From Biography to Hagiography. The Russian Intelligentsia in Mikhail Nesterov's Work

Olga Atroshchenko

Magazine issue: 
#2 2014 (43)


The Russian intelligentsia's interest in these issues could be explained by its attempts to "seek God" and dreams about founding a "Universal Church" that would unite all historical churches - Orthodox ideology, with its emphasis on monastic asceticism, did not satisfy the intelligentsia. Thus, they sought to find out from clergymen how science, art, social ethics, and secular work - the spheres important for the development of the individual's creative potential - were integrated into the life of the contemporary church. For them particularly, life devoid of creative work had no value. Ternavtsev, for his part, suggested that the Church should seek the support of this new force, which, according to Ternavtsev, "was neither the bureaucrats, nor the bourgeoisie, nor the nobles, nor the educated class as a whole, but specifically the intelligentsia".3 He believed that the intelligentsia was the very force capable of reviving the life of the Church.

The Assemblies were interesting and lively, often ending in passionate debates, but their existence was short-lived. In early April 1903, they were discontinued after Konstantin Pobedonostsev, then the Attorney-General of the Holy Synod, issued a decree barring them - such were the consequences of heated debates prompted by a discussion of the topic entitled "On the Church Doctrine", and of the possibility to reform that doctrine.

Much later, the philosopher Ivan Ilyin would write, giving a critical assessment of the situation with the Religious and Philosophical Assemblies:"No one can use the Church as an instrument in wars, scientific debates, and artistic ramblings; the Church should not be turned into some supreme 'union' responsible for all human failures and suffering. It has a different, higher and nobler mission... The Church leads the faith; the faith inspires the soul; the soul creates culture."4

Despite their short-lived existence, the Assemblies did have a significant influence on the development of Russian religious and philosophical thought. However, they also revealed a complete lack of mutual understanding, and, in consequence, made impossible any effective cooperation between the Church and the intelligentsia. As Gippius wrote, "Upon closer acquaintance with the 'new people' [the clergymen - O.A.], we became more and more amazed. And I don't mean the internal differences; what I am talking about are skills, habits, even language itself - everything was different, as if it were not the same culture."5

Nevertheless, leaving behind the hard intellectual battles fought by some members of the intelligentsia, we enter the world that Nesterov establishes in "Holy Rus'" and discover something completely different - a world of simple, popular faith. The Slavophiles once wrote devotedly about this heartfelt faith that they perceived as the source of the very existence of Orthodox Russia. Indeed, one cannot find a single member of the intelligentsia in the crowd that streams out of Russia's vastness to meet Christ -Nesterov painted only children, peasants, and the religious. There are no members of the intelligentsia in his other painting, "The Way to Christ" (1911, in the refectory of the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent). Among the multitudes coming to meet the Saviour, we see townspeople, nurses, and a soldier - the artist painted the latter taking into consideration one soldier's remark about the army being charged with the protection of the Motherland.

Answering critics' questions as to why the artist did not include a single believing member of the intelligentsia in his painting, Sergei Glagol wrote: "Nesterov is right in this case because if we are sincere, we can hardly imagine such a character in this crowd. Among the members of the intelligentsia there is only a negligible minority congenial with the Church and issues of faith... It would be difficult for the artist to find a representative of the intelligentsia whom he could place near the wounded soldier and that burly peasant in the centre, without moving away from the truth."6

Only in his subsequent work, "In Rus' (The Soul of the People)" (1914-1916, Tretyakov Gallery) did Nesterov include renowned members of the Russian intelligentsia - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Soloviev and Leo Tolstoy - in the large procession that carries the Icon of the Saviour "Not Made by Human Hands", headed by the Tsar, the Patriarch and the Voivoda (military governor). However, by the time the artist finished the latter work, more than ten years had passed since the completion of"Holy Rus'". During that period Nesterov did not stop thinking about the place of the Russian intelligentsia in the religious life of society. Convinced that Christianity was always an integral part of the Russian soul, he had to understand the attitude of the Russian intelligentsia towards the issues of faith. Nesterov himself grew up in the family of a merchant believer, and from childhood onwards he came into contact with true popular faith. He accepted the Christian Doctrine without question, and always adored the Orthodox liturgy and the beauty of church rites. As the artist's friend and biographer Sergei Durylin wrote: "Neither in his life, nor in his thoughts - never, from early childhood to his last days - did Nesterov secede from the Orthodox faith. And he never hid it from anybody, even though he did not like to emphasize and publicize his faith."7

The presence of certain historical characters in this work is explained by the fact that at the turn of the century their new religious ideas excited the public's interest. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the writer whose works were based on the concept of Christocentrism, repeated tirelessly that one could still see the image of God even in fallen and rebellious human nature. His warnings about morals separated from religion sound prophetic: Dostoevsky writes in his diary, "They think to establish justice but in the end, having rejected Christ, they'll drown the world in blood".8

Vladimir Soloviev is known as the founder of the independent tradition in Russian religious philosophy. He worried about the tragic gap between the Christian Church and secularized society and offered his theory of the "All-encompassing Unity", which suggested that belief in God and belief in human nature could "join in one full perfect truth of God-mankind". As for Leo Tolstoy, his image also had to be included in this work, despite the fact that he had been excommunicated. A true representative of the Russian intelligentsia, Tolstoy shared the same yearning for a religion but he explained Christianity from a rationalistic standpoint, rejecting its doctrinal and mystical components.

Given his sound realist background, Nesterov had to find real, live models for almost all of his characters. To paint Soloviev, he used the philosopher's photographs, but for Dostoevsky's image the artist had to work with sketches made from his friend, Leonid Sredin, who resembled the great writer. Fortunately, he could paint Leo Tolstoy in the flesh, and for that very purpose he was invited to Yasnaya Polyana in 1907. With this work Nesterov commenced a series of portraits of members of the Russian intelligentsia. Previously he had painted mostly saints and "God's people", both on the walls of churches and on his easel. Only when free from working on murals did he paint portraits of his loved ones - his daughter, his wife, and his friends.

Nesterov undoubtedly fell under Tolstoy's spell at Yasnaya Polyana, where "everything whirled around this great old man".9 However, while admiring the literary genius and magnanimity of the great writer, the artist seriously criticized his religious and moral pursuits. He fully realized how dangerous this "Tolstovstvo" was and said bitterly: "This aristocratic inconsistency, 'a play of thought', has ruined so many people of weak heart and mind; and so many others have been crippled, exiled to Siberia, to Canada - only God knows!"10 In the portrait, Nesterov painted Tolstoy in profile, dressed in his tolstovka, the loose summer blouse with a belt; his face appears tense and thoughtful. In the background one can see spruce trees on the banks of the Yasnaya Polyana pond. Nesterov needed Tolstoy exactly in this pose - lost in his thoughts - for "The Soul of the People". It seems that having placed the great writer in the distance, far from the procession, the artist makes viewers consider whether Tolstoy had earlier joined the procession "seeking the Living God", then changed his mind and stopped; or on the contrary, that he had just arrived and was waiting for the procession to join it. To Nesterov it was not quite clear which choice Tolstoy would ultimately make. Until the great writer's final days and his departure from Yasnaya Polyana, the artist hoped that Tolstoy would return to God's Throne.11

Some years later, the artist painted "An Elder (Abraham, Servant of God)" (1914-1916, Samara Art Museum). In terms of composition, this work resembles the portrait of Leo Tolstoy (even the elder's habit reminds the viewer of the great writer's tolstovka) but in spirit, it differs diametrically. The artist himself described his painting: "Against the background of a young spruce forest, on its edges by the lake, stands an old, stooping servant of God, watching heaven and earth, the green sparkled with spring flowers, and rejoices over the beauty of the Heavenly King's dominion."12

Thus, the former painting ("Portrait of Leo Tolstoy") shows us a proud and independent personality that - as the artist puts it - "captivates people with his talent's flexibility"13; the latter ("An Elder"), however, presents Tolstoy's opposite - a man who "ingenuously scorned all glory of the world."14

In the 1930s, when the Orthodox Church was suffering severe persecution, the artist was not afraid to leave in his memoirs a short note about the monk of the Chernigov skete near the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra (Monastery) who was the model for Nesterov's earlier work, "To the Sounds of Church Bells" (1895, Russian Museum). "I believe that our monasteries have lived, are living, and will live because of such Abrahams - they bring themselves to God as a redemptive sacrifice, and next to them sin loses all its power, beauty and charm, and if not already dead, fades down and becomes spiritually unsavoury."15

Sergei Fudel, the closest friend and associate of Sergei Durylin and Father Pavel Florensky, shared Nesterov's thoughts in his memoirs about the Elder Alexiy from the Zosimov Pustyn16, who was a spiritual adviser to Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna. "The beauty of his person was astonishing," Fudel wrote, "... especially his eyes, full of compassion and love for mankind. This love conquered and won. Anyone approaching the elder was drowned in it as if in the bosom of some prehistoric deity and was carried away by some irresistible, unknown, yet coveted force. And he could do nothing but believe, for in him love engendered a reciprocal love in the same way that fire enkindles a new fire." 17

According to ascetic literature, the grace of understanding both the universe and one's own self is given only to the humble of heart. Nesterov was well aware of this postulate, and recognized and appreciated it. "I admire my elders," he confessed, "but I was not like them myself."18 As Durylin noted: "In his soul there always lived that unquenchable yearning for the inner world, for that lucid peace that he himself could never find in the compulsory silence of a monastic cell but always saw, searched for, and experienced in loving unity with nature and in its festive serenity."19 In his life, Nesterov enjoyed interaction with different people, especially with those who had an imaginative nature. The artist himself was of a dual disposition that combined zest for life with a taste for mysticism, and that enabled him to understand well the complexity and inconsistency of human nature. However, with regard to his works, Nesterov used every opportunity to draw a distinction between the real and the ideal; and holiness was always the ideal that the artist envisaged. Perhaps that was the reason behind Rozanov's suggestion to unite Nesterov's works under one theme: "The Transition from Biography to Hagiography".20 One may notice a spiritual vector defined by the philosopher in certain paintings that represent unknown "servants of God"; this vector, however, becomes apparent when one contrasts some of Nesterov's works - for example, "Portrait of Leo Tolstoy" and "Abraham, Servant of God" and a few others, such as "To the Sounds of Church Bells" and "The Philosophers" (1917, Tretyakov Gallery).

Both the latter works show two characters against the background of a beautiful landscape that Nesterov painted from the vicinities of the Trinity-St.Sergius Lavra. In the first painting, two monks - an old man and a youth - are coming to evening service: they walk silently and at a distance from one another, repeating prayers from their prayer-books in humble unanimity amidst the serene spring forest. Nesterov uses the tranquil nature that surrounds the monks as a symbol of gracefilled peace - the fruit of monastic obedience. We already recognize the older man - it is Abraham the elder as Nesterov saw him for the first time. "He slowly moved along the footpath, with an open book in his hand," the artist recalls, "dressed in an old faded habit that was too long and too wide for him; he wore a black kamelaukion and under it, for whatever reason, his head was covered with a black, also faded, shawl - like a woman's. While walking, the old man whispered something to himself and smiled happily at something."21

In the second painting, there are also two characters: a priest, Father Pavel Florensky, dressed in a light cassock that "looked more like some ancient Eastern robe"22, and Sergei Bulgakov, a professor of Moscow University. However, here the atmosphere of "intellectualizing" conversations and of the contest between the "temper of mind" (Florensky) and the "temper of heart" (Bulgakov) dominates the whole space. There is no sense of silence here.

When Nesterov was working on this painting, Florensky lived at Sergiev Posad and served on the Historical Commission on the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra: he held the positions of Scientific Secretary and Custodian of the Sacristy from 1918 until 1920. Blessed by Patriarch Tikhon, the Commission strove to protect the Lavra's cultural assets from despoliation and desecration.

In 1917, Sergei Bulgakov, whom Nesterov highly regarded, published his first theological book, "The Unfading Light" that crowned his "tangled and complex - sometimes too complex! -spiritual quest",23 and the next year Bulgakov took holy orders at Moscow's Danilovsky Monastery.

The artist became acquainted with both Florensky and Bulgakov in 1908, at meetings of the Religious and Philosophical Society instituted to commemorate Vladimir Soloviev24; the artist attended the meetings because he was then working on "The Soul of the People". He was present during the discussion on Florensky's thesis published later under the title "The Pillar and Ground of the Truth". Nesterov honestly admired this "living book", which after so many years of silence, "spoke of the Church as if it were not a collection of doctrines and legends, rules and arguments, but a living body filled with holiness and love - a miracle of Christ's Incarnation continued here, on earth".25

Nevertheless, the artist realized that most members of the Religious and Philosophical Society "belong to those exceptionally talented Russian people who suffer from the excess of their own gifts and interests,"26 and that, to a great extent, was the reason behind the painful doubts, which hampered their life choices. Many of them may have dreamt of the monastic life but could not abandon their intellectual pursuits. Among them was Sergei Durylin, who for a number of years struggled with a dilemna - he did not know what to prefer: "'The Ladder' or 'the literary circles'."27 That is why Durylin's opinion on "The Philosophers" has a profound significance. "Without any such intention," he writes, "Nesterov showed us the tragedy of the intellectual's soul struggling with the contradictions of a lonely thought, and even of a more lonely dream."28

Another of Nesterov's works, "The Thinker (Portrait of Ivan Ilyin)" (1921-1922, Russian Museum) is emotionally close to the "The Philosophers". In this painting, however, there is only one figure, an intellectual taking a lonely walk. In his hand he holds an open book that, apparently, has prompted deep reflection. His expression is anxious and he is completely lost in troublesome thoughts, oblivious to the beauty of the surrounding landscape. This painting recalls another of Nesterov's major works, "The Hermit" (1889, Tretyakov Gallery) which has a similar compositional structure, depicting a lonely hermit. It seems as if the artist deliberately contrasted these characters: for the hermit's image, he found "a warm and deep stroke denoting a man at peace,"29 while for his "Thinker" he "needed just such a face - with a small red beard, rancorous and stubborn".30 When Ilyin's wife asked him to paint the thinker with "the face of an angel", Nesterov resolutely refused.

The artist's feelings towards Vasily Rozanov, with whom he had much in common, were characterized by deep affection and tenderness, but he regarded Rozanov's "profound interest in religious issues" more highly than anything else. The philosopher was a remarkable connoisseur of Nesterov's work, and devoted a series of wonderful articles to him. However, in serious conversations the two often took opposite sides and went "from kisses to blows".31 The artist particularly disliked Rozanov's attacks on the Church. The passionate, lively philosopher could not connect the Old Testament, with its idea of the sacrosanct kingdom on earth, lives of patriarchs, and call "to breed and multiply", with the New Testament's message of atonement, exhortation to celibacy and holiness, and Christ's words,"My Kingdom is not of this world". Shortly before his death, Rozanov moved to Moscow, then settled at Sergiev Posad where Pavel Florensky lived. Here, "under the Saint's protection" he died in 1920, having finally reconciled himself with the Orthodox Church. Earlier he had written: "I will, for sure, die as a man of the Church. It is of immeasurably greater value to me than literature."32 Nesterov understood the philosopher's duality when he wrote: "One should either reject or accept Rozanov entirely, ceding judgement over him to God... Unstoppable, he penetrated everywhere, seeking to experience both the Divine and the diabolic."33

During this period, Nesterov cherished the thought of painting the philosopher's portrait, "expressing his nature, the 'dynamics' that was so precious in him".34 He never implemented his plan, but the artist's description of the unpainted portrait survived: "I had the following concept of Rozanov's portrait - sometime in spring, on the banks of some small Yasnushka river, there is a lawn covered with spring flowers. Evening is near - that very time when the scent of grass and flowers becomes intoxicating, and somewhere nearby a nightingale starts its trills; when the young birch-tree shoots forth its sticky leaves; when the blood is roiling and the mind is clouded... In this magic hour our Vasily rests on the lawn, naked - 'as on the day of birth'. Carefree and blissfully happy, he luxuriates on the grass like a young faun, playing a flute to the grass, birds - and humans - at their special hour. Creation is bustling around him and all the creatures hurry to enjoy life and taste it in full. Dragonflies and June bugs fly over his head, but our Vasily, as if in blissful abandon, contemplates something through his glasses; and nature tells us in a whisper when the beautiful Spring will come, when two Lads will rush hand-in-hand towards their unknown happiness, when nature triumphs in the prime of its creativity... That's how I would paint Rozanov - the true phenomenon of our days."35

This story reminds us of another work by Nesterov, painted without a trace of irony and showing us an ideal world - "Lel' (Spring)" (1933, Russian Museum). On the edge of a forest, where the trees shoot forth sticky leaves and, undoubtedly, "a nightingale sings", a young shepherd walks lightly, barely touching the ground with his bast shoes, and plays his flute - pure and innocent, like nature awakening from its winter sleep.

Nesterov summarized his thoughts about the destiny of Russia and the Russians in "Holy Week" (1933, held in the collection of religious artefacts at the Moscow Theological Academy). He painted the Passion Liturgy in a forest, with a priest wearing Lenten robes and only a few people present near the Cross - among them peasants, townspeople, and Dostoevsky, who is mourning in silence; in front of Dostoevsky, Gogol prays on his knees, with a candle in his hand. Enduring the tragedy that befell his country, Nesterov wrote at the time: "Work - and only work - can still distract me from contemplation of the historical crime that has been perpetrated here; from contemplation of Russia's destruction! And only work gives me hope that, having endured her Passion and Golgotha, Russia will see the Glory of the Resurrection."36

The contemporary Nesterov scholar Eleonora Khasanova offers a very persuasive conclusion when she writes: "...for Nesterov, both the people and the intelligentsia have involuntarily participated... in the 'destruction of the Great Motherland'; and they both stand at the Cross, profoundly penitent; but they are not equally guilty: the guilt of the intelligentsia is greater - that is why they stand at the right side of the Cross."37 As everybody knows, the cross with the unrepentant robber stood on the right of the Saviour's Cross on Golgotha.

In his last works, Mikhail Nesterov concentrated on perfecting his skills as a portraitist. He refused to work on commission and chose his models himself, preferring creative, interesting people. Of this work, he simply said:"I had to paint the Russian people - those who lived honourably and died with knowledge that with regard to their homeland, their conscience was clear."38

  1. President of the St. Petersburg Ecclesiastical Academy, Bishop Sergiy (Stragorodsky, 1867-1944, in 1943-1944 Patriarch of Moscow) chaired the Assemblies. The future Archbishop of Volyn Antoniy (Khrapovitsky, 1863-1936, emigrated after the October Revolution and headed the Russian Orthodox Church abroad) also participated actively in the Assemblies.
  2. Gippius, Zinaida.'On Religious and Philosophical Assemblies'. // Gippius, Zinaida. "Poems. Memoirs. Documentary prose". Moscow, 1991. P. 108-109. (Hereafter referred to as Gippius, Z.N.)
  3. Ibid. P. 107.
  4. Ilyin, I.A. "The Lonely Artist. Articles. Speeches. Lectures". Moscow, 1993. P. 325.
  5. Gippius, Z.N. P. 102.
  6. Durylin, S.N."Nesterov in his Life and Works". Moscow, 2004. Page 253. (Hereafter referred to as Durylin, S.N.)
  7. Ibid. P. 25-26.
  8. Levitsky, S.A. "Stories from the History of Russian Philosophy. Essays". Moscow, 1996. P. 155. (Hereafter referred to as Levitsky, S.A.)
  9. Nesterov, Mikhail. "On the Experiences. 1862-1917. Memoirs". Moscow, 2006. P. 396. (Hereafter referred to as "On the Experiences".)
  10. Mikhail Nesterov, letter to Alexander Turygin. Moscow, August 31, 19067/Nesterov, M.V. "Letters". Leningrad, 1988. P. 221. (Hereafter referred to as"Letters")
  11. In his letter to Vasily Rozanov, dated November 1, 1910, with regard to Tolstoy's leaving the house at Yasnaya Polyana, Nesterov wrote:"Leo Tolstoy is a great symbol of the Russian people's diversity; he represents its fall, repentance, pride and humility, ferocity and tenderness, and the profound magnitude of its genius - all those features that are so incomprehensibly mixed in our people. In his later life, having tasted everything - from the greatest joys to the deepest sorrows, this Tolstoy starts his way to God on an autumn night and en route visits a man who is as old as Tolstoy himself - Zosima, perhaps a Karamazov starets [Nesterov means Amvrosiy (Grenkov), an elder from the Optina Pustyn monastery - O.A.] to check for the last time whether the way he chose indeed will lead him to the Truth." - See"Letters". P. 241.
  12. "On the Experiences". P. 477.
  13. Mikhail Nesterov, letter to Alexander Turygin. Moscow. August 31, 1906. - See"Letters". P. 221.
  14. The Russian National Literature and Art Archive (RGALI). F. 816 (Nesterov), file 2, item 12, Sheet 1.//Father Abraham. Typewriting. The 1930s.
  15. Ibid. Sheet 1, reverse.
  16. Alexiy (Soloviev) (1846-1928), hieromonk at the Zosimov Pustyn; served as a deacon in the Nikolo-Tolmachevsky church in Moscow and as a presbyter at the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin; joined Zosimov Pustyn in 1898. In 1917, he was delegated as a representative to the Regional Council and participated in the election of Patriarch Tikhon.
  17. Fudel, S.I."Selected Works", in three volumes. Vol. 1. Moscow, 2001. P. 16-17. (Hereafter, Fudel, S.I.)
  18. Durylin, S.N. P. 272.
  19. Ibid. P. 89.
  20. Ibid.
  21. The Russian National Literature and Art Archive (RGALI). F. 816 (Nesterov), file 2, item 12, P. 1.
  22. Fudel, S.I. Vol. 1. P. 35.
  23. Bulgakov, S.N. "The Unfading Light. Contemplations and Speculations". Moscow, 1994. P. 6.
  24. In 1908, the Religious and Philosophical Society was instituted in Russia - in Moscow at the initiative of Sergei Bulgakov, in St. Petersburg of Nikolai Berdyaev, and in Kiev of the Spiritual Academy professors. The Moscow branch of the Society was named after Vladimir Soloviev. According to Berdyaev,"the Society became the centre of religious and philosophical thought and spiritual pursuits." It existed until 1918. Sergei Durylin held the position of secretary from 1912 until 1918.
  25. Fudel, S.I."Entering the Church Experience. Selected Works", in three volumes. Vol. 3. Moscow, 2005. P. 290.
  26. Levitsky, S.A. P. 376. In this regard, Nesterov wrote:"Oh, the infallible Russian intellectual - he has so little love for a living soul, whether in science, in arts, in minds or in feelings. Everywhere, in everything, he will try to stifle and extinguish a spark of life, and if something 'inappropriate' happens, he will chivalrously blame his neighbour..."// Mikhail Nesterov's letter to Vasily Rozanov. Moscow, March 23, 1914. - See "Letters". P. 258.
  27. Durylin, S.N."In his Corner. On S.N. Durylin's 120th Anniversary. 1886-1954". Prepared by G.E. Pomerantseva. Moscow, 2006. On p. 66 Durylin wrote of himself:". This duality is unbearable - it has to be'either/or': either 'The Ladder' or'the literary circles' (Leontyev's letters; contemplations on the writer Rozanov .) Burn one or the other, but - burn." "The Ladder of Paradise" - a practical guide to monastic life written by a sixth-century hermit, the blessed John of the Ladder (John"Lestvichnik").
  28. Durylin, S.N. P. 364.
  29. Ibid. P. 83.
  30. Ibid. P. 380.
  31. "Letters". P. 228.
  32. Levitsky, S.A. P. 286.
  33. "Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov, 1862-1942. Catalogue. Exhibition of Works from the State Tretyakov Gallery and Moscow City's Private Collections". Moscow, 1990. P. 94.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid. P. 92.
  36. "I still believe that Russian ideals will prevail." "M.V. Nesterov's Letters to A.V. Zhirkevich" // Our Heritage. 1990, No. 3 (15). P. 22.
  37. Klimov, P.Yu. Mikhail Nesterov. St. Petersburg, 2008. P. 200.
  38. Durylin, S.N. P. 40.





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