Parution : Robin Milner-Gulland, “Andrey Rublev The Artist and His World”, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2023

A critical biography of the most celebrated religious icon painter in medieval Russia.

A monk from Moscow, Andrey Rublev (c.1360–c.1430) is heralded as the greatest painter of religious icons and frescos in medieval Russia. Nevertheless, his life remains largely mysterious to historians and devotees alike. In this book, Robin Milner-Gulland provides the first English-language account of the artist’s life as a window into the world of medieval Moscow. Beautifully illustrated with previously unpublished images, Andrey Rublev offers an accessible introduction to the artist’s medieval world and his continuing significance today.


How is one to compose the biography of an artist who was undoubtedly of the first importance, but about whom almost nothing is known with any certainty? The task would be worthy of a Borges mystification. Everything that seems established can slip through the fingers. In the case of Rublev, we have two firm references to work he did in his life-time, in the Trinity Chronicle under the years 1405 and 1408 (the important ms of the Trinity Chronicle itself was destroyed in the 1812 fire of Moscow, but luckily could be reconstructed by the modern scholar M. Prisyolkov). We do not know where or when he was born (though no doubt in the 1360s) or how he spent his first thirty or forty years, but it seems we know the date of his death: 29January 1430. Or do we? This was copied by an eighteenth-century antiquarian from a gravestone in the courtyard of the Moscow Andronikov Monastery at a spot that was later built over. That note itself was not preserved, but was in turn copied. Not surprisingly, many modern scholars are unwilling to accept it as evidence, though I do.
Even his surname – unusual in his time – is problematic, and it is uncertain how he pronounced it. The paintings securely attributed to Rublev, few in number, have almost all suffered damage of various kinds, while other questions of attribution seem never-ending, despite meticulous scholarly efforts. All other sources relating to him – of varying reliability – postdate 1430.
To these problems we return in due course as appropriate, but they may help to explain why no previous volume on him (so far as I know) has ever appeared in English. The closest has been a detailed study of his most famous icon by the Swiss Orthodox monk and theologian Gabriel Bunge, translated by Andrew Louth (2007). At this point it seems incumbent on the present author to show his hand. One could hardly presume to match Fr Bunge’s theological knowledge and insights, or those of several other contemporary experts; nor would one wish to (though in discussing a religious artist, matters of religion cannot help but be of major importance). Some knowledge of the Bible and the basic tenets of Christianity are assumed; beyond that, in approaching Rublev I have taken a viewpoint that attempts to position his art and the art around him within a cultural-historical framework – one that reaches into our own times, indeed. It is a complicated and (I think) interesting framework, worth some attention. But I believe that in appreciating Rublev in our, or any, age, one cannot help but start from the immediate joy and uplift that his great works inspire, and trust that any further knowledge of his life, times and works will serve to enhance this. To that end we pay special attention to the visual material in this volume, and do our best to explain it in context.

That said, what can a concise book on Rublev mean to a modern readership? To Western Europeans, it probably evokes one of two mental constructs, reaching somewhat different groups. To churchgoers of several persuasions, it will no doubt summon up the ubiquitous reproductions of the icon studied by Bunge known as the Old Testament Trinity, more properly the Hospitality of Abraham, now displayed at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. To quote Canon Donald Allchin, ‘Rublev’s great icon of the Holy Trinity turns up everywhere, in Protestant places of prayer no less than Catholic ones . . . No-one has promoted this cult of icons. It has been spontaneous.’
To another constituency, Andrei Rublev is the title of one of the half-dozen major films made by Andrey Tarkovsky (1966) and known to everyone with a serious interest in cinema. It is composed of a series of episodes presenting an imagined view of the painter’s life and times – a curious and daring endeavour, since Tarkovsky left himself open to attacks from various quarters. As is often pointed out, it is more a meditation on the role of the artist than a historical recreation, and its original version was called The Passion According to Andrey (the director’s own name too, of course, and that of his close colleague and collab-orator A. S. Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky). For Russians, steeped in their own history, the name Rublev conjures up different trains of thought and mental images, some no doubt over-romanticized; they are likely to be aware that he was canonized as an Orthodox saint in 1988. There are also strongly held positions and disagreements among the art (and general) historians who have made Rublev their specialism. While taking these into account, I have tried to come to any conclusions on the balance of probabilities, not wanting to bore the reader by revisiting all such disputes.
How then do we reliably know anything about Rublev? Two commissions he undertook with others, one in Moscow, one in Vladimir, are laconically recorded, as has been mentioned, in the Trinity Chronicle. Beyond that, there are brief references in an extended edition of the life of St Sergius produced by the itinerant monk and biographer Pakhomiy the Serb in the 1450s from the original by the learned writer Yepifaniy; also in the life of Sergius’s successor as abbot, Nikon, again by Pakhomiy. In the second half of the fifteenth century a major Church figure, St Joseph of Volokolamsk, wrote glowingly about him and collected his icons. Thereafter we have a famous reference in the ‘Council of 100 Chapters’ (1551), prescribing that any ‘Trinity’ icon should follow ‘ancient models, as the Greek icon painters painted, and as painted Andrey Rublev and other greatly-famed icon-painters’. Lastly, before he fades from the historical record, there is the seventeenth-century ‘Tale of the Holy Icon-Painters’, with the vital piece of information that the ‘Trinity’ was made to commemorate St Sergius. Thereafter, though not forgotten, he becomes a figure of myth.

Citer ce billet
Fiammetta Campagnoli (2023, 26 novembre). Parution : Robin Milner-Gulland, “Andrey Rublev The Artist and His World”, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2023. Collectif d'Historiens de l'Art de la Renaissance. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Fiammetta Campagnoli

Fiammetta Campagnoli est doctorante en histoire de l'art moderne à l'Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Ses recherches se concentrent sur la perception et sur la réception de la spatialité de l’image mariale au XVe et au XVIe siècle.

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