Russian art in the Vatican

The structure of the exhibition – centered on the history of the spirit rather than that of form – is determined by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s extraordinary architecture. The layout does not try to counter the upward thrust of the space but follows it, guiding visitors to oval niches filled with art on their own “pilgrimage” through Russian art. A 15th century icon from the Deisis tier of an iconostasis, “Christ Enthroned,” opens the show, placed next to the “Crucifixion” by Dionysius, dating from 1500 and the “Appearance of Christ Before the People” by Alexander Ivanov, a painting done 350 years later.

Presented in this way, next to each other rather than in separate halls and different floors of a museum, the works reveal the harmony between early icons and 19th century paintings, even as they depict anger against God and the joy of seeking God: “Inconsolable Grief” by Ivan Kramskoi is opposite the icon “Weep Not for Me, O Mother”; Kramskoi’s “Christ in the Wilderness” is shown next to an 18th century sculpture from Perm, “Christ in a Cell” (“Seated Savior”). When the 19th century painting “Life is Everywhere” by Nikolai Yaroshenko is displayed near “The Mother of God of Kykkos” by the 17th century icon painter Simon Ushakov we can see the shapes and colors of the icon in the secular painting.

The exhibition includes such masterpieces from the Tretyakov as “Apprentice Workmen Carrying Water” and “Drowned Woman” by Vasily Perov; Vasily Kandinsky’s “Red Square”; and two paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: “Bathing of a Red Horse” and “1918 in Petrograd.”

The only portrait exhibited depicts Fyodor Dostoevsky by Aleksander Perov that corresponds to the image of “Christ in the Wilderness” by Ivan Kramskoi.

The exhibit ends with the juxtaposition of the 16th century icon of “The Last Judgment” next to “Black Square” by Kazimir Malevich and “Bearing the Cross” by Mikhail Nesterov and the icon “In Thee Rejoiceth” from the 16th century, suggesting, perhaps, images of internal darkness contrasting with the life-giving principle of “sobornost” (spiritual community).

At the opening in Rome, Barbara Jatta, the director of the Vatican Museums, said, “It is truly a pilgrimage, but also an extraordinary selection of art from Russian state galleries. The curators, directors of the Tretyakov and other museums wanted to send the same caliber of Russian works [as we sent] on this exchange and great initiative. And they succeeded. It is an important exhibition about art, spirituality, and history. It begins with icons, but it is not an exhibition of icons. It is about Russian spirituality and soul.”

The show is not, however, for one country alone. As Ambassador to Russia Pasquale Quito Terracciano said in Moscow, “The show in the Vatican won’t just be seen by Italians – it will showcase Russian spirituality in the center of Rome for millions of tourists from all over the world.”

The exhibition will run through Feb. 16, 2019. Curators at the Tretyakov Gallery are discussing other projects connected with the exhibition and the possibility of mounting the show in Moscow.