Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I'm fond of a tumblr blog called they humm of mystery by a person called sealmaiden. True to its subtitle, Art Finds, it gives a daily dose of paintings and other high art. Sealmaiden never fails to interest and amuse and sometimes strikes a lot deeper.

Today the blog shows a detail from this painting by Konstantin Makovsky.

A Russian artist who thrived during the second half of the nineteenth century, Makovsky is known for large scale historical genre paintings. This one, which he completed in 1889, depicts a scene from the mid-seventeenth century. It's oil on canvas and it's life size: 110 x 147 inches or better than 9 by 12 feet. Sources give the title as either The Russian Bride's Attire or simply The Russian Bride.

The curators at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum, where it's hung, give this description:
This is believed to be a picture of Tsar Alexis of Russia (upper right, entering the room) and his bride. Be that as it may, Makovsky has also painted a marvelous mixture of culture, design, technique, color, and narrative. The clothing is faithful to Russian custom and tradition. The architecture of the room is true to the period, from the ceiling beams to the beautifully patterned carpet. Makovsky was careful to use indirect light from the window to gently illuminate the room and the figures, allowing for local (true) color. Here, Makovsky describes the moment when family and friends help prepare the bride for a wedding. Tsar Alexis is held off by a bride's maid for good luck, a narrative of the superstition that the groom must avoid viewing the bride before the wedding.
Here are details.


Intrigued by the Russian Bride, I sought out other paintings of Makovsky and came up with these two:

1. The Appeal of Minin, a painting that depicts a crucial moment in the effort to defend Moscow from an attack by a Lithuanian-Polish force. It shows a local merchant, the butcher Kuzma Minin, rallying citizens to support a counter-attack of the invaders after the Russian army had been crushed by them. The volunteers he assembled succeeded in driving off the Poles and Lithuanians and consequently the area in front of the Kremlin is now known as Minin Square. The painting is held by Nizhni Novgorod Art Museum whose curator says: "The subject-matter of this huge painting (42 m. sq.) is Kozma Minin's speech before the citizens of Nizhni Novgorod in 1611 in which he appealed to sacrifice money for creating people's volunteer corps to liberate Russia from foreign enemies." Forty-two square meters! It must be about 19 by 24 feet.

Some details:

2. This one is called The Kissing Custom. It's difficult to find information about it. One source says it's subtitled At the Feast of Boyar Morozov and was completed in 1895: "This is at the end of the wedding reception, and everyone is a little worse for wear, I say. I doubt there are many sober faces amongst the men. Thank God, we women are exempt from the vodka bouts. Although I should tell you… most of us can keep pace with the fellows. However… SOMEONE has to roll them home." Just below, I've included a short piece on the custom itself.

Some details:

Numerous foreigners who visited Russia in 17th century were deeply surprised when a Russian husband would ask all guests to kiss his wife on the lips and at the disappointment that would follow if someone refused!

Another tradition existed in the 17th century that called for everyone to kiss one another in honor of Christ at Easter. This was also the case in Europe, however the Europeans carried out this tradition only on Easter Sunday. In Russia however, people would keep on kissing each other for 40 days after Easter Sunday. Even in the Russian Orthodox Church men and women were kissing all the time: at first they kissed an icon, then a Priest "without any shame" and then each other. The advantage of this approach – even the ugliest got a smooch.

One more Russian tradition is to yell out the word "Gor'ko" (bitter) at weddings. If you have ever been to a Russian wedding, you will know what we are talking about. The guests start to chant gorko, gorko, gorko and the newlyweds kiss and kiss and kiss. This tradition has its own wisdom. The guests by asking the "молодых" (young folks) to kiss are performing two tasks: to entertain and also to prepare the couple for their wedding night. This tradition is very relevant nowadays and probably will live on for many years to come. It is similar to the symbolism of the kiss that can frequently be found in mythology. Here, the kiss symbolizes the union of human souls - almost like a mixing of the two people's blood.

For more on The Appeal of Minin, see Russian Unity Day.

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