Though the dates of Dionisii (Dionysius)’ life are very approximate, there is more information about his works than of other old icon masters in Russia. His personality, talent and influential patrons – the Grand Duke and the highest priests – provided the best conditions for his work.
Between 1467 and 1477, Dionisii got one of the first serious commissions, when he was offered to participate in decoration of the Church of the Virgin Nativity in Parnytievo-Borovsky monastery. Here he worked under the supervision of the master Mitrophan, who is considered to be his teacher. Already then his individuality and bright talent revealed itself and attracted the attention of the contemporaries.
In 1481, Dionisii got another commission for icons for the iconostasis of the Uspensky (Dormition) Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. The patrons were very much satisfied with the results and Dionisii got the reputation of a great master of fine arts and the leader of the Moscow icon painters. The favorite of the tsar Ioann (Ivan) III and the famous anti-heretics fighter Joseph Volotzky, who commissioned the painter with more than 80 icons, Dionisii represented the official governmental tradition in art. His compositions were strict and solemn, colors light, figures gracefully elongated, hands and feet small and faces always, even in pain, beautiful and tranquil. Though they were devoid of Theophanes’ passions and psychological depth of Andrei Rublev, people liked them. Bright festivity and parade character of the works answered the demand of the time: Moscow Rus experienced the period of its prime. In 1482, Dionisii painted for Voznesensky (Assumption) Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin the icon the Virgin Hodegetria. His favorite light-golden background, purple cloak of the Virgin, her solemn pose and angels create a sublime composition.
Dionisii fulfilled many works for Joseph-Volokolamsky and Paul-Obnorsky Cathedrals. For the last one, he created, i.e. the Crucifixion. The most important commission of Dionisii became his monumental works – frescos of the Virgin Nativity Cathedral in the Pherapontov monastery (1495-96). The artist worked over the frescos with his sons and apprentices. The Cathedral is decorated with scenes of the life of the Virgin. Light and joyful mood unite all the frescos, which glorify the Virgin. Clear and tender colors, where green, golden and white tones prevailed are in full harmony with emotional mood of the characters. Pherapontov monastery is situated in the north of Russia, it was not rich, because pilgrims did not often visit it and had no money for restoration of the frescos. Thanks to this fact we can see Dionisii’s work close to its first coloring and have a correct idea of the master's technique.
Dionisii also painted icons of saints with scenes from their lives; this type of icon was very popular in Russia: the figure of a saint was in the middle of the panel surrounded by small pictures of his/her life, i.e. St. Alexius, Metropolitan of Moscow, with Scenes from His Life.
Working on big commissions with his sons and apprentices the master gradually created a circle of pupils and followers. And though none of them managed to reach his level of expressionism, the works of Dionisii’s school are marked with high artistic merits. Here we can relate the works by Pheodosius, Dionisii’s son, who made frescos of Blagoveszhensky (Annunciation) Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin in 1508.
c.1500. 85 x 52 cm. From the Trinity Cathedral of the Pavlo-Obnorsky Monastery. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia. Read Note.
Late 15th century. 197 x 152 cm. From the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.