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Christ appears to the People

Christ appears to the People

Alexander Ivanov (1806-1858). The Tretyakov Gallery – Moscow. 1837-1857.

John the Baptist preached in the desert. People from Judaea and Jerusalem came to him, were baptised and confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin and he lived on locusts and on wild honey. He preached that someone was coming after him, someone more powerful than he was. He told the people that he, John, had baptised them with water but this man would baptise with the Holy Spirit. At that time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised in the Jordan by John. G38 .

The arrival of Jesus was thus told by Mark in his New Testament story. Mark does not dwell much upon the appearance of Jesus at the Jordan River, but Alexander Ivanov made a monumental painting of this very significant moment when Jesus for the first time and openly appears to start his public life.

Alexander Ivanov’s father was a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts of St Petersburg in Russia. Russian painting had been mostly icon painting since the eleventh century or so, in the purest tradition learned and inherited from Greek Orthodoxism of the East Roman Empire of Constantinople. But Peter the Great had not only wanted to build a new city and port opened to Western Europe; he also had wanted to found an academy of arts. The Academy of St Petersburg was only founded after Tsar Peter’s death, in 1757, and only opened really in 1763. But from that moment on Russian painters were encouraged and supported to paint other pictures but icons. Alexander Ivanov was first taught to paint by his father, who was a professor of historical painter at the academy. Ivanov painted a few pictures but already in 1837 embarked on a project for a truly immense work on the life of Jesus, which he finally painted on a canvas of 540 by 750 centimetres, a very large surface for a Russian painting and even for Western Europe. Alexander Ivanov was only thirty years old when he began this work and he worked at it for almost twenty years, until 1857. He died the year after, in 1858. While he painted ‘Christ appearing to the People’ he also made acquarels for more than two hundred fifty Biblical scenes, which were drawings and essays for the ideal church dedicated to the cult of Jesus, a church Ivanov never did find. So ‘Christ appears to the People’ is by far Ivanov’s most important work. It is indeed a remarkable painting and one of the great prides of Russian nineteenth century painting.

The ‘Christ appears to the People’ has a simple but efficient structure of composition. We see a traditional ‘Open V’ constituted by the people that have come to be baptised by John the Baptist. On the left side is the Jordan, the baptised and also John the Baptist. Ivanov painted behind this scene high bushes and trees, which grow to the upper border of the canvas. The outline of these plants forms the left side of the V structure. On the right side, people come down the hills to meet John and the outline of these figures from the right side o the V, the basic structure of Ivanov’s composition. The painter then had an open space, in which usually painters showed a far landscape. Ivanov did the same, but his innovation, a truly original finding, was to position Jesus here. In doing that, Ivanov brought a truly epic and romantic breadth in his painting that reminds of the vast spaces of the Russian plains.

Jesus appears entirely alone. He is an extraordinary apparition, who comes like a hero sent by God from nowhere. Ivanov enhanced the difference between Jesus and the other people of the scene. He painted Jesus enveloped in a dark blue cloak and we see Jesus’ traditional red robe underneath. But these colours are deep and intense whereas Ivanov used much lighter shades on all other figures.

Russian painting is not very well known in Western Europe and the United States. Yet, Alexander Ivanov made a masterpiece that can be counted among the best pictures of the nineteenth century. He used a strong structure and showed an unforgettable image of Jesus approaching that renders well the epic grandeur of Jesus’ life. Remark the skills in depiction of this master.

Ivanov painted John the Baptist centrally and imposingly. John points to Jesus and also the people on the right look at Jesus so that the viewer’s attention is always drawn to the lonely figure of the approaching Jesus. That is the message of the Bible, in this way Jesus appeared as a surprise comet in the sky of Canaan, a man awaited since very long as the Messiah, but that no Israelite really expected to come in their life time.

Ivanov painted various nude men in his canvas and he had an unwavering eye for exact anatomy. No man has hair on chests and backs, so Ivanov showed idealised men come to the Jordan. Many bearded men are around John, but most have white or grey beards; they are wise old men, aware of the mystery and wonder of the moment of complete silence when Jesus approaches. All men are shown in some action so that the overall impression of the picture is one of movement, even thought he movement has obtained by the composition a static character so that the viewer can look continuously at the canvas without the movement becoming unacceptable. In this movement of the moment, Jesus comes near but it is as if he is a vision that remains standing and always stays equal in the approaching, due to the effect of perspective and the heath of the desert. Even John the Baptist, though the man holds his arms high towards Jesus, has a statuesque quality. The whole picture acquires such sculptural quietness, which is one of the style elements of Classicism. Ivanov also used delicate colours. He applied light blue, brown, many shades of creamy flesh colours and these hues support also the mood of the theme. Thus we see a blue area of the dress of a man that kneels down in the middle, where the lowest point of the ‘Open V’ is situated, and we have but one area of blue on either die. Remark how Ivanov opened the V. He had the people sit down in the middle lower part, whereas all the other figures are standing, walking, or even sitting on horses while they come to the Jordan.

Alexander Ivanov was a wonderful painter. He painted all the figures of his immense picture in fully delineated, clear detail. Remark the masterly way by which Ivanov showed the volume of the bodies of John and the other figures by the shades of the folds of the cloaks they wear. Ivanov used no sfumato; his colours are well separated in areas and this feature of design plus his light, chalky colours give the lower part of the picture the impression of being a fresco painting, a Tuscan clear, cold, fully thought-out image and not the spontaneous view of a by-passer. The viewer has the impression of an austere, very solemn scene painted by a venerable painter from times before Raphael and Michelangelo. And the figures are certainly not painted in Michelangelo’s sensual, powerful but un-natural, tortured way. All figures seem natural, are part of the grand Russian steppe and all are irreplaceable in the overall vision of forms and colours.

Look at Ivanov’s knowledge of aerial perspective. On the right side he painted the nude men in full light, but in yellow-brown colours. The men that arrive there from the hills however, he not only painted smaller but in almost pure white, much lighter hues. Lighter hues in the far are aspects of aerial perspective. Ivanov also painted the far hills in hazy blue and it is as of Jesus walks over the desert to the green sides of the Jordan from out of the grey mists of the valley, out of the mist that carries always mystery, surprise, fear, un-natural creation, the unexpected and the wonderful. Alexander Ivanov was also a great painter of plants. He painted the trees, the bushes and the forest in the valley in all detail, meticulously, to a marvel of art.

Alexander Ivanov was a Russian. Christian art was not confined to Western Europe. The Russia in which Ivanov lived was Greek-Orthodox with a strong tradition of almost oriental, Byzantine painting. Christian thinking and Christian feelings also pervaded Russia of the nineteenth century. Christian culture is a main element of European culture and that linked Eastern to Western Europe. Alexander Ivanov’s painting is therefore not just a masterpiece of Russia, but also a major picture of European culture.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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