It’s hard to imagine a better location than St. Peter’s Square for a Russian art exhibit that aspires to build a bridge not only between the Vatican and the Kremlin, but also between the individual and the universal.
Located in the Charlemagne section of the colonnade surrounding the famous square, the exhibit called Pilgrimage of Russian Art, From Dionysius to Malevich opened to the public Nov. 20. It showcases 54 masterpieces from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in a place that’s accessible to all.
It was the artist Bernini’s plan to make the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square extend like arms and curve as if embracing the world, and today visitors can be enveloped by a never-before-seen - and totally free - exhibit with art pieces that bring the viewer just a little bit closer to God.
“The Russian point of view always wishes to grasp the metaphysical meaning, beyond the confines of what is visible” said Zel’fira Tregulova, General Director of the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow in a press release, “that’s why our art never considered technique as an end in itself.”
“In the Russian tradition the canon is more important than the technique, and the universal is more important than the particular,” she said.
The exhibit combines the stark realism of the Russian paintings of the 1800s with the celestial and gilded beauty of religious icons, placed with no chronological connection to one another but with the intent of guiding the viewer through a deeper reflection.
Aleksandr Ivanov’s Apparition of Christ to the People welcomes visitors to the exhibit. It shows John the Baptist, in his characteristic sheepskin and surrounded by a crowd, as the figure of Jesus draws nearer from the distance. This piece begins the narrative arc that guides the exhibit.
Ivanov’s painting is placed in conversation with religious icons representing baptism and transfiguration, creating an immediate connection despite the strong divergence in style and historic sensibility.
The art presented at the show seems to suggest that just as God engages with people through the sacraments, he is visible in everyday life and for ordinary people.
The icon of Mary of Kykkos by Simon Ushakov shows the Mother of God holding her child with incredible tenderness, a perfect image of humanity and divinity combined. Next to it, the 1888 painting by Ukrainian painter Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life is Everywhere, shows five prisoners - a farmer, a criminal, an intellectual, a widow and a child - peeking at birds from behind bars. Despite the sad setting, the painting conveys happiness as all the inmates enjoy the scene in unity, and the widow gently holding the white-clad child is reminiscent of the nearby Marian icon.
The connection between the human and the divine is underlined in another apparently odd pairing.
The masterful icon Don’t Cry on me Mother shows a weeping Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, her face painted to portray the agony of a mother. Close by, Inconsolable Pain by Ivan Kramsky depicts the figure of a woman dressed in black standing next to a casket, eyes puffed, and a tissue pressed against her lips.
Throughout the exhibit everyday moments are portrayed to tie a golden string between the pain, happiness or drama of everyday life and the celestial story of Christianity.
In his Christ in the Desert, Kramsky does not try to hide the humanity of Jesus, who sits alone among the rocks with hands joined in desperate prayer, his eyes tormented and downcast. A wooden statue from the 18th century, Christ in Prison, shows Jesus in a similar position and with the same humanizing appeal.
The exhibit also leads the viewers through the sins, injustices and hypocrisies that bring humanity away from God and heaven. Religious procession in the province of Kursk by Ilya Repin depicts what at first sight may seem a festive occasion: a long caravan of people walking and carrying religious artifacts.
But a closer look reveals a more sinister story.
Rich property owners chase away the crowd with a stick as plump clergy pass by unnoticing, and military officers taunt the faithful. The painting shows a world of hypocrisy and injustice that remains highly relevant today.
Troika, Apprentice Workmen Carrying Water and Drowned by artist Vasily Perov depict the innocent victims of a society dominated by indifference and exploitation where the signs of Christ’s Revelation are nowhere in sight.
Repin’s Uninvited Guest offers an eloquent analogy, depicting a tattered man retuning from imprisonment in Siberia, timidly entering his home where the artist conveyed a sense of being out of place with no one waiting for him. The viewer is led to make the analogy with Jesus’ second coming, raising the question of how many will be ready for him.
The show closes with the paintings Beyond Eternal Peace by Isaak Levitan and the icon In You Rejoice, which anticipate the promise of heaven and eternal life through images of clear skies and orbits of angels.
The last, and “provocative,” painting is Black Square by Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich. Presenting just a black square within a white frame, the painting incorporates the artist’s attempt to reduce art to its essence, but in the context of the exhibit it speaks to the eternal struggle between life and death, darkness and light.
The only portrait at the show is by Perov, representing the illustrious Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky who often in his works married the heavenly images of the divine with the complex and, at times, harsh reality of human existence.
The exhibit follows the success of the 2016-2017 art show in Moscow, Rome Aeterna. The Masterpieces of the Vatican Pinacoteca Bellini, Raffaello, Caravaggio, when the Vatican Museums loaned 42 art pieces to the Tretyakov Gallery.
This is part of the Vatican’s diplomacy of beauty, which the Holy See has adopted throughout the ages and today in particular with Russia and China. Last year, the diocese of Bari in southern Italy loaned the relics of St. Nicholas to Moscow, with countless faithful braving the cold and endless lines to visit the bones.
According to the organizers of the exhibit, Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the artistic partnership during their meeting in 2013, an important step in a very complex and at times difficult relationship.
“Beauty builds bridges, it brings different cultures together and makes everyone brothers,” said Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums, “art is beauty in all its forms and declinations and performs its extraordinary function in always surprising ways.”
The exhibit, which will be visible until Feb 16, 2019, will allow “many visitors from the Vatican and others to admire the great Russian paintings spanning over six centuries,” she said.