 12th century is one of the numerous medieval encyclopaedias unfolding a magnificent structure of the Universe to curious eyes.
Original works that arose on the Russian ground and were written by Russian authors are of special interest. The sermons of the first Russian metropolitan Illarion (11th century) and bishop Cyril of Turov (12th century) are the best samples of the literary Old Russian language. The Pilgrimage by Father Superior Daniel describing the journey of a Russian monk to the Holy Land, The Tale of Daniel the Recluse praising the service at the court of Grand Prince, outlived their authors and their time. They are still read and will be read many centuries later.
Russian artists were a great success in book design. The book was richly decorated as a repository of priceless hoard – the knowledge. Exhibited in the section are the samples of book art – a beautifully dressed parchment of pages, bright cinnabar headbands, book miniatures that did not yield to the works of enamel art in terms of their refinement and splendour.
«Oh, bright and light and beautifully adorned Russian land! With all manner of beauty ye are filled…» – this is how the author of the unfinished poem Л Story of the Russian Land Ruin who lived in the 13th century shared his vision. The time of feudal partition in old Rus is also described as «the gold age of Russian history».
That was its heyday interrupted by the Mongol conquest in the middle of the 12th century.
Opposite the decorative portal of the room is a copy of the Southern Gates of the Cathedral of the St. Virgin Nativity built in the town of Suzdal in the first half of the 13th century. The panels of the real gates are adorned by means of a «gold fusion» technique.