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Vasnetsov's homage to Mother Earth (on 45th Earth Day)

The Gifts of Mother Earth and the Soul of Nature
I come from you,
you carry me,
you nourish me,
and you will take me after my death
Russian variant
Born from the earth,
fed by the earth,
into the earth I will go!
Soul of Nature
I am the soul of nature
That gives life to the universe
From me all things proceed
And to me they must return
The artists that joined the Abramtsevo artists' circle in late 19th century Russia were attracted by Abramtsevo’s rural location on Radonezh soil. The proximity to the Trinity Lavra not only inspired Repin to sketch pilgrims for Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk (1880-83, fig. 62) and Nesterov to paint Radonezh landscapes as background for his paintings, but since the artists were urbanites, they also enjoyed escaping the city by modern transport for the refreshing experience of nature. As their landscapes were painted on Radonezh soil, their appreciation of nature is likely to have been embedded within an almost religious respect. In order to consider this possibility, we will first take a closer look into another spiritual aspect of its soil in order to come to an understanding of this respect, particularly its connotations of sacred femininity.

These connotations are related to the age old cult of the earth as a sacred feminine force, a living entity in human history in general and in Russian history in particular. In ancient civilizations the earth was revered as a holy mother, as it was believed that she both nourished people with her crops grown in her soil, and bore them living and walking on ‘her skin’. This meant that her feelings should be respected and her goodwill earned. These ancient beliefs persisted in agricultural communities into recent times. The agricultural communities that made up much of Russia in the late nineteenth-century still felt, like Slavic communities before them, that they were largely dependant on her gifts. The ancient Slavs worshipped the earth goddess Mokosh, praying for good weather and protection. One prayer read: ‘Moist Mother Earth, calm the north winds and the clouds, subdue the snowstorms and the cold’.

Another, perhaps more telling phrase, which was overheard by collectors of folk wisdom such as Pyotr Kireevsky (1808-56), who visited Abramtsevo in the mid nineteenth-century, is as follows: ‘Moist Mother Earth feeds all, gives all to drink, dresses all, and warms all with her warmth!’, ‘Bow to mother-earth, she awards you hundredfold!’
In the heyday of Abramtsevo artists’ circle, the pre-Christian, feminine Russian designation for the earth, ‘мать сыра’ or ‘mother moist earth’, had gradually come to designate the beauty of the Russian land and had been associated with a national feminine identity to be respected and adored: termed as ‘Mother Russia’ or ‘My native mother’. By then, Russian landscapes had become an independent genre and a highly popular object of study, in which several artists strove to overcome the seeming separation between man and nature, or man and creation. They, as Russians in general, not only traditionally believed in the interdependence of the earth and man, their images of nature also often, as Yaroslavtseva writes, ‘originated from the traditional national perception of the world, in which nature is deified’.

As interested Russian intellectuals passionately absorbed foreign philosophy after Russia had opened its doors wide to the ideas of the Western Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, this belief in a sacred nature or divine creation was, more than elsewhere in Europe, reinforced in Russia by the profound influence of Hegelian but especially Shellingian philosophy. Within Abramtsevo’s circle these ideas were widely known. Not only was Mstislav Prakhov, a romantic soul himself, profoundly influenced by the German idealists, as an unpublished article in which he quotes Schelling demonstrates, but so too was the widely read historian in Abramtsevo’s circle, Fyodor Ivanovich Buslayev.

Schelling states: ‘All German science [...] has striven to see the vitality of nature and its inner oneness with an intelligent and divine being’, and Buslayev writes: ‘By using the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ man relates to nature around him, as if trying to sense his own presence everywhere in nature’. (My italics) Buslayev probably refers to Hegel’s Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences here, where Hegel states that the ‘Spirit’ can be understood as the ancient designation for the abstract ‘Soul of Nature’ and nature as its external manifestation. In other words, nature was seen as an expression of the divine.
Viktor Vasnetsov, Three Tsarevnas of the Under World Kingdom, 1879

Looking at the production of images of nature painted by the artists of Abramtsevo in this light, Vasnetsov’s Three Tsarevnas (1879)becomes particularly significant. In this painting, the artist, a sincere Russian Orthodox Christian, personifies the mineral treasures of the earth by three female figures. It is evident that the heritage of the Slavic earth goddess and her ‘eternal and feminine beauty’ remained vitally present in nineteenth-century Russian culture. Such beliefs would have been familiar to Vasnetsov, who had been interested in Russian myths since his youth. The Mamontovs [the owners of the Abramtsevo estate], by contrast, appear not to have been familiar with these ancient beliefs, as the following anecdote demonstrates.

When Viktor Vasnetsov was first introduced to the Mamontovs in Moscow in December 1879, Mamontov had commissioned the young, unknown and needy artist to decorate the central station of the Donets railway upon its completion. Vasnetsov recalls: ‘Discovering through conversations and inquiries what my plans were, Savva Ivanovich suggested that I myself choose the subjects for pictures supposedly intended for the central offices of the Donets Railway then under construction.’ Vasnetsov decided to make three paintings on epic and legendary subjects: The Three Tsarevnas of the Under World Kingdom (1879-81, TGM), The Magic Carpet (1880, The Art Museum of Nizhniy Novgorod,) and The Battle of the Russians and the Scythians (1881, RM). His paintings were refused by the railway commission, even though they made up an allegorical representation of the renewal of the region. The commission could not approve of their ‘unconventionality’ and ‘considered the ‘stony’ figures a strange and unnecessary departure from the rules of academic painting’. According to the board Repin and Makovsky had ‘never painted a single “stony” or static figure which would be similar to the figures of the dreamlike Tsarevnas on Vasnetsov’s fantastic painting.’

His paintings related to folk tales and byliny were not approved in academic circles either, the different style they required was not appreciated. When he exhibited these works with the Peredvizhniki, the organizers also disapproved of his unrealistic style. Yet, style and content seem to be in harmony in this painting, in which the three tsarevnas of the three underworld kingdoms of gold, silver and copper, came to signify the ‘stony’ raw materials contained in the earth. They are presented as the female fairytale figures from Alexander Afanasyev’s tale with the same name, at the moment that they had just been freed from their stony underworld abode, still feeling out of their element.

Vasnetsov, who considered this painting one of the ‘most valuable for me in my oeuvre’ reported disappointedly: ‘Even to the Mamontovs I explained my conception several times; still I cannot say positively that they understood it.’ He thus added the figure of Ivan, who rescued the three imprisoned tsarevnas, in order to make Afanasyev’s tale more visible in his second version of the painting, now preserved in Kiev’s Museum of Art.

Even though scholarly consensus still tends not to consider this painting amongst Vasnetsov’s best, and does not regard it in its own right, a contemporary, more objective appraisal is necessary to prevent falling into the error of disparaging our ancestors as superstitious people worshipping Mother Earth and her imagined representatives. Instead it might be read as engendering respect for her gifts and beauty. We can read it as a justified homage to the Russian part of Mother Earth, and especially the Donets region with its mineral wealth, which this particular painting came to symbolize and the artist wanted to promote. 

A prayer to Mother Earth that is still practiced today in European villages according to Marije Gimbutas, Goddess (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), p. 159.  Аполлон Коринфский, «Mать Сыра Земля», Народная Русью. Сказания, поверья, обычаи и пословицы Русского народа (Москва: Белый город, 2006), c. 7. Doreen Valiente, Charge of the Goddess (Brighton: Hexagon Hoopix, 2000). Elizabeth Warner, Russian Myth,, 2002, pp. 28-30. See <>, [consulted on 22/7/2006]. Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A cultural History of Russia (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 133; Аполлон Коринфский, НароднаяРусь, 2006, с. 7. Ellen Rutten, Unattainable Bride Russia. Engendering Nation, State and Intelligentsia in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature (PhD, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2005), p. 20. Н. Ярославчева, ‘Душа художника «эманация души природа»’, Виктора Васнецова: История душихудожника (Москва: Новости, 1998), c. 93. In Russia the influence of Schelling (in the 1820s-40s) was felt earlier than the influence of Hegel. For more information see F.C. Copleston, Philosophy in Russia. From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev (Notre Dame, Indiana: Search Press, 1986). See Mstislav Prakhov’s unpublished essay in Abramtsevo’s archive, Рук. 514, л. 1-2. Excerpts of this essay are published in Э.В. Пастон, Aбрамцево, 2003, cc. 39-40. Lesley Сhamberlain, Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia (London: Atlantic, 2004), pp. 153;Н. Ярославчева, «Душа художника «эманация души природа», ВиктораВаснецова, 1998, c. 94. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, part III: The Philosophy of Spirit, Part A: The Soul, § 311. N. Shanina, Viktor Vasnetsov (Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1979) p. 73, n. 26. Н. Ярославцева,Moсква Виктора Васнецова (История души художника), 1998, c. 98. Ibid, с. 98. It was only in 1909 that Igor Grabar 1909 recognized that Vasnetsov had actually ‘started a new era in  Russian art, from which a huge number of passionate attempts to represent the ideal of  national beauty originates. See А.К. Лазуко, В. В. Васнечов (Ленинград: худолник рсфср, 1990), c. 44. E. Kirichenko, The Russian Style, 1991, p. 148.   А.К. Лазуко, В. В. Васнечов, c. 46; В.M. Лoбaнов, Виктор Васнецов в Москве (Москва, 1961) p. 104; Е. Р. Арензон, «Moсква, Дом в Садова-Спасской», Савва Мамонтов, 1995, p. 65.

Source: My PhD thesis Abramtsevo: Multiple Cultural Expressions of a Russian Folk and Religious Identity, University of Leeds, 2008.

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