A bylina is a traditional heroic poem. Bylinas first appeared in the tenth and eleventh centuries and were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The first collection of bylinas was compiled in the eighteenth century and published in 1804. Although the number of bylina subjects is not large, there are about two thousand different versions of each story. The most famous works are the Kiev and Novgorod cycles.
The heroes of bylinas were called bogatyrs. Such legendary figures as Volga and Mikula, Dobrynya Nikitich, Alyosha Popovich and Ilya Muromets defended the Russian lands, attempted to unite the country, helped the weak and downtrodden, fought national enemies and the forces of evil. Bylinas extolled the strength, nobility and inherent wit of these mighty heroes, who were also depicted in traditional folk prints (lubok).
The bylina entered Russian painting in the second half of the nineteenth century, when artists were particularly interested in folk art and lore. The canvases of Victor Vasnetsov and Nicholas Roerich, the decorative panels of Mikhail Vrubel, the illustrations of Andrei Ryabushkin, Ilya Repin and Ivan Bilibin extolled the legendary past of Old Russia. In the twentieth century, the patriotic element of these heroic tales inspired people during the years of revolution and war. Ivan Bilibin brought out a new version of bylina illustrations on the eve of the Second World War, when Vladimir Konashevich designed a series of coloured lithographs on the theme of bylinas.
In 1909 and 1910, Nicholas Roerich painted a series of panels called the Bogatyr Frieze for the St Petersburg mansion of Russian industrialist Philadelph Bazhanov. The house still stands at 72 Marat Street and was designed by Pavel Aleshin in the Art Nouveau style. While every interior was unique, the dominant theme was the legendary history of Old Russia. The drawing room was decorated by Mikhail Vrubel’s Volga and Mikula majolica fireplace. Roerich’s panels hung in the dining room. The series consisted of eight subjects – Sadko, Knight, Ancient Slav Poet (Bayan), Ilya Muromets, Mikula Selyaninovich, Solovei the Robber, Volga Svyatoslavich and City – and eleven decorative compositions.