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The Unusual Story Behind Russia’s Most Famous Painting of Christ – Ivan Kramskoy’s ‘Christ in the Desert’

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A few months before he was due to graduate with honours from the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887) organized the notorious ‘Revolt of the 14.”

He led a group of his best friends (who also happened to be the most promising students of the graduating class of 1864) as they marched into the university main office and furiously presented a list of complaints and demands to the administration.

They proudly denounced the unbearable constraints of academic art, it’s strict delineations between high and low art, it’s deadness and impotency.

The administration expelled them on the spot, suggesting to the police authorities that they keep a watch out over the unwieldy bunch.

Nonplused, the ex-students formed a tight-knit, intensely philosophical and energetic, independent artistic society which they called ‘The Wanderers” (Передвижники).

Less then 10 years later, “the Wanderers” brigade set the beat in the thriving cultural and artistic scene of Russia in the late 1800s. (They produced some of the most incredible Russian spiritual paintings. More here)

At an 1872 exhibit in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kramskoy revealed his long-awaited work: “Christ in the Dessert.”

A TRIP INTO THE PAST

It had taken him years work and thought to complete. Before he had even attempted to start painting, he roamed through Germany, France, and Italy, a man on a mission.

He knew needed to see everything that had been done on the topic before.

How had others seen that particular scene of Christ’s life? How had others imagined it, what colours had they used, what feelings had the artists of old communicated?

In his letters home, Ivan praised the Italian artists, but something about their Christ deeply disturbed him

“He’s divine, but an alien to our time, it’s terrible to say … in my opinion in them he is blasphemed”

“He has the look of an Italian aristocrat ….one with a dry heart, a look that could not belong to a person of all-encompassing love.”

Kramskoy also visited the Crimean peninsula in the southwest of the Russian Empire. It was the closest thing he could get to the climate of Palestine.

He walked the terrain from sunrise to sunset, trying to decode the feelings of someone who was left one-on-one with his reveries in a rocky, bare and mountainous desert.

WILL THEY UNDERSTAND?

The painting caused an uproar at the exhibit, sparking discussion, debates, confusion on the spot. Arguments about it continued outside, in the newspapers and magazines.

Vsevolod Garshin, a writer of the time, took it upon himself to resolve the elusive and unresolved sense about the painting.

He wrote an anonymous letter to Kramskoy asking him to settle the debates once and for all.

Is this the morning of the 41st day, when Christ has already decided and is ready to go meet suffering and death? Or is this the moment when ‘the devil came to him’, as my opponents argue?

In the letter, he explores also his own ecstatic understanding of the painting, reading into the painting and offering his own explanation even as he asks for one.

The features that you gave to your creation, in my opinion, do not at all serve to excite pity for the “sufferer”…No, they immediately amazed me as an expression of enormous moral strength, a hatred of evil and a complete determination to fight it.

He (Jesus) is absorbed with what the actions that he must undertake, he searches in his head all that he will say to the despicable and unfortunate people, whom he had left when he went to the desert to think in freedom

Suffering does not concern him now: it is so small, so insignificant in comparison with what is now in his chest, that the thought of it doesn’t come to Jesus’ head.

Garshin mentions that there were even people who questioned the identity of the hero of the painting. He mocks them for not seeing what to him is absolutely evident.

A certain someone even directly blurted out that your Christ is Hamlet!

Now, if we are looking for literary types to compare him to, he is more like Don Quixote…

But, this comparison is also bad, because your Christ–is Christ.

….

A SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE

Kramskoy replied to Garshin’s plea immediately, in the form of an entire article. It was as though he had just been waiting to be asked.

He never conclusively answered Garshin’s question but described with openness the doubt, fear and sense of urgency that had haunted him in his search for the right form for Christ.

Here are his own words:

“… For each person, imperfect, maybe, but still created in the image and likeness of God, there comes a moment in life, when he falls into contemplation: should he go to the right or to the left? Should he ‘take a ruble’ for the Lord God or not to yield a single step to evil?”

“In the morning, weary, exhausted, suffering, he sits alone among the stones, sad, cold stones; hands convulsively and tightly clenched, legs injured, head bowed down …

He is thinking hard, has remained silent for a long while, so long ago that his lips are baked, his eyes do not notice objects …

His reply relays an unexpected, raw pain and sense of immediacy, as though the painting process became a matter of intense importance to him.

He does not feel anything, it’s a little cold, just so that he seems to be stiff from long and motionless sitting.

And around him, nowhere and nothing rocks even a bit, only on the horizon black clouds are floating from the east … And he is still thinking, thinking, terror begins to take over  …

How many times have I cried before this figure!?

Like so many other artists, the closer Kramskoy came to capturing the image he had imagined, the greater the vision loomed. He felt more and more inadequate in his attempt to convey even the shadow of his great ideal.

How does one proceed? As though this is possible to draw! And you ask yourself, and you ask justly: can I draw Christ?

No, I can not, I could not, yet I still drew, and didn’t stop drawing until the painting was inserted it into the frame.

I kept drawing until the others saw it, too – in conclusion, I committed, perhaps, a blasphemy , but I could not NOT draw … “.

As time went on, the search for artistic forms morphed into a search for spiritual truths.

“Christ in the desert” – is my first thing that I worked on seriously, drew with tears and blood …,

it is the result of my deep suffering … the result of many years of searching … “.

He wrote to his friend and student Fyodor Vasilyev (another talented artist).

How afraid I was that they would drag my” Christ “to an international court and all the slobbering monkeys would poke their fingers on Him and drool their criticism … “.

….

When the exhibit was ending, Kramskoy was approached by a famous art collector. The artist named a handsome sum for the time: 6,000 rubles.

The painting was sold on the spot. Today, it can be seen in the most famous art gallery in Moscow, the Tretyakov gallery.

Perhaps it had been hard for Kramskoy to part with that particular painting, but it was part of the philosophy of the Wanderers to sell what they created.

Their dream was for art to populate and change Russian society from the inside.

Indeed, if a painting like “Christ in the Dessert” fails to change us, what will succeed?


Sources:

https://foma.ru/xristos-v-pustyine-luchshaya-kartina.html

http://garshin.lit-info.ru/garshin/pisma/letter-129.htm

https://www.culture.ru/persons/8239/ivan-kramskoi

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HSE staff should receive bonus for work during pandemic, says Donnelly

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All Health Service Executive (HSE) staff, including those working in administrative roles, should get a financial bonus for the work done during the Covid-19 pandemic, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said.

“I want to see something done, yes, I absolutely really do. I think our healthcare teams have been incredible. We are still fighting the fight, but I definitely want to see some form of recognition for the extraordinary work that they have all put in,” he said.

Speaking after a visit to the HSE’s Limerick Covid-19 vaccination centre at Limerick Racecourse, Patrickswell, Mr Donnelly said: “We need to listen to the frustrations that they have.

“We do need to acknowledge that for nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, administrators – for everyone who has worked in the HSE over the last year and a half – that they’ve had an incredibly difficult time.

“I think they represent the very best of us and they have stepped up to the plate,” he said. “When the rest of us were told to stay at home to keep ourselves safe, they went into the hospitals, and into the Limerick hospital to keep other people safe, and we need to recognise that.”

The arrival of the Delta variant has been delayed by the use of some of the “strongest” lockdown measures in the European Union, but foreign travel now is adding to case numbers.

“We are seeing spikes in some parts of the country. There are cases linked to [international] travel, we know that. Most of the cases we are tracking are Irish people going abroad and coming home,” he said.

Advice

Some people travelled without a vaccination, or before their vaccinations had time to work. “They shouldn’t have done that. Some of them have come back and they have contracted Covid, but we will take care of them, we’ll make sure they get the care they need,” he said.

In “certain cases”, people have received a second dose of vaccine within 17 days of their first jab, as opposed to the previous advice of four weeks, and this may happen more generally, he said.

A HSE spokeswoman later said “For operational reasons and due to the pace of the rollout we are in a position to offer the second dose after 17 days in some cases. Second doses within this widow are clinically safe and effective.”

On the vaccination programme, the Minister said: “There aren’t that many people who would have thought just a few months ago that, in July, we would be vaccinating 16-year-olds.”

There will be no immediate change to rules around attendance at funerals, Masses, Confirmations or Communions, while the closure of indoor summer camps is being kept under review.

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Covid-19: More than half of Austrians now fully vaccinated

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With 53,386 vaccinations carried out on Thursday, Austria cross the 50 percent mark for total vaccinations. 

This means that 4,479,543 people are completely vaccinated against Covid-19 in Austria as at Thursday evening, July 29th. 

A further nine percent of the population have received one vaccination, bringing the total percentage of people who have had at least one shot to 58.9 percent or (5.2 million people). 

UPDATED: How can I get vaccinated for Covid-19 in Austria?

The Austrian government has welcomed the news. 

“More than half of the total population is now very well protected against the coronavirus and thus the highly contagious Delta variant thanks to the full immunisation,” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein said on Thursday afternoon. 

Burgenland has the highest percentage of vaccinated people with 66.1 percent, followed by Carinthia (55.7 percent) and Salzburg (55.2 percent). 

The lowest percentage is in Upper Austria, where 54.9 percent of the population is vaccinated. 

Kleinmürbisch in the Güssing district has the highest percentage of vaccinated people in Austria, with just under 80 percent of people vaccinated. 

The village however only has 230 residents. 

“But we are still a long way from reaching our destination,” warned the minister. 

Around one quarter of the Austrian population has indicated a reluctance to be vaccinated, with around 15 percent saying they will refuse the vaccination. 



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6 Amusing Historic Stereotypes of Major Russian Cities

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About the authorFor lovers of Russian culture, folklore, and history, Kotar’s work is a treasure. The grandson of White Russian immigrants, the 34-year-old is an author of epic fantasy novels inspired by Russian fairy tales. You can see his four books here on Amazon.

He is also a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, a professional translator, and choir director at the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, where he lives. Here is his bio from his blog, where he writes about many aspects of Russia. We highly recommend following it and subscribing to his email list to get exclusive material.

He has an excellent Pinterest page, and you can follow him on Facebook. Here is an archive of his work published on Russia Insider.

He is currently running a remarkably successful crowdfunding on Kickstarter to be able to publish his upcoming novels. Please support him if you can!


Stereotypes are a funny thing. On the one hand, they’re often no more than caricatures. On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of bitter truth to some of them. Like the Russians say with their morbid humor, “In every joke, there’s a bit of a joke.”

This is especially interesting when we consider old Rus. We don’t have much to go on, historically speaking, other than chronicles, treaties, and a few bits of birch bark.

However, Russians have preserved some interesting stereotypes about the inhabitants of old Russian cities. Whether there’s any truth to them or not is almost beside the point. They’re fascinating, revealing a window to a world long gone, yet still persisting in the habits and personalities of today’s Russians. (Here’s the original Russian article that I translated)

EVERYONE IN GREAT NOVGOROD IS A REBEL

Novgorod’s rebelliousness is legendary. The image of a brawling Novgorodian is almost a calling card of the city. The reason this stereotype came about has to do with the old chronicles. They were filled with illustrations of the constant arguments at the Novgorodian Veche, a kind of popular assembly that met in the central square. (See my translation of “Martha the Mayoress” for a vivid fictionalized example).

Of course, there were arguments and even fights during the Veche. However, they did not constantly devolve into fist-fights, as the legends suggest. Naturally, the chroniclers would choose the most vivid and bloody examples from history to illustrate their point. After all, Novgorod was often an opponent of Kiev and, later, Moscow. But in actual fact, the inhabitants of Great Novgorod were fiercely loyal to their government and loved their city. Compromise was the order of the day, not broken heads. Plus, they were more than usually literate.

EVERYONE IN PSKOV IS A THIEF OR A MORON

Even in modern times, Pskovians have had to endure countless jokes about their crudeness, stupidity, and their lack of good manners. This may or may not be true. As for their lack of manners, that is entirely a matter of hats. The inhabitants of Pskov, no matter what their social standing, hardly ever doffed their cap before anyone (which is extremely bad form in old Rus). However, this wasn’t crudity or bad breeding.

It used to be that a hat symbolized one’s personal dignity. In Pskov in particular, to actually take off your hat meant to be shamed. It may be a bastardization of the more generally accepted rule that if someone else took your hat off your headthat was a terrible insult.

EVERYONE IN NIZHNI NOVGOROD IS A DRUNKARD

The painful topic of Russian alcoholism became especially relevant in Nizhni Novgorod at the end of the 17th century. A kind of epidemic of alcoholism rose up, and it was normal to see women as well as men lying in the streets in a drunken stupor. Foreign travelers recounted after their visits to Nizhni Novgorod that “Russians don’t do anything but feast.”

Of course, they did more than feast. But on holidays, Russians have always allowed themselves some excesses. It’s not entirely fair to single out Nizhni Novgorod, when alcoholism still is the gravest problem facing Russia today, as in olden times.

EVERYONE IN VLADIMIR IS A CRIMINAL

This stereotype appeared very early. It’s easy to understand. Vladimir itself had five prisons, including the famous “Vladimir Central Prison.” From the beginning, Vladimirians have been considered con artists who like a dangerous life. It didn’t help that the path to Siberia for exiled convicts went through Vladimir. It was even called the “Vladimirka.”

Exiled convicts stopped in Vladimir to have half their heads shaved (a scene vividly recounted in the excellent Russian film The Siberian Barber). Then they’d be branded as exiles or thieves, clapped in irons, and set upon the road to Siberia. In old times, the path could take as long as two years, and those two years were not counted as part of their allotted time.

Vladimir itself, for all that, was a typical enough provincial town.

EVERYONE IN ROSTOV IS AN ARTISAN

When a Russian hears the word “finift’” (enameling), he immediately thinks of Rostov. Nothing could change the old stereotype that every inhabitant of ancient Rostov worked in the enameling guild. That’s complete nonsense, of course. First of all, the best enamellists in old Rus were as a rule in Kiev, the capital city. There were also some famous artisans in Pskov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Great Novgorod.

The only difference is that Rostov alone has preserved the traditional techniques of enameling since ancient times. Even today, there is a factory producing enameled work. Perhaps for this reason alone, tourists still visit Rostov exclusively to see enameled boxes.

THE INDUSTRIOUS YARSOLAVIAN

The industrious muzhik from Yaroslavl is an image that we even find in Gogol. From the times of Rus, Yaroslavians were known as people who were never apathetic, lazy, or prone to tiredness. Instead, they’re known to be active to a manic degree. This may have something to do with the odd tradition that Yaroslav is a city of buried treasure.

Apparently, wherever you turn, you see someone uncovering a jewelry box or trying to break into an ancient chest of drawers. Perhaps a little more seriously, Yaroslavians have long been known as “chicks of the cuckoo.” In other words, they’re more than usually capable of leaving their homeland without much regret. This quality has a clear historical origin.

Yaroslav was built on the crossroads of ancient roads—a path used by merchants from Scandinavia all the way to the Arab lands. From the middle of the 16th century, Yarsolavl became the most important center for trade in all of Rus. This constant movement often inspired young Yaroslavians to try out their luck in foreign lands.

True or not, such stereotypes make for fascinating stories. For myself, the “myth” of the boisterous Novgorodian comes to life in my third novel, The Heart of the World, in a semi-fictionalized setting of the Veche that goes fabulously wrong for all concerned.


Source: Nicholas Kotar

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