“Andrei Rublev” – Russian Renaissance in Soviet cinematography

A portrait of medieval Russia and metaphysical realism in the cinematographic patericon of the cult film “Andrei Rublev” from 1966, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, shows the chosen, God-given talented protagonist, monk and icon painter of widely famous works, Andrei Rublev, in a broader representation of the medieval Russian state, at the turn of the fourteenth and the fifteenth century. Under the original title, “The Passion According to Andrei“, the film “Andrei Rublev” emphasises the torments of time and suffering of the spirit, creative temptations, and agony in order to discover profound truths. This work follows a rich tradition, turbulent history, and luxurious art, which the director rightfully places with his talent in the highest artistic category of films ever made in the world. The film is a tragic epic poem about the sufferings of an entire people and a particular artist, based on the biography of the monk Andrei Rublev. The Story divides into smaller, episodic units arranged chronologically, which shows the chronicle character: Prologue, I. The Jester (Summer 1400), II. Theophanes the Greek (Summer–Winter–Spring–Summer 1405–1406), III. The Passion (1406), IV. The Holiday (1408), V. The Last Judgment (Summer 1408), VI. The Raid (Autumn 1408), VII. Silence (Winter 1412), VIII. The Bell (Spring–Summer–Winter–Spring 1423–1424) and Epilogue.


Like the structures of the old Russian chronicles, such as the ” Tale of Bygone Years”, it is arranged on a moving film strip of crucifixions and stories of Russian life between its great folklore tradition and strong Christian faith, through stormy historical circumstances in the time that the action of the film includes. Andrei Tarkovsky, with his deep sense of genetic belonging and profound talent, takes over the contents and forms, expressions and symbols of ancient Russian literature, what is said and written – those from the oldest folklore beliefs, as well as the rich symbolism of Christian dogma, heritage and all other medieval artistic spheres. With this film, the director also leaves a personal mark in Russian cinematographic art history with the style of “slow film” by stringing together prolonged frames, abstract experiences, and sound matrix connected to the characters and creating powerful tensions immediately before the cut, in which he is indisputable.


Andrei Rublev is considered the greatest church icon painter of medieval Russia and the forerunner and originator of new painting tendencies. He is a representative of “abstract psychologism” in fresco painting. Like every genius and universal artist, it is impossible to observe him only through one artistic epoch. There is an assumption that he was born in the period from 1360. to 1370, but the film follows the life of this Russian painter from the year 1400. that is, from the moment when more numerous and reliable historical data is encountered and when traditions about this character were recorded. Russia at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century is characterized by cultural independence since it has a reluctance to the Eastern – Asian influence due to the violent invasions of the Tatars and the misfortunes that the Tatars brought to the Russian land. Also, due to the arrival of the Turks on European land, the influence of Byzantium and the South Slavic region on the culture of Russia is weakening. Due to the desire to resist the Catholic influence from the West, the Russian country closes in on itself and does not directly meet the penetration of two great European cultural trends that originated in Italy, two great artistic turning points, such as humanism and the Renaissance. However, in the icons and frescoes of Andrei Rublev, a strong creative change can be seen and felt, where the “historical monumentalism” taken over from Byzantium is abandoned and where inspiration begins to move  from a man who rises to God. Some research even says that Rublev visited Venice during his lifetime, which could, if true, have had an immediate and strong Renaissance influence on his work. The emergence of the Renaissance come through after the rich and saturated Middle Ages, which was unquestionably the case in Russia as well. Andrey Rublev also independently, since he grew fantastically in his art, was far ahead of his time, and surpassed his epoch, with the greatness of his talent he could create art like that of Renaissance Italy. Dmitry Likhachev, a prominent philologist and historian of the Middle Ages, emphasized the beginnings of the Renaissance in Russian art, which could and could be related to Andrei Rublev, judging by his works of art, as well as by the film representation of this painter, in the directorial vision of Andrei Tarkovsky. The revival of icon painting, cheerfulness and devotion to art, an intense aesthetic experience, the impression of originality, uniqueness, penetration of individuality, and inimitability are recognisable in the work of this monk, which are characteristics of the Renaissance, and Rublev is an artist above artists, on the level of Italian Renaissance masters.


The plot of the film, with Prologue and Epilogue, is given chronologically but has a closed, concentric, ring composition where the beginning and the end are in harmony, and the link that connects them is Christianity, its image that symbolizes it through the church bell. At the beginning of the film, bells are heard and in the first frame shot, in the foreground is the church, the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, with animal representations on the facade, representations of lions and gryphons (eagle-winged lions), since the eagle is the king in the sky among the birds, and the lion king on earth among beasts, modelled on descriptions from early bestiaries. The last part of the film, which precedes the Epilogue, is called “The Bell” and tells the story of the construction of the bell, which is set in motion by God’s will: “A bell is an object of a Christian cult, which has numerous sacred and ritual functions in folk culture. In Christian Slavic traditions, songs, legends, and also in old Russian literature, annals, one of the most popular motifs was miraculous bells, and, their ringing by themselves. In Slavic Christian beliefs, periods of the silence of bells marked demonic time” (Tolstoy – Radenković 2001: 192).


The Prologue of the film is characterized by a striking, touching and intimate scene in which one of the monks tries to fly into the sky to ascend to the heavens using some kind of balloon. Rising to the heights, he overcomes reality and rises above the world like the mythological flyer Icarus. Although the flyer – one of the monks, watched and assisted by the brothers, only slightly rises above the hard ground, his flight is too close to the Sun and, like Icarus, ends tragically or at least grotesquely. Everything is symbolic and ironic, realistic and mystical, and comic and tragic at the same time. But this act shows human faith, the desire to, like the angels, get closer to God and the willingness to sacrifice to reach the sublime. This prologue fragment contains the essence of the entire film filled with a spirit full of faith.


“God gave the priest, and the devil gave the Jester”, we learn in the film: The first part after the Prologue, “The Jester (1400)”, is dedicated to the actor and shows the beginnings of the theatre art of ancient Russia. Each artist of his time creates his world – parallel to divine creation, just like the Jester -The medieval entertainer, in the original Russian title named “Skomoroh”, represents the oldest form of the protagonist of the Russian theatre, a servant of the master who can sing, play instruments, act, perform various acrobatics, juggle, make people laugh with a playful spirit and fierce criticism of the church and the government (In the film, such a play by Jester will be in connection with the song about the boyar without a beard). He is a performer, an actor with a striking costume, who wears a funny hat on his head. The Jester draws inspiration from the folk tradition of pagan customs and old rituals and richly uses folklore,  vocal fortune and syncretism, a combination of words, melodies, music and dance in its performance.  He provides entertainment for people with the function of cheering up any master with whom he lives and at whom he laughs. Animals often take part in Jester’s presentation game, especially the bear. As in the entire medieval western world of theatrical play, so in Russia, the work and performances of the Jesters were condemned and persecuted by the church and the authorities, even banned because of their pagan roots, their satirical attitude towards the powerful and the immoral way of acting life led in drinking and merriment, in the performance of miracles, mysteries and morals, farces and satires equal to those of the West. The first actors were beaten, imprisoned, and sentenced to years of blackmail (which will also be the case in the film we are talking about), and not infrequently they were also executed for their theatrical opposition to liturgical proto-theatre, and church telling and chanting.


Accepting Christianity in Russia was not a simple and easy process, and five centuries after Christianity was accepted in Russia, the bitter-sweet pagan taste in people’s mouths mixed with the Christian one. Pagans live a barbaric simple way of life. Reformed pagans, new Christians tortured and were killing pagans with pagan methods instead of Christian rules of forgiveness, mercy and repentance. Russia at the beginning of the 15th century was constantly in the vortex of the old pagan world and the new Byzantine Orthodoxy. The second sequence of the film begins with the incomprehensible, gruesome, cruel, terrible, heartless torture of the Christian called Petrakie.


In the part of the film, called “Theophanes the Greek”, set in 1405, we meet Andrei Rublev’s teacher, a Byzantine painter who spent about 30 years in Russia. He taught Rublev to paint about the fear hidden in faith and the knowledge derived from sadness. Theophanes the Greek experiences a vision through a dream (a classic medieval literary motif) that he will soon die and therefore takes Rublev as a student. Byzantium’s cultural influence on Russia is shown by Greek liturgical books, choral singing, architecture, literature, as well as fresco painting and icons. Religion and art collide. In this sequence, there is a powerful shot of Rublev in his workspace while sitting on a chair, surrounded by his icon paintings of saints, positioned and destined to be shown as one of those members of the kingdom of heaven, ordained.


“The Passion” in 1406 describes the sinfulness of the people, the indomitable human passions, speaking from two perspectives: the young Rublev and the wise old man supported by experience. Illusions are destroyed and a harsh mundane world under the firmament full of evil, sin and innocent victims is revealed, as indicated by the symbols of a dead bird and a snake expelled from paradise. The presentation of a realistic picture of the world and the malice in it is looking for a new messiah, “and if Jesus came to earth again, they would crucify him again”( are the words of the realization that the film reveals to the audience.) Crucifixion on the cross is used in the film as a description of Jesus’ suffering, but also as a pagan method of torturing Christians, in which Rublev himself finds himself in part of the film “Holiday” (1408). The sequence shows the festive contrasts of the pagan rite by the river and the Christian world and its inherent restrained moralism. The pagan ceremony included naked women who cast spells around the fire and witchy games on Midsummer’s Eve, which are condemned by Christians, but, interestingly, one of those non-Christian women will help Rublev to escape from captivity. The motives of freedom pervade both worlds, placing Rublev in the position of a conciliator, an understanding person, elevated above the dark Middle Ages.


The Last Judgment (1408) descended on the earth, as if the time had come for the New Testament “Revelation” to come true, in the form of inspiration for the icon and represents a broader picture of discernment, separation of the righteous who will gain eternal life in bliss from those others, sinners. Knyaz Vasiliy Dimitrievich invites Rublev and his friend Danilo Cherny to paint the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir. It is instructive to conclude that God is the only just judge and it is difficult for anyone who tries to judge another person by placing himself above him. The figure of Christ enters Rublev (every monk is in some way a son of God) who defends a condemned, sick (in the sense of crazy) woman (the Russian “Mary Magdalene”). This girl becomes Rublev’s companion.


The film mentions and comments on the historical situations that influenced as well as the changes caused by certain events that created the Russia of the 15th century: “the age of madness, primitive passions, cruelty, insecurity, hopelessness and the eclipse of consciousness” (Volk 1988: 545). The tragedy of the people caused by the Tatar invasion is shown, as well as the suffering of people caused by the plague. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. Causes and their consequences. The Tatars present themselves as cruel people from whom even dogs are turned loose. Their strong warlikeness is highlighted, as well as polygamy and the desire for material wealth. An old story is being told, known since the written Russian principality of the 12th century, told in “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign”, which deals with the theme of knyaz disunity and fraternal discord. The conflict between knyazes like brothers finds its archetype in the “The Tale of Bygone Years” and the biblical story of Cain and Abel. The lack of harmony, love and the will to unite also lead to great betrayals where Russian knyazes make pacts with enemy tribes against other Russian knyaz, and their brothers. The weakening of the Kyiv principality moved the centre of the state first to Vladimir, then to Moscow, which became and remains the capital of the state to this day.


​​The first part of the film captures the youthful spirit of Rublev, his artistic beginnings and his pure and naive zest for life, completely preserved from human malice. “Trained in theThe Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, under the tutelage of Sergius of Radonezh, Andrei, untouched by the life of the outside world, absorbed the basic axioms of existence: love, togetherness and brotherhood… But once he stepped outside the walls of the monastery, Andrei was faced with a reality that was not only unknown and unexpected, but also terrifying” (Tarkovsky 1999: 88). The second part of the film, which begins with “The Raid” from 1408, is characterized by a sudden reversal, a barbaric picture for which the childish monk’s eyes are not ready, murders, the burning of the church, betrayal the likes of which had not been seen since Judas, and pure evil that drives Andrei Rublev to sin. Rublev gets his monastic hands dirty by killing a warrior who tried to rape a girl. Realizing: “the same faith, the same land, the same blood, and yet each to his own”, Andrei’s eyes open near the destroyed city of Vladimir, the destroyed frescoes of the Dormition Cathedral, and he begins to feel a terrible fear of inhumanity in people. Deeply affected, shaken and hurt, he decides not to paint anymore and takes a vow of silence. The monastic life in fasting and the barren year of 1412 in the film unit ” The Silence” tells about the continuation of the Tatar attack as well as great human losses. The next sequence of the film “The Bell” in the year 1423, is a collision and contrast of the young and the old, breaking the almost fifteen-year silence, once again in Rublev, it gives birth, restores, and resurrects the primal faith from love. The silence of the monks transforms the sound of the bell, creative art (which in the Middle Ages always had an applied character), God’s will and the strong faith of the bell-casting boy Boriska. Evil comes from people, but deep down in every person lies the beauty. Already in his mature years, the monk sees the world again in goodness. The student becomes the teacher. In his first words, Rublev tells the boy that they will go from church to church together, he will paint icons, and the boy will cast church bells with which he brought so much joy to people so far.


The symbolism is interesting, as well as the contrasting role of the elements of nature, water and fire in the film. Although the fire in Christian symbolism is interpreted as God’s light, here the pagan understanding is taken into account (fire as a part of pagan rituals). The fire represents some kind of warning, a bad sign, the arrival of non-Christians or a hint of some sinful act. But always after the depiction of fire, there is a camera shot related to water, rain and water surfaces as a Christian sign of baptism, washing away sins and purification. The contrast and duality of the pagan legend of primitive and Christian religious fanaticism is a key factor in the director’s tension, but also in the choice and unlimited freedom of the protagonist and creator. The entire participation of nature, based on the example of old Russian said and written literature, indicates the influence of higher Divine forces in creating destiny and providing grace and forgiveness to the human race. Nature and natural phenomena as cosmic projection and foreshadowing of the earthly sequence of circumstances is a motif known from the earliest representations of Russian art. 


The director skilfully plays with the locations of the movie. “In the Andronikov Monastery, Rublev spent his last hours”, where certain scenes of the film were filmed: “Tarkovsky carefully selected the locations, everywhere he looked for original paths and authenticity, and that is why he filmed a series of sequences in the ancient city of Vladimir and on the vast wastelands where the landscape has not changed for centuries” (Volk 1988: 543).


The share of flora and fauna in the film, wood, the world of plants and animals, is one of the permanent literary devices of old literature that the film director wisely transfers to the screen of the seventh art. The representations of the two most revered trees among the ancient Slavs, oak and birch, have some kind of symbolism in the film. “Birches are gentle, white, they bend at every loud noise, but they still create and symbolize human nature that constantly strives for freedom and tries to get rid of everything that presses and holds it back.” (Volk 1988: 541) Oak tree is associated with the underworld, symbolizes strength, solidity and “takes the main place in the Slovenian dendrarium” (Tolstoy – Radenković 2001: 567). Oaks present places where numerous pagan and Christian rites were performed, as well as various sacrifices. Tarkovsky compares this vegetation to Rublev himself, using Slavic mythology and Christian symbolism. Horses are noble transparent animals that pass through the entire film, symbolizing life and the connection with the supernatural, the transparency between this world and the next.


The last sequence of the film, Epilogue, includes the artistic creation of Andrei Rublev. The artist’s famous fresco appears on the screen, the image of the “Trinity”, which is a symbol of brotherhood, love and reconciling faith. This is the only part of the film that was given in colour (everything previously was done in black and white technique), vividly representing what survived, what is still alive and what rose above life, which is love, faith and hopes given through divine inspiration to the artist to pour it out through works of art. In six days, God created the world. God is the maker, creator and artist of all artists. A man was created in God’s image to create himself, like the Creator. Among those creators, who, like God, made life, history and future of their works,  we surely can include Andrei, Rublev and Tarkovsky.


  1. Volk 1988. Volk, Petar. Antologija filma. Beograd: Fakultet dramskih umetnosti u Beogradu. 
  2. Pospelov – Šabliovski – Zerčanikov 1947. Ruska književnost. Beograd: Prosveta. 
  3. Tarkovski 1999. Tarkovski, Andrej. Vajanje u vremenu. Beograd: Umetnička družina Anonim. 
  4. Tolstoj – Radenković 2001. Tolstoj, Svetlana – Radenković, Ljubinko. Slovenska mitologija. Beograd: Zepter Book World.

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