Few icons survive from Kievan Russia: those that do mostly display a static unclutted monumentality. In the early Tatar period Russian art, thrown back on its own resources, shows a “folk” quality, with expressive, plastic distortions and simplifications of figure stye and clear, unnaturalistic colors. When Russian culture revived in the late 1400's its art was able to draw on both these aspects of its past, but also on renewed international contacts, above all with Byzantium. There were certainly also contacts with the South Slavs, but none can be proved with Western Europe. The best painters of the late medieval Orthodox lands seem to have sought a tender expressivity, though in the case of Rublyov combined with gravitas and a pure and monumental line. There seems to be a truly classical impulse at work here, whether looking back to the nobility of Kievan art or through recent Byzantine models to a sort of refined Hellenistic legacy. The painters of the 1500's seemed to share a common interest in unnaturalistic but often dramatic effects of light,
notably in scenes such as the Transfiguration and the Descent into Hell, it is reasonable to see in this an effect of Hesychast mysticism.
Icon painters had singular opportunities in the early 15 00's as a result of the development of the iconostasis, a wooden screen closing off the altar area of a church and clad with tiers of icons, often life-Osize or greater. The central tier (the “Deisis”) represented holy figures interceding with Christ on behalf of the worshipers. The iconostasis as a gallery of representations of saints compares with the great sculpted portals of Western medieval cathedrals, while the opening and closing of its central doors enhance the drama of the liturgy. The impact of the whole ambience is increased by the frescoes covering all interior walls and ceilings. Good examples of these survive, though fragmentarily in Novgorod (World War II took a heavy toll here), and include paintings by Theophanes. There are wall paintings by Rublyov in the Dormition Cathedral at Vladimir. A small number of very fine illuminated gospels books of the period have been attributed to the circles of both artists.
Beginning about 1400, European painting flourished as never before. This era of great painting took place during the period of history called the Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Italy about 1300 and spread northward. By 1600, it had effected nearly all Europe.
One very important aspect of the Renaissance was a great revival of interest in the art and literature of ancient Rome. This revival had an enormous influence on painting. Religious subject matter remained important. But artists included elements of Roman architecture in their pictures. The Italian city of Florence and the northern Europe — an region of Flanders became the major centers of painting in the early Renaissance.
Sandro Botticelli, one of the greatest Florentine masters, became the leading interpreter of Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism was a complicated religious theory that combined ancient mythology, Greek philosophy, and Christianity to explain God, beauty, and truth. Botticelli's “Birth of Venus” is based on a Greek myth. The myth tells how Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, was born in the sea and was blown to shore on a shell by the winds. The style and perspective of the picture do not follow the sculptural style of ancient Greece. In his attempt to express spiritual qualities, Botticelli returned to an almost medieval style. Venus' body curves in such a way that she seems much like a paper doll floating in the air. The design of the picture is more flat and decorative than most Italian art.
Leonardo da Vinci was probably the greatest artist of the 1400's. His portrait “Mona Lisa” and his religious scene “the Last Supper” rank among the most famous pictures ever painted.
Leonardo, as he is almost always called, was trained to e a painter. But he became one of the most versatile geniuses in history. His interests and achievements spread into an astonishing variety of fields, such as anatomy, astronomy, botany, and geology. Leonardo's paintings made him famous, and his more graceful approach marked the beginning of the High Renaissance Style.
Leonardo finished painting “The Last Supper” about 1497. He created the famous scene on a wall of the dining hall in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It shows Christ and his 12 apostles just after Jesus has announced that one of the them will betray him. Leonardo changed the traditional arrangement of the figures from a line of 13 figures to several small groups. Each apostle responds in a different way to Christ's announcement. Jesus sits in the center of the scene, apart from the other figures Leonardo's composition creates a more active and centralized design than earlier artists had achieved.