Mission to Peking. ANDREI IVANOV’S COMMISSION FOR THE RUSSIAN LEGATION IN CHINA, AND THE RETURN OF "ST. AMBROSE" TO THE TRETYAKOV
A work of art, just like any human being, may be blessed with a happy fate, or plagued by hardship. As circumstances change, fame can give way to neglect, and luck become misfortune. In such a way, the painting that entered the Tretyakov Gallery collection in ip with the title “Prince Vladimir Baptized in Chersonesus” (1829) had a complicated Its condition and overall quality made some experts doubt that it was indeed the work of Andrei Ivanov (1775-1848), the distinguished professor who was a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts and the teacher of artists such as Alexander Ivanov (his son, who remains best known for “ Appearance of Christ Before the and Karl Bryullov, whose “Last Day of Pompeii” brought European recognition for the Russian school of painting.
The need to restore the painting led to additional research to confirm both its attribution and the true meaning of its narrative: careful analysis of the composition made it clear that the event poignantly depicted in the painting did not match thejoyous occasion of a baptism. The composition shows a group of people on the steps of a church: in the centre we see a bishop in liturgical vestment, his hand extended towards a warrior wearing Roman armour and an Emperor’s crown. The priest’s gesture looks forbidding, as if he is denying the warrior entry into the church, while the expressions of the other clergymen are also stern and restrained; the warrior appears baffled, as if he has stumbled upon some invisible barrier, and his companions seem troubled, too.
In fact, the scene depicts a moment of conflict between a spiritual leader and a worldly ruler. Both restorers and art historians - almost simultaneously, although following different methodologies - came to the conclusion that Ivanov actually painted St. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, barring Emperor Theodosius from entering his cathedral and denying Theodosius the Holy Sacramentto punish him for his recent and bloody suppression of an uprising in Thessaloniki. This critic began to consider the varied iconography of Ivanov’s painting after visiting the Museum of Ancient Art at the Sforza Castle in Milan and seeing the massive embroidered gonfalon (church banner) there depicting scenes from the life of St. Ambrose. Another memorable such image is “St. Ambrose Stopping Theodosius” by Camillo Procaccini (1561-1629), at the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, while the most famous version of the scene, “Theodosius and St. Ambrose”, is the result of the combined efforts of Rubens and van Dyck (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
St. Ambrose is venerated in the Orthodox as well as the Roman Catholic Church, and his image appears on icons, but the iconography is rarely found in Russia. Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts has a print by Yevstafy Chukshin, which earned the artist a silver competition medal, with a dedication to Count Alexander Stroganov, and experts at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg have established that a painting by Ivan Belsky (1719-1799) for the Trinity Cathedral at the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery is a rare example of this theme in Russian art. Nevertheless, Ivanov’s work remains without precedent, even though it is likely that the artist used a print of the painting by Rubens as a starting point for his composition; some of the figures, slightly changed, appear on Ivanov’s canvas - the young servant with his back to the viewer, and the mirror image of the warrior with his arm bent at the elbow.
What then is the story behind Ivanov’s painting, now known as “St. Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius to Enter the Church”? According to Sophia Korovkevich’s monograph on the artist, the painting was one of several works that Ivanov painted for the Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking, the first of which was commissioned in 1823. The Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking was founded by the Holy Synod as early as 1713 to serve the local Orthodox community, who were mostly descendants of the Cossacks captured by Manchurian military forces after the siege of the Russian Albazin fort on the River Amur in 1685.
The missions numbered 10 people, including both clergy and laymen, and each lasted for 10 years, during which time the missionaries had the opportunity to study the local languages and collect relevant printed materials. The Mission was located at the Russian metochion, or compound: in 1729, the Chinese Emperor financed the construction of a stone church in the South Compound in Nanguan. The church was consecrated in 1736 and dedicated to the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. At the North Compound in Beiguan the Dormition Church was built to replace the Albazin Church of St. Nicholas, which had been destroyed in an earthquake.
On January 22 1823, Prince Alexander Golitsyn, Minister of Religious Affairs and Public Education, requested Alexei Olenin, the President of the Imperial Academy of Arts, to identify qualified artists who would design the iconostasis and paint icons for the Russian Church in Peking. The request was based on a report by Yegor Timkovsky, a government official with the rank of collegiate assessor, following his journey there: “The iconostasis of the mission church in Peking is in disrepair: the icons, of the simplest kind, were painted over the last 80 years, some by Chinese artists in their own local style. The colours have faded with time, and to maintain the magnificence of this church, which is sometimes visited by Chinese high officials and those of other countries, we should have the best artist in St. Petersburg paint new icons, and deliver them to Peking at the earliest occasion. As for the iconostasis, local artisans can make it according to drawings from St. Petersburg.”
The Russian Embassy compound was indeed located in the busiest area of Peking, close to the Emperor’s palace and government offices. Golitsyn provided Olenin with the interior dimensions of the church: “16.5 arshins long [11.73 meters: the arshin is an old Russian measuring unit, approximately 71.1 cm] and nine arshins wide [6.4 meters], with the walls, from floor to ceiling, measuring 10.5 arshins (7.46 meters) high.” In his report, Timkovsky suggested designing a simpler iconostasis that could be made locally: “The opinion here is that it would be possible to make an iconostasis of a medium height from cypress, cedar, linden or other common wood, with a mahogany veneer, or coated with a good lacquer of the same colour.” Timkovsky also pointed out that “most detailed” drawings of the iconostasis and the icons were to be finished no later than October, since a wagon convoy with a supply of silver for the needs of the mission was scheduled to depart in November.
Unfortunately, there were delays, and in late March 1823 Golitsyn wrote to Olenin again, asking for a prompt response to his request regarding the iconostasis. Olenin informed him that to ensure the high quality of work he had obtained a detailed plan of the Peking church from a private individual and handed it over to “the architect Shchedrin” (apparently Apollon Shchedrin). The list of icons provided by Golitsyn did not include “The Last Supper” or “The Resurrection of Christ” (the latter to be placed behind the altar); these two icons were added at Ivanov’s request, with the support of Olenin, and approved after further correspondence. Since time was of the essence, the idea was to split the work between several artists; however, the modest sum of around 4,000 rubles that was allocated as payment did not allow for that. In fact, since the number of proposed icons had been increased, Ivanov requested 6,500 rubles for the work, which had to be approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was only on May 8 1823 that Ivanov’s request was officially approved, and the payment confirmed: he finally received both the commission and the payment he had demanded. Andrei Ivanov did his best work during the first quarter of the 19th century, when he executed his paintings for the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg as well as other major works now in the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum. In the 1820s, after his family had grown large, he was forced to take on numerous commissions from religious institutions, and such pressure did not improve the quality of his work.
Naturally, Olenin was somewhat concerned about the deadline for finishing the icons; however, he expressed his confidence in the artist, his punctuality, work ethic and trustworthiness. Also, as the work progressed, the decision was made to add a small wooden model of the iconostasis - it must have been Apollon Shchedrin who suggested this - to the Peking consignment. All the paintings were finished by November, but the boxed items were not shipped until December. Related correspondence includes the list of all icons with their dimensions, which should help with attribution, should the works be rediscovered. The final document, dated January 8 1824, had to do with the fee that Ivanov and Shchedrin received for packing the icons and iconostasis model for transportation.
The painting now in the Tretyakov Gallery is mentioned in documents related to a second commission that Ivanov received directly from the Asia Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Count Nesselrode, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote to Olenin on January 21 1828: “Archimandrite Pyotr, who is in charge of our Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking, has recently written to request four religious paintings for his church. For that purpose, and with my approval, the Asia Department has commissioned Andrei Ivanov, Professor of Historical Painting at the Imperial Academy of Arts, who in 1823 painted icons for the iconostasis of the same church and has expressed his willingness to paint the aforementioned icons. He submitted plans to finish the paintings by 1830, at which time they are to be sent to Peking. On the fifth of this month this proposal was approved by His Majesty, with the understanding, however, that the plans for the paintings may be altered, should it be deemed necessary, to enhance their artistic value as well as their expressiveness, which could make a most favorable impression on the non-believers. With this, dear sir, I have to add that Mr. Ivanov is asking the Ministry for a payment of 8,000 rubles for the aforementioned (large) paintings. Therefore, as I forward his studies to Your Excellency, I humbly ask you to let me know your opinion of the artist’s designs as you return them to me, and if you find the requested payment is acceptable to the Treasury.”
Nesselrode was clearly not only referring to the fee for this commission, but also the quality of the artist’s preliminary studies, which are now lost. Olenin replied on January 26, listing his comments and suggestions to the artist: “The first painting depicting the Adoration of the Magi, the clothes of the Magi are overly theatrical - one of them is even wearing something that looks Chinese, which is discordant with the event in the picture and may consequently upset the Chinese. The second composition, showing St. Ambrose barring the Greek king Theodosius the Great from entering his church, is confusing, so the figures in it should be rearranged, which can be easily done. In the third painting, which shows Vladimir the Great choosing Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the clothes need some corrections. Changes also need to be made to Moses’ robes in the fourth painting. However, it is my opinion that the subjects and compositions of these paintings are quite suitable. As for the payment, it seems reasonable, considering the size of the paintings.” Nesselrode answered on February 11, with the due date for the commission (December 1829) and authorization for Olenin, as the President of the Imperial Academy of Art, to oversee the artist’s work and request changes. Nesselrode offered “His Excellency” Olenin “sincere gratitude for your participation in this work by offering the professor [Ivanov] your seasoned advice,” and expressed hope that, “You will kindly continue to provide direction to this entire project, which will pay off its cost to the Government and impart further merit to the work of Russian artists.”
It should be noted that the list of paintings Olenin provided in his letter differs from that in Korovkevich’s publication: in place of the “Nativity”, Olenin listed “Vladimir Chooses Christianity”. The Imperial Academy of Art issued a report with the following inventory: “Moses Receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai”, “The Adoration of the Magi”, “St. Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius to Enter the Church”, and the “Nativity”. Thus, records show that while Ivanov was working on the commission, some changes to the themes of the paintings were made, and the artist accepted all of Olenin’s comments. The date on the painting in the Tretyakov Gallery - December 15 1829 - proves that the work was finished on time. It seems likely that its rather unusual subject for the Russian church, the story of St. Ambrose and Theodosius, was deemed appropriately exhortative for the mission church in a hostile, foreign land. It is also worth pointing out that in the painting St. Ambrose is dressed in white ecclesiastical attire of the kind worn on certain holidays, including the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, to which the mission church was dedicated. Certain details in the painting are based on objects from Olenin’s beloved collection of genuine and reconstructed pieces of Roman armour, including helmets, shields and swords, artefacts that he had assembled for the use of students and artist-members of the Academy.
In addition to Ivanov’s works, unknown icon-painters created a total of 25 icons on tin, with themes of the Twelve Great Feasts, and other subjects, which were delivered to Peking in 1830 by the members of the 11th mission, which included an artist. It seems that Andrei Ivanov even contemplated having his own son join that mission to China. His son, Alexander Ivanov, wrote to him from Italy in May 1834: “The thought of coming back to my motherland makes me drop both my palette and brushes; I lose my desire to create any decent art... I am afraid that you would oppose my trip to Palestine - I can see it from your letter. Please, will you at least stay neutral, and think back to the time when you wanted to send me to China for 12 years?”
One can understand why Andrei Ivanov favoured sending his son on that mission: a mission artist was paid very well - 500 silver rubles a year - and upon his return received a pension, official rank and awards (that statute was abolished in 1863.) It was Anton Legashev (1798-1865) who joined the mission and went on to paint 16 icons for the Dormition Church at the request of the mission chief. In later years other artists would join the mission, such as Kondraty Korsalin, Ivan Chmutov, and Lev Igorev; in the 1850s Chmutov renewed the iconostasis in both mission churches. It is interesting that the poet Alexander Pushkin, influenced by the writings of Father Hyacinth (Bichurin), the head of the 9th mission and a prominent Chinese scholar, submitted a request to join the 11th mission.
There were 18 works in total by Andrei Ivanov, executed between 1823 and 1829, at the Sretensky Church in Peking. A 1916 publication on the history of the Chinese mission stated that all four paintings still hung on the walls of the church at the time: “At the time when the magnificent Catholic cathedrals were being demolished all over the land, Archimandrite Pyotr [Father Pyotr Kamensky - S.S.] assiduously maintained the existing Russian Orthodox churches. Thus, in 1826, the Sretensky Church was renovated in the most pleasing and dignified manner: a new iconostasis, painted by artist-members of the Academy of Arts, was installed at a cost of 6,500 rubles; four historical paintings by Andrei Ivanov, Professor of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, were purchased for 8,000 rubles and adorn the walls of the church to this day.” One inaccuracy in this description should be pointed out: its author has conflated the two separate commissions, those of 1823 and 1829.
Nevertheless, one question remains: how did Ivanov’s “St. Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius to Enter the Church” return from China to Moscow? Over the years, the Russian mission’s buildings were subjected to closure and destruction: the Dormition Church was badly damaged during the 1900 Boxer Uprising (it was restored in 1903), but the Sretensky Embassy Church was not damaged, although in 1924 it was closed and turned into a furniture warehouse. The Soviet Consul General Sergei Tikhvinsky (who was a vice-consul in 1946) remembered how the last head of the mission, Father Viktor (Svyatin), asked for his permission to see the abandoned church, and entered it, kissing the dusty altar.
Given the tumultuous events and atheistic policies in both China and the Soviet Union at the time, the mission was closed in 1954. The North Compound, with all its buildings and property, was handed over to the Soviet state, and in 1956-1959 became the site of the new Soviet Embassy, while the Dormition Church was turned into a garage (it was restored in 2009). In 1957, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted autonomy to the Chinese Orthodox Church. The Chinese Government took possession of the South Compound, including all its property and the Russian Church building; today there is a municipal park on this land. The Sretensky Church, which was built according to Chinese techniques, withstood an earthquake, but was demolished in 1991.
Russian Orthodox Clergy Performing the Liturgy in Peking for the Albazinians (descendants of the Russian Cossacks captured after the siege of the Albazin fort on the Amur River, 1685). “Russian Art Gazette”, published by Vasily Timm. 1859. No. 2
Paper, tone lithography. Drawing by Ivan Chmutov, made into a lithograph by Vasily Timm
It is possible that Ivanov’s painting reached the Tretyakov Gallery after a member of the Embassy staff brought it back to the Soviet Union and either gave it to Dr. Andrei Arendt (from whose widow the Gallery acquired it in 1968) as a gift, or invited him to purchase it. Sadly, the other paintings may have been simply destroyed due to their obviously religious themes, while this work could pass as a historical one, and consequently survived. It is worth mentioning that Arendt was born in Simferopol and consequently had a special attachment to Crimea, so a painting supposedly depicting the baptism and healing of Prince Vladimir in Chersonesus, a historical landmark in Crimea, would be especially appealing to him as a doctor, as well as the son of a doctor and a native of the region.
Throughout its life the painting suffered from unprofessional restoration efforts and poor transportation, so when the Tretyakov Gallery was preparing for the exhibition “The Destiny of One Picture by Andrei Ivanov” (2017- 2018, Tretyakov Gallery), it became clear that a complex combination of restoration efforts was required (carried out by Ivan Salakhov), as well as scientific analysis, performed by Irina Rustamova in cooperation with the Department of Expert Evaluation staff. We sincerely hope that this exhibition and associated publications may lead to more information on the fate and current location of Andrei Ivanov’s other works created for the Russian mission in China.
Irina Rustamova, researcher. Photograph
- The painting was purchased in 1968 from Yevgenia Arendt (1894-1980), the widow of Dr. Andrei Arendt (1890-1965), a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon. In the Tretyakov Gallery catalogue of paintings (Moscow, 2005. V. 3, #595) it is listed as “A.I. Ivanov (1775-1848), ‘Prince Vladimir Baptized in Chersonesus’. 1829. Oil on canvas. 211.3 cm x 158.5 cm. Inscription in the left lower corner reads ‘1829, Dec 15. Prof. A.I.’” The Department’s catalogue lists “Prince Vladimir Baptized in Kiev” and “Prince Vladimir Baptized in Chersonesus”, 1829. X, as a duplicate.
- Korovkevich, S.V. “Andrei Ivanovich Ivanov. 1775-1848”. Moscow, 1972. P. 118; painting reproduction, p. 91. Hereinafter - Korovkevich. The author describes the work, analyses the story behind it as the miracle of Prince Vladimir’s epiphany, and discusses similarities between the painting and Ivanov’s style - all with the caveat that these observations were not sufficient to attribute the work to the artist. The author also points out that there are no records of the work Ivanov may have done on this subject: the erroneous title had clearly led to confusion.
- With the help of their colleagues, Rustamova and Salakhovtook a research trip to the Novgorod the Great Museum-Reserve, which houses a signed and dated work by Ivanov that was executed very close in time, his “Descent from the Cross”, 1831. Oil on canvas. 214 cm x 140 cm. Inv. 13513. Comparative analysis of the two paintings confirmed that the manner and signatures were identical.
- For more information on the research and restoration of the painting, see: Rustamova, I.V.; Salakhov, I.T. “The Attribution and Restoration of the Painting by A.I. Ivanov ‘Prince Vladimir Baptized in Chersonesus’ from the Collection of the Tretyakov Gallery”; Stepanova, S.S. ‘Andrei Ivanovich Ivanov. Commission for the Russian Orthodox Mission in China’ // “Lectures at the Tretyakov”. Published reports from the 2016 research conference. Moscow, 2017. Pp. 68-80, 81-94.
- Notably, the Pavel Korin Museum (affiliated to the Tretyakov Gallery) houses “December Menaion”, a two-sided panel depicting St. Ambrose. Presumed late 16th century, levkas and tempera on canvas.
- Belsky, 1.1. “St. Ambrose Forbids Emperor Theodosius the Great Entrance to the Cathedral After the Massacre at Thessaloniki”. No later than 1794, painted from a print of the painting by Rubens. Now in the collection of the Russian Museum, housed at the Trinity Cathedral of the St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
- Korovkevich. P. 116. Unfortunately, this publication lists incorrect reference numbers for the archival documents.
- Ipatova, A.S. ‘The Russian Orthodox Mission in China. The 20th Century’ // “History of the Russian Orthodox Mission in China. Collected Articles”. Moscow, 1997. Pp. 284-285.
- Quoted from: Stepanova, Op. cit. P. 84. Original housed at the Russian State Historical Archive. List 20 (Olenin.) 1823. Item 7. P. 1.
- Hieromonk Nicholas (Adoratsky). ‘The Early Years of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking. 1685-1745’ // “History of the Russian Orthodox Mission in China”. Op. Cit. P. 154-155.
- Russian State Historical Archive. F. 789. List 20.1823. Item 7. P. 1.
- Ibid. P. 1, reverse.
- Russian State Historical Archive. List 20 (Olenin.) 1823. Item 7. P. 11,11 reverse.
- Russian State Historical Archive. F. 789. List 20 (Olenin.) 1828 January 21. Item 3.
- Quoted from Stepanova. Op. cit. Pp. 87-88.
- Ibid. P.88.
- Ibid. Pp. 88-89.
- Department of Manuscripts, Russian National Library. F. 708. Item 867. P. 2.
- Letter from Alexander Ivanov to his father. May 1834, Vicenza. In “Alexander Ivanov. Correspondence, Documents, Memoirs”. Compiled by I.A. Vinogradov. Moscow. 2001. P. 142.
- Nesterova, E.V. “Excerpts from the History of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Peking. The Artist Anton Legashev” //The Kunstkamera Museum, St. Petersburg. 1994. Issue No. 4. Pp. 134-160.
- Avraamy. “A Short History of the Russian Orthodox Mission in China, Composed for the Occasion of Its 200th Anniversary in 1913. First edition. Printed in Peking at the Dormition Church. 1916. P. 98.
- Judging from the photographs in the publications on the Russian Orthodox mission, by the early 20th century the Dormition Church iconostasis was decorated with icons in the style of Viktor Vasnetsov. When, and how they appeared in the church, and who painted them, is an open question. In this context, we should note that the head of the 18th mission, Archimandrite Innokenty (Figurovsky), visited Kiev before leaving for China in 1896, at the time when the interior decoration of the Vladimir (Volodymyr) Cathedral was recently finished, after which Vasnetsov’s works were copied for numerous other churches.
Tretyakov Gallery. Detail
Tretyakov Gallery. Detail
Oil on cardboard. 47.7 × 39.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Oil on canvas. 212 × 160.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice
Detail of the painting in the process of restoration
Detail of Andrei Ivanov’s painting from the Tretyakov Gallery
Detail of Andrei Ivanov’s painting “The Descent from the Cross” (1831, Novgorod the Great Museum-Reserve)
Detail of Andrei Ivanov’s painting in the process of restoration
Detail of Andrei Ivanov’s painting in the process of restoration
Detail of Andrei Ivanov’s painting from the Tretyakov Gallery
Detail of Andrei Ivanov’s painting “The Descent from the Cross” (1831, Novgorod the Great Museum-Reserve)
Oil on canvas. 119.5 × 141 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan
Oil on canvas. 214 × 140 cm. Novgorod the Great Museum-Reserve
Tretyakov Gallery. Details
Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Print from Peter Paul Rubens’s painting of the same name. c. 1615. Paper, etching. Tretyakov Gallery. Pavel Korin House-Museum
Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London
2, 4 – Andrei Ivanov’s signature on the painting “The Descent from the Cross” from the collection of the Novgorod the Great Museum-Reserve
Paper, wood engraving
Photograph by Irina Rustamova
Museum of Ancient Art, Sforza Castle, Milan