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Jesus Christ in Christian Art and Culture 14th to 20th Centuries

14 December 2000 - 10 May 2001
Benois Wing

This unique exhibition traces a thousand years of Christianity in Russia and consists of more than four hundred works of art - paintings, sculptures, graphic, applied, decorative and folk art. Since 988, when Russia accepted Christianity, the national system of values, human ideals and notions of good and evil have been firmly linked to the image of Jesus Christ. The image of the Saviour blessed the whole course of life in Old Russia. Christ was regarded as the meaning of life and its justification. The main iconographic image in early fifteenth-century Russia was Christ Pantocrator. The enthroned Saviour was glorified as the Lord of the Universe. Up until the eighteenth century, virtually the only art form in Russia was folk or church art. The reforms of Peter the Great (1682-1725), however, brought oil painting on canvas to Russia. Russian painters experienced problems with biblical themes in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Russian artists therefore often copied the Western masters, introducing elements of European culture into the Orthodox tradition. Artists who have depicted Jesus Christ at one time or another in their careers are Simon Ushakov, Alexei Yegorov, Vasily Shebuyev and Alexander Ivanov. Their works are characterised by alienated and academic depictions of the Gospel. The 1860s witnessed a new approach to art and the revolt of young artists against the canons of the Imperial Academy of Arts. Nikolai Ge's The Last Supper evoked heated public debate. Such artists as Ivan Kramskoi, Vasily Polenov, Ilya Repin, Henryk Siemiradzki, Vasily Vereschagin and Vasily Surikov all turned to the image of Christ in their oeuvres. Russia addressed the question of her national self-consciousness and the theme of her messianic role at the turn of the century. These themes were vividly expressed in the art of Mikhail Nesterov and Victor Vasnetsov. The 1900s and early 1910s witnessed a swing towards non-objective art, inspired by the growing interest in folk art. Such artists of the Russian avant-garde as Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich and Lyuybov Popova propagated folk traditions in their works. Natalia Goncharova created her famous cycle of Evangelists. Pavel Filonov painted compositions of The Holy Family and The Magi. The Communist period of Russian history failed to destroy the profound links between the Russian people and their religion. The young generation of nonconformist artists of the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet underground, sought freedom of expression and frequently employed Christian themes. The themes of good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, the individual against the crowd or authorities, and the moral problems of modern society found new interpretations in themes linked to the life of Jesus Christ, thereby confirming their eternal topicality.