Russian folk art reached the height of popularity with the builders and woodworkers of rural Russia in the 18th-19th centuries. From simple peasant cottages to log-built estates for wealthy merchants, timber houses were decorated with elaborate painted wood carvings. Russia is sometimes referred to as a nation of woodcutters, and this tradition is evident in the wooden houses in the Golden Ring, the historical towns and cities that lie to the northeast of Moscow. These towns represent one thousand years of Russian history, a time and place that saw the lives of great figures in Russian history unfold, including Alexander Nevesky, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. It was in these towns that the Russian Orthodox Church first took hold, so there are many wonderful examples of Russia’s greatest architecture—monasteries, onion-dome churches and cathedrals.
In the rural houses of the Golden Ring, elaborately carved wooden decorations also appeared on the edges of roofs and balconies, but were most beautiful as window surrounds. The carvings were uniquely Russian, an amalgam of Russian folklore motifs, Baroque embellishment and the graceful linear quality of Art Nouveau. They combine flowers, leaves and geometric shapes with stylized depictions of birds and animals, as well as mythological creatures, such as the Sirin—a creature of Russian legend that has the face and chest of a woman and the wings and feathered tail of a bird, most often an owl.
Sirin, Lubok picture, 19th century
These pictures, from a Golden Ring travel brochure, show the inventiveness of the wood carvers. The houses and the window surrounds were painted in wonderful colors which highlight the beauty of the designs.
The three pictures below were taken by a friend last year on a trip to Russia.
Russian Inn near Vladimir, 19th century
In many areas of Russia, these wonderful embellished houses have fallen into ruin, a staggering number have been lost. In the Golden Ring, quite a few have been restored on site, while others have been moved to “open-air museums” and are a popular tourist attraction in northeast Russia.
This window surround was included in a recent exhibition, Carved and Colored Village Art from Tsarist Lands, at Pushkin House, London that was held from May 18th-June 10th, 2009. Note the two mythological bird figures on the top.
The catalog from the show, by Robert Cenciner and John Cornall can be found here.