Over the Eternal Peace
He died at age 39 in Moscow, in the year 1900. He attended the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and identified with the Peredvizhniki – which means The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English. They were a cooperative of Russian realist painters. The movement grew from fourteen students who ditched the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1863 because they disliked academic distinctions between “high” and “low” art. They were independent and populist, bringing the arts to ordinary folks. The Peredvizhniki were in the current of 19th century impressionism and landscape painting. Across the Atlantic, American landscape painter, Thomas Cole – of Hudson River School fame – could just as well have painted among the Peredvizhniki, in my estimation. Back in Russia, it seems that some aristocrats thought Peredvizhniki paintings vulgar. But I – decidedly democratic, republican, liberal, conservative, American and Catholic – happen to like their style. The popular “Morning in a Pine Forest” (1889), by Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky, catches my eye and imagination. It depicts a Russian forest scene, that could just as well be in Virginia, with black bears frolicking on a fallen pine tree. Savitsky painted the bears, Shishkin the pines. It was a two-man job.
In one sense, “Morning in a Pine Forest” is similar to – though not obviously so – (American) Albert Bierstadt’s “Last of the Buffalo” (1888), which illustrates an Indian bison hunt with an unresolved outcome. Who wins the conflict? The buffalo or the Indian? The painting is detailed with hints that suggest either possibility. It keeps you thinking – and wondering. [Bierstadt’s original “Last of the Buffalo” is just down the road at the National Gallery of Art. It’s worth a visit. Moreover, the NGA’s Garden Café is a nice lunch spot. I bought a “Last of the Buffalo” print and hung it in the rectory, which may explain why I’m occasionally late for appointments.]
On the other hand, “Morning in a Pine Forest” is not dramatic. There’s no outcome to wonder about. But it still makes me wonder, like flying ducks, appearing stars and grazing deer. Nothing to resolve. The bear-frolicking invites enjoyment in its childlike play and leisure. It betokens a doctrine of nature: even in our guilt, animals remind us of our original innocence.
These paintings are visual “short stories” or “tone poems.” They remind me of the romantic, musical “nonsense” (in the beautiful and best sense of the term) of Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” or Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” These orchestral pieces – “tone poems” – create “textures” from “tones” that form images and sanctify the imagination. Nothing heavy. The musical “tone poems” and the “landscape” or “realist” paintings of the 19th century don’t tell the listener/viewer what’s happening but invite him/her to imagine what’s happening. They “relate.” In a sense, they’re void of “dogma.”
Medieval and Renaissance paintings, like Byzantine icons, are “hot media.” They tell stories or define ideas, like dogma. Influenced by Catholic doctrines of the first millennium – truths we profess in the Creed – Christian art visualized the beauty of these dogmas. But 19th century art foreshadowed a trend toward “cool media,” in the sense that the viewer becomes involved and unresolved. It prepared the way for highly involving, “cool,” electronic media: television and, its outgrowth, social media.
Back to Russia. By 1870, the Peredvizhniki had become the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions, to which my artist friend, who died at age 39, belonged. The grandson of a rabbi and the son of German and French teacher, Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born into a poor but well-educated Jewish family in Russian Poland (now Lithuania). The family moved to Moscow in 1870.
Levitan loved the bucolic charms of churchyards, monasteries, farms, groves, lakes, waterways and roadsides embedded in the vast Russian landscape. In my room, I hung a print of Levitan’s “Vladimir’s Road” (1892, known also as Vladimirka) above a print of Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow” (1836, depiction of Connecticut River Valley). These paintings have a lot in common. The illuminating effects of weather-obstructed sunlight on greenery predominate, though the landscapes are markedly different. With more North American style detail, Cole paints an oncoming thunderstorm along the slopes of Mount Holyoke overlooking the Connecticut River in Massachusetts. With more European impressionist vagueness (which is not so discernable when looking at the painting from afar), Levitan paints Vladimir’s Road passing through a tedious plain, with only a hint of a storm off to the right. In both paintings, the pallid skies beyond the storms set off the yellow-green verdure of the countryside. I love the horizons’ play on green. Green is my favorite color, and I recall declaring so at age two or three behind a set of crayons. Now, decades later, I know that green is the color most used in Christian art to represent the Holy Spirit, the “Lord and giver of life.” So it’s fitting that, in Russian and American landscape paintings, light from the horizon should make the “green of life” radiant, in hues of beauty that betoken the life-giving action of the Holy Spirit.
These paintings point to a Horizon, bejeweled by sunlight over green, beyond the troubled “here and now.” They evoke peace and hope. They leave the viewer (at least this one) in a state of wonder and desire for prophetic promises. “The Lord Jesus Christ… gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4). These paintings take me beyond the bedeviling problems of “now,” without taking me away from “now.” But there’s another realism – a tragic and historic realism – in the tale of “Vladimir’s Road.”
It’s the problem of Evil. It was the route by which convicts were marched to Siberia. The road’s tragic history hides behind the mystic beauty of the landscape. But the opposite is also true: the tragic truths of its history are transcended by the hope suggested in the road’s path into the windswept Horizon.
There’s a Levitan painting that I love most. More than “Vladimir’s Road.” It hangs in my bedroom, so I can see it before I sleep and when I awake. It’s an aerial view (perhaps from a hill) of a small, wooden Russian Orthodox church with a silver cupola overlooking an endless steppe from an embankment over Lake Udomlia, about 250 kilometers north of Moscow. Behind the church is a grove of windblown birches and an overgrown cemetery, marked with Suppedaneum crosses. The painting is called “Over the Eternal Peace” or “Above the Eternal Tranquility,” which Levitan finished in 1894. There’s a thunderstorm in the skies beyond the church. The painting’s textures suggest gentle rains pattering upon the lake, or breezy shimmering over the water. The church is aging. The path to its entrance is overgrown, less traveled than before. The cemetery is unkempt. Yet, the scene betokens freshness. A renewal of all things in peace and joy. This freshness, which is invoked by the Sacrifice offered upon the decaying church’s Altar – and which is suggested by a dim light glowing through a window near the sanctuary – breaks from beyond the Horizon into the “here and now.” God comes to earth.
This painting is personal. It’s neither cold nor academic. Levitan discloses a remarkable empathy for his subjects, as if they were sacraments. I wonder if his personal involvement was a grace – a personal sense of a personal God encountered in reality’s fragile beauty.
When I retreat to my favorite monastery in Thomas Cole country, the Catskill Mountains of Sullivan County, NY, I feel peace and freshness when, in solitude, I perch upon a lakeside rock. Wind glistens ripples of water personally toward me, as if I – out of all of humanity – was chosen for this gift. Of all the billions of mankind, why did that breeze and light choose me? Levitan’s paintings – especially “Over the Eternal Peace” – suggest this experience.
My Catholic Faith becomes real and life-giving when life’s beauty expresses the Mystery concealed in the dogmas of the Creed, by way of simple gestures. The mystery of God-in-Himself is a Trinity-Love, so says life. “Glory to you, O Holy Trinity, consubstantial, indivisible and life-giving,” sing the nuns before Matins and Vespers. That says it all. If only we take a second to perceive, to “listen with the ear of the heart” (Rule of St. Benedict). Levitan’s “Over the Eternal Peace,” if you view it with empathy, will gift you with the experience. It’ll evoke the peace of God’s transcendence. And it’ll console you with the divine promise that, despite our decaying world, all will be well.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor