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Holy Rus

Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov • Painting, 1905, 233×375 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene
Style of art: Romanticism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1905
Size: 233×375 cm
Artwork in selections: 40 selections

Description of the artwork «Holy Rus»

Mikhail Nesterov has been painting Holy Rus for six years. The idea arose back in 1901, when the artist decided to move away from the church murals and return to easel painting. In search for models, Nesterov went to the Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea: he wanted to take a closer look at the monks’ ancient way of life among the harsh nature. Nesterov formulated his goal of the work: “I want to sum up my best thoughts, the best part of myself” (as he put it in his letter to his friend, artist Alexander Turygin).

The idea

The artist wanted to create something like Ivanov’s  Appearance of Christ before the People, one of his favourite paintings. At the same time, he intended to demonstrate how the Russian people themselves are moving towards the ideal, towards Christ. He already addressed a similar topic when painting the Martha and Mary Church in Moscow. The centuries-old tradition did not allow anyone to be depicted on frescoes, except for saints and persons associated with their lives and deeds. Nesterov still depicted ordinary people going to Christ on one of his frescoes. 

The Landscape

The artist made several sketches of his painting against the background of spring and autumn landscapes. In his final version, he depicted winter. “Six months of winter is the destiny of the Russian people,” he later explained his choice. Work on the painting was first carried out in Kyiv. The landscape in the background was the first thing he painted — and he was very pleased with the work. He wrote in his diary: “I did it well. It’s frosty.”

Figures of common people

 The canvas depicts 6 male and 10 female figures walking to Christ.
A coast-dwelling monk wearing a hat. According to Nesterov, this is what a typical monk of the Solovetsky Monastery looked like.
A monk boy with his arms crossed on his chest. The artist also met this young man, whose image he captured in the picture, on Solovki. Nesterov noted the sickly appearance of the young man and decided that he had only two years left to live. He could not resist and painted this painful expression.
The tall old man, a monk with glasses. The prototype was an 80-year-old monk from the Chernihiv sketches.
The children supporting him are peasants from Mytishchi.
The young nun was painted from the daughter of the itinerant artist Grigory Yartsev.

The woman in the dark patterned shawl is his nanny Seraphima from Ufa. She was the model for many of Nesterov’s female images.
The schema nun in the far right corner of the picture has the face of Nesterov’s dying mother. Interestingly, his mother allowed the artist to paint her portrait for the first time only before she died.
The woman supporting the sick woman in green is the artist’s sister, Aleksandra. Her figure and face are painted over the figure of Maxim Gorky. Yes, initially Nesterov wanted to introduce the representatives of the then intelligentsia into the picture. And they immediately got along with Gorky, having met back in 1900. The writer turned out to be an admirer of Nesterov’s talent. “It always makes acquaintance easier,” the artist later wrote in his diary. But that time Nesterov considered the Gorky’s image inappropriate. He would later portray representatives of the intelligentsia in his other symbolic painting — The Soul of the People.

Christ and the saints

Behind Christ, the artist depicted Saint Nicholas, Saint Sergius of Radonezh and Saint George. According to Nesterov, he chose the most revered saints of the Russian people. The figures of the saints are taken from the icon-painting sketches for the church paintings.
The artist painted the image of Christ from the priest Konstantin Rudnev, the rector of the Abastuman church, which Nesterov had previously painted. Maximilian Voloshin Maximilian Voloshin called the figure of the Saviour in the painting “a mannequin in a spectacular pose”. 

The artist’s fate

When Nesterov painted the Holy Rus, he opened his workshop for visitors several times. On 3 May 1902, the young lady Ekaterina Vasilyeva came to look at the artist’s works. The Holy Rus especially impressed the girl, and she talked with Nesterov for a long time about it. On 7th of July of the same year, Nesterov and Vasilyeva got married in Kislovodsk. They lived together for 40 years.

Exhibition and reviews

The Holy Rus painting became the centrepiece of the Nesterov exhibition, which opened on 5 January 1907 in St. Petersburg. It was the first one in seven years. The exhibition was a great success: there were days when 2000 people or more attended it.
The reaction of the contemporaries was controversial. For example, Leo Tolstoy said about the Holy Rus: “He had to paint Christ the way all those people who stand before him see him. They can’t see him as an Italian tenor. This is a memorial service for Russian Orthodoxy.”
Nesterov himself called this picture his best creation at first. At the end of his life, he sadly stated that the work was a fail.

Author: Olena Syroid