Theophanes, the erudite painter of Russia, was born in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople around 1330. Owing to his birthplace he was popularly known as Theophanes the Greek in Russia. In 1370 he moved to Novogord and later in 1395 to Moscow. His talent found a fertile ground for expression in Russia which was developing an inchoate struggle for the liberation and unification of lands around Moscow.
It is Novogord that witnessed the first signs of the genius of Theophanes. In the summer of 1378, Theophanes painted the frescos on walls of the Church of Our Saviour in Ilyn Street. The frescos were commissioned by boyar Vasily Danilovich and the citizens of Ilyn Street for the church that was built in 1374.
The frescos in the Church of Our Saviour are but partly preserved, however, the grandeur cannot go unnoticed. In the cupola Theophanes depicted Christ the Almighty and four seraphim; on the walls between the windows are figures of Adam, Abel, Noah, Seir, Melchizedek, Enoch, the prophet Elijah, and John the Baptist; in the chapel are the five stylites, The Holy Trinity; and in medallions are the portrayals of the Saints John Climacos, Agathon, Akaky and Makary.
Theophanes painted each figure differently with complex features but they were all unified in their spirited and steadfast representation of character. Theophanes fashioned his figures with bold, vigorous strokes applying vivid highlights to achieve the intensity of expression, as if through his painting he is testifying his knowledge of life.
It seems that Theophanes had his own studio in Novogord and he carried out commissions with the help of his pupils. The murals in the Fyodor Stratilat Church and the Church of the Dormition in Volotovo Pole were considered to have been done by his pupils.
After Theophanes’s eventual movement to Moscow in 1395 he got busy with a series of commissions over there. Between 1395 and 1405 he was engaged in the decoration of the Church of the Nativity of Virgin Mary (1395), the Cathedral of the Archangel (1399) and the Cathedral of the Annunciation (1405). Of all these works the only one still extant is the iconostasis in the Kremlin Cathedral of Annunciation. The iconostasis was a wall, decorated with icons, separating the altar from the central part of the cathedral. The icons were arranged in a row according to the strict religious hierarchical system with ‘local’ icons in the lowest row, then the ‘Deesis range’, above it rows dedicated to festivals and prophets, and at the very top the Crucifixion. In his work Theophanes was supported by his disciple Andrei Rublyov and monk Prokhor from Gorodets. Rublyov worked on icons illustrating the festivals while Theophanes left his mark on the central row, the so–called ‘Deesis range’. As before Theophanes’s saints were powerful and individualised. But there was a new dimension of restrain and majesty. The image of Virgin exuded more warmth, Archangel Gabriel more gentleness, wise apostle Paul more tranquility. As if, the artist is mellowing with time and thereby painting his own evolution.
The work in the Cathedral of the Annunciation brought together two giants of ancient Russian art. Theophanes, dramatic and tragic in his expressions and Rublyov, harmonious and serene in his peaceful manifestations, perfectly complemented each other in giving away a full of range of emotions through classical form of Russian iconostasis.
During the aforementioned period, Theophanes also involved himself in painting frescos in the terem–palace of the Grand Prince Vasily Dmitrievich and in the palace of Prince Vladimir Andreyevich Khrabry.
Little is known of Theophanes’s activities after the completion of his work in the Cathedral of the Annunciation which approximately took one year. Some scholars believe he worked as a miniaturist. Where he spent his last years of life is also shrouded in mystery. It appears he died between 1410 and 1415. A letter written by Epiphany the Wise in 1415 mentioned the great artist to be no longer alive. It is apt recollecting the words of Epiphany the Wise who considered Theophanes the Greek, ‘A famous sage, a wise philosopher, a master who excelled in decoration of the manuscripts and the best of icon–painters.’
Reference: Fifty Russian Artists