Mikhail Nesterov as Muralist and Icon Painter

Anastasia Bubchikova

Magazine issue: 
#1 2013 (38)


Nesterov was originally to paint images of Russian saints from Viktor Vasnetsov's sketches on columns inside the church, but Vasnetsov immediately saw that Nesterov was himself an outstanding artist. Nesterov not only became Vasnetsov's closest assistant but also received the opportunity to work in the cathedral with complete autonomy. Nesterov created only two images from Vasnetsov's sketches, those of St. Boris and St. Gleb.

He produced two large murals for the deaconicon and credence table in the altar - "The Nativity of Christ" and "The Resurrection" -and painted icons for the iconostases, creating a composition titled "The Baptism of Christ" which was placed in the cathedral's baptistery. Nesterov created lucid and airy images of saints, distinguished by his inimitable style, captivating in their fineness, lyricism and pearly tones - these images were placed in iconostases in the upper sections, isolated from the rest of the cathedral.

Although the experience of working with Vasnetsov influenced him greatly, Nesterov was able to form his own ideas about religious imagery, which were conceived in deliberate opposition to those of Vasnetsov. In particular, he replaced the abstract and flat background with a natural-looking landscape, lending volume to the image and a lyrical quality to the figures of the saints. The writer and journalist Vladimir Dedlov commented on the murals, "there was a spark of true talent in all his works,"1 and "whereas Vasnetsov conveyed an active faith, a saintly force, Nesterov was able to express with amazing truthfulness a humble and passive faith akin to a weakly glowing icon lampion."2

Nesterov's contemporaries held different opinions about his murals. He was criticised for imitating Vasnetsov and following the newest Western trends; his murals, according to some commentators, were excessively "lyrical" and did not agree "with the ancient force of spirituality". To which Nesterov responded: "I sing my songs..."3 According to the social commentator and philosopher Vasily Rozanov, the religious art of Vasnetsov and Nesterov, amid the lethargic academic art of the time, produced the impression "of a lark's loud song from the blue sweltering sky"4.

Sergei Durylin, Nesterov's friend and biographer, reminisced: "During the 30 years of our friendship he quite often repeated ... that his ascent to the top of the scaffolding in the St. Vladimir Cathedral marked a turning point in his life."5

When the artist gained confidence in his abilities, he had dreams of being given a church where he could work on murals independently, and he was invited not only to work in teams but for solo assignments as well. Nesterov did not accept every offer that came his way: he turned down some, and did not start others, or left them unfinished for reasons beyond his control. A grand project to create murals for the Cathedral of the Mother of God of Kazan near the Ka-luzhsky Arch (Kaluzhskie Vorota) in Moscow halted abruptly after the artist produced a complete layout and budget estimate. As for the project decorating the Cathedral of the Resurrection in St. Petersburg (Cathedral of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, 1892-1898), to which Nesterov contributed sketches and designs for mosaics, he was not quite satisfied with it - it did not have the individual flavour he was looking for both in secular paintings and icons.

When the artist was invited to create frescoes for the church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Abastumani, built by Grand Prince George Romanov in Georgia between 1898 and 1904, he accepted gladly. This being his first completely independent church decoration project, he created designs for and executed all compositions. He used in this work the iconic imagery layout and even several finished drafts he had created previously for the Kazan Cathedral.

As early as 1893, when working on the St. Vladimir Cathedral, Nesterov travelled across Turkey, Greece and Italy. In 1895, working on drafts for the Cathedral of the Resurrection in St. Petersburg, he made a journey across Russia to study Old Russian art. The assignment for the Abastumani church provided him with an opportunity to have a close look at Old Georgian paintings and mosaics, which would be reflected in the layout of icon images and the general design of the church's decoration. Nesterov created many sketches and took copious notes during his journeys, sometimes clearly stating which image inspired him when he was working on a particular icon. Yet, his artwork has nothing in the way of unemotional copying or direct attempts to imitate the ancient masters. Of particular interest are the artist's letters in which he talks about the old masters or ancient landmarks that inspired him in his work on this or that image. Were it not for such "clues", it would not always be possible to guess the inspiration of Nesterov's works. Researchers believe that Nesterov saw his mission in re-casting medieval iconographies in the strength and sincerity of his religious sentiment, filling them with a contemporary religious feeling, and livening them up with glimpses of a natural environment.

The Abastumani sketches were used as the basis for two distinct paintings: "The Raising of Lazarus" (1900) and "Calvary" (1900). According to available accounts6, the artist invested an extraordinary amount of energy and skill into "Calvary" - he had great expectations for it, displaying it at the 28th "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) show in 1900. The artist aspired to create a monumental composition applying abstract and neat forms and colour palette. "Calvary" appealed to Nesterov with its novelty, although he admitted: "Tragedy is a challenge like no other for me. And the forms, which are more rigid than usual, give me a lot of trouble."7 Nesterov once again addressed the subject, in a new compositional design, when he worked in 1908 on a piece called "The Crucifixion" for the Uspensky (Dormition) Cathedral in Perm. Nesterov's church projects considerably influenced his other paintings in terms of subject matter as well as style.

The murals in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Abastumani survive only fragmentarily, after renovators removed soot and grease from the frescoes in 2004. The church in its present-day appearance stirs strong emotions, its interior astonishing us with its beauty, opulence and "Christmas spirit".

Nesterov spent the early 1900s working strenuously on pieces commissioned for churches. In addition to the Abastumani church, Nesterov in those years accomplished icons and sketches for murals for the Cathedral of Peter of Kiev (Saint Peter, Metropolitan of Moscow and all Russia) in Nova Chartoriya, Volhynia, Ukraine (1899-1902); icons for the Cathedral of St. Hipatius of Gagra in Gagra (1903), for a chapel in the Tikhvinsky cemetery at the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg (1900-1901, commissioned by Count Lev Bobrinsky), and for the von Meck family burial vault in Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow.

The works Nesterov accomplished for churches during this period have yet to be properly studied. The murals at the Abastumani church, not easily accessible to the majority of art lovers, are mostly known through photographs and sketches. The other landmarks of that period have not survived, with only descriptions remaining.

The Cathedral of Peter of Kiev in Nova Chartoriya, built over the burial place of Prince Piotr Orzewski, to which the artist contributed in 1899-1902 is of interest. Nesterov travelled several times to the estate of the nobleman's widow Natalya Orzewski. On commission from her, Nesterov created the "Angel of Sadness"8 - a mosaic piece placed on top of the archway leading to the burial chamber, as well as icons for the iconostasis and drafts for the murals. Most of the painting inside the dome and on the walls of the apse was accomplished by Viktor Zamirailo. The ornamentation for the frescoes in the burial chamber was accomplished by Nikolai Prakhov with assistants under Nesterov's guidance. The artist had the apse graced with an image "Protection of the Mother of God", and the dome drum with a composition "Sounds of Angels"9, featuring the firmament covered with cloud-like snow-white quivering wings of angels. The church was badly damaged in the Soviet period, its iconostasis and interior decor destroyed, and the whereabouts of the sketches displayed at Nesterov's solo exhibition in 1907 are currently unknown.

The Russian National Archive of Literature and Art holds Princess Orzewski's letters to the painter written at the time when the church was being built and its interior decoration created. The letters highlight not only the artist's work on the icons and sketches and on decorating "the little church" with valuable pieces of marble and bronze procured by Adrian Prakhov, but also the artist's relations with this outstanding woman. Nesterov reminisced that "N[atalya] I[vanovna] Orzewski ... was a responsible person in the fullest sense of the phrase. All her thoughts, concerns and aspirations were focused on benefitting people - especially people without benefits . [she was] equally noble and high-minded in the days of prosperity and in the days of subsequent misfortunes, almost destitution, which she accepted and bore with enormous dignity. ... one of the most charming women and beautiful souls that I have met in my life."10

Although Nesterov enjoyed wide recognition as an artist, had many clients and a steady and good income, he was not quite satisfied with himself and complained that he had to sacrifice real creative work. He dreamed of going ahead with a piece he had conceived long previously - a composition "Holy Rus'", which he envisaged, inspired by the imagery he designed in Abastumani, featuring Christ, St. Nicholas, St. Sergius and St. George.

Nesterov's attempts to convey "divine" ideas by adding religious images and themes into non-religious paintings and infusing icons with a down-to-earth, human sentiment met with harsh and often ruthless criticism. He was castigated for using iconic signs and symbols in secular compositions; as an icon painter, on the contrary, he was berated for breaching the canons of icon-painting and introducing too many earthly and worldly overtones.

At the turn of the 20th century, the canons of Christian Orthodox icons were replaced with personal judgments, which often led to weird accusations that Nesterov's imagery was not in agreement with the canons. Thus, in a letter to his parents in Ufa dated October 21 1890 Nesterov wrote: "They (churchmen) want to see Christ only slightly covered with the shroud, and not in a chiton - in other words, the German way, rather than the Greek way"11; "upon my submission of the second draft the Committee included the obligation I detest -to delete the angel from the composition whereas this angel was what I liked most in the picture ... but decisions made by the archpri-est Lebedintsev constitute the law, and not for me alone; Viktor Mik-hailovich has endured quite a lot from this unbending keeper of Christian Orthodox faith."12

The artist in his memoir described how he was criticised for "failing to follow certain 'mandatory' rules of Christian Orthodox iconography" while working on murals at the Church of the Protection of Our Holy Lady at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent in Moscow. The recognised expert on all sorts of canons Fyodor Samarin was brought in to pass judgment in the case. He "closely examined the church and the murals... and... remained highly satisfied with everything," wrote the artist. "He liked best of all 'The Annunciation' on the piers - the piece that my foes from high society counted on so much. Samarin found that such a church should be preserved, that there is no breach whatsoever of the rules and canons of icon painting."13

The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Lady at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent (1907-1912; 1914) is a unique piece of architecture and painting and a great example of the modernist synthesis of the arts. But not all of Nesterov's contemporaries shared the view that the convent was a spectacular example of such a "synthesis" of architecture and painting. Most critics did not understand or approve of the decision not to have the walls completely painted over and not to stylise the imagery following Old Russian art. The artist "justified" his choice explaining his thoughts on stylisation: "I hoped to develop an individual style which would somehow express all of my faith, creative vigour, face, soul - the lively and active soul of an artist. I thought it was necessary in the pursuit of faith, religion, knowledge of God. A style is my faith while stylization is a faith of someone but not mine."14

Nesterov's last church-centred project was an iconostasis for the Trinity Cathedral in Sumy in Ukraine (1912-1914). The artist fitted six icons15 into the already existing baroque church, within its architectural decoration designed by Alexei Shchusev. The icons have similar convoluted compositional arrangements of figures and backgrounds with smoky clouds, which go together well with the opulent decor in a late classicist style. Unusually for the artist, he was satisfied with his icons for this church.

After the October Revolution Nesterov more than once painted images of saints, which were perhaps commissioned by collectors who appreciated and loved his pre-revolutionary works. Sometimes the artist replicated images he had painted previously: on commission from Pavel Korin's family, he created a small-size copy of the icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Church of the Protection of Our Holy Lady at the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent, and for Alexander Korin a copy of the image of the Saviour from the Trinity Cathedral in Sumy16.

The artist was concerned about the fate of the churches he had worked on. In a letter to Alexander Turygin in December 1923 he wrote: "...The Abastumani cathedral has been converted into a museum, the cross is gone, like in every other church in the South Caucasus. The Marfo-Mariinsky Convent and the church in Chartoriya are managed by the Commission for Landmark Preservation, so in this aspect at least things are acceptable."17 In 1928 Nesterov again visited Kiev, the city with which he had so many ties: "The St. Vladimir Cathedral crumbles away little by little ... The N[ester]ov art still holds but is very soiled (like everything else). No people around, no money, no funds to pay for repairs..."18

Later, in the 1930s, Nesterov replied to the artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who had visited Abastumani and was concerned about the condition of the church: "In response to your most nice letter, I have this to say: I have long believed that the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Abastumani is 'doomed' to complete destruction... It goes without saying that I am mightily grateful to you for trying to save the Abastumani murals from ruin but even if this attempt fails I'll not mourn."19

During the years of the Soviet destruction of churches, frescoes and icons, Nesterov's church artwork was significantly damaged. Nevertheless, a large number of his icons, drafts and even entire artefacts have survived in museums.

In his monumental compositions the artist combined the traditions of Western European art, both the old classical art and new trends, with the Russian neo-romantic style whose most prominent exponent was Viktor Vasnetsov. Creating frescoes for churches, Nesterov dreamed about a "Russian renaissance", about the revival of the long-forgotten wonderful art of the likes of Dionisius and Andrei Rublev20. Hoping to return a spiritual richness, artistic value and grandeur to contemporary religious art, Nesterov shared his elder friend's conviction that "in Rus', there is no more saintly and productive pursuit for an artist than decorating a church - this is truly a popular matter as well as an affair from the realm of high art."21

  1. Dedlov, Vladimir. "The St. Volodymyr Cathedral in Kiev". Moscow, 2001. P. 17.
  2. Ibid. P. 79.
  3. Nesterov, Mikhail. "Letters. Selections". Leningrad, 1988. P. 166.
  4. Rozanov, Vasily. 'Mikhail Nesterov. In: Rozanov, Vasily. "Among the Artists". St. Petersburg, 1914. P. 189.
  5. Durylin, Sergei. "Nesterov in Life and Art". Moscow, 1965. P. 194.
  6. Nesterov, Mikhail. "Letters. Selections". Leningrad, 1988. P. 179.
  7. Ibid. P. 178.
  8. The "carton" for the mosaic survived and is now in the Golovanov Apartment Museum, a branch of the Glinka Russian National Museum Association of Musical Culture
  9. See: Prakhov, Nikolai. "Pages of the Past". Kiev, 1958. P. 186. It also follows from Orzewski's letter that there were two sketches of the fresco inside the dome - she writes: "Adrian Viktorovich urgently advises to opt for the 'storm' of angels, as he called your second sketch, which he refers to as 'a work of genius'" (Orzewski to Nesterov, October 1 1901. Russian National Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 816. File 1. Item 33.)
  10. Nesterov, Mikhail. "My Bygone Days. 1862-1917. A Memoir". Moscow: 2006. Pp. 320-321.
  11. Nesterov, Mikhail. "Letters. Selections". Leningrad, 1988. P. 69.
  12. Ibid. P. 72.
  13. Nesterov, Mikhail. "My Bygone Days. 1862-1917. A Memoir". Moscow: 2006. Pp. 449-450.
  14. Ibid. P. 430.
  15. Only two of them have survived to this day.
  16. According to Olga Korina, Alexander Korin's daughter, they were wedding icons.
  17. Nesterov, Mikhail. "Letters. Selections". Leningrad, 1988. P. 291.
  18. Nesterov, Mikhail. "Letters. Selections". Leningrad, 1988. P. 337.
  19. http://www.radmuseumart.ru/news/index.asp?page_type=1&id_header=4297 Pondina, E., a senior researcher at the Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin Museum in Khvalynsk. "Petrov-Vodkin's second journey across the Caucasus".
  20. Nesterov, Mikhail. "Long Bygone Days. Meetings and Memoirs". Moscow, 1959. P. 93.
  21. Viktor Vasnetsov. "Letters. Journals. Memoirs. Opinions of His Contemporaries". Moscow: 1987. P. 72.





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