Five noble truths in Isaac Levitan’s paintings.


If one add to the «Gloomy trilogy of Levitan», which includes the paintings «Deep Waters», «The Vladimirka» (The Vladimir Highway) and «Over Eternal Quiet» two more: «March» and «The Silent Monastery», then it turns out, that these pictures could illustrate the five noble truths of Dostoevsky no worse than many boring words.

It’s louder than words this thing that we do
Louder than words the way it unfurls
It’s louder than words the sum of our parts

Pink Floyd. «The Endless River».



The five noble truths.

In previous articles A.S.Pushkin’s “The Little Tragedies”, as a blueprint of F.M.Dostoevsky’s main novels and Homology in Russian classical literature. I have described patterns that could be called the “five noble truths.” The logic of ideological concepts is usually strictly analytical and verbose, however, as it turns out, these five fundamental concepts can also be illustrated with the help of fine art. We are talking about five paintings by Isaac Levitan: “March”, “The Silent Monastery”, “Deep Waters”, “The Vladimirka” (The Vladimir Highway) and “Over Eternal Quiet”. The last three pictures are usually called the “Gloomy trilogy of Levitan.”

“March”. Cold math or hotheaded?

The last day of winter was given to us for a doubt:
Is this coming spring really that good?
Is there really no purpose for interweaving shadows
To write letters on March snows?

The main motive of the picture is the opposition of outgoing winter and coming spring, bright sunlight and cold snow. The style of this painting which includes elements of impressionism: the nervousness and pastiness of the stroke, gives the painting a special sensuality. Together with overall major mood of the picture it contains main element of any Levitan landscape — lyrical shade of emotion and sadness. One Russian artist1 while describing his impression of the painting “March” noticed that when he manages to be in nature in March or sit in the city on the boulevard on a sunny March morning, a comic paradox flashes in his thoughts: “How amazingly nature imitates Levitan’s “March”.

Isaac Levitan. March.
Isaac Levitan. “March”.

The dark pine trees in the background of the painting contrast with light, sunny aspen trunks, on one of which a small birdhouse is suspended. It seems that this “untethered” birdhouse is not attached to anything, but just hovers in the air. The semantics of the mythopoetic image of “aspen” is motivated by two features of this tree — the tremor of the foliage even in calm weather and the red tint of the wood. For many peoples, including the Slavs, aspen is considered a “cursed tree”. The most popular motive for this “curse” is a mention of this tree in connection with the story of Jesus, although there is no direct reference to aspen in the New Testament. It is believed that this is the only tree that, during the way of the cross of Jesus, did not bow down and did not tremble with pity (a close version, all trees except aspen dropped their leaves). The rods with which Jesus was scourged and the cross on which he was crucified were aspen. Judas hanged himself on the aspen. In Russian fairy tales there is a motive of “aspen stake”, which can kill evil spirits. Sometimes the aspen is called the “tree of the hanged”. Fedor Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s book “The Karamazov Brothers” once exclaimed “Damn it all, what wouldn’t I do to the man who first invented God! Hanging on a bitter aspen tree would be too good for him.”

Pine is an evergreen tree, it does not care about the seasons, which should symbolize the cold and unchanging laws of nature. Pine among the Slavs was an attribute of Veles — the god of forests, wealth, wildlife, science and wisdom. The place of worship for Veles was chosen in the very wilderness of the coniferous forest, where three mighty pines grew next to the anthill. Amulets, staves, idols were made of pine, which had a connection with the god of the forest. In ancient Greece, the pine was dedicated to the god of shepherding and cattle breeding Pan.

In the poem “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s book “The Brothers Karamazov”, a dark and cold inquisitor confronts a man who resembles Jesus, as he walked through ancient Judea. The inquisitor explains to his interlocutor the problems of rejecting the three temptations of the devil this way:

Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.2

There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness—those forces are miracle, mystery and authority. Thou hast rejected all three and hast set the example for doing so.

But Thou mightest have taken even then the sword of Cæsar. Why didst Thou reject that last gift? Hadst Thou accepted that last counsel of the mighty spirit, Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth—that is, some one to worship, some one to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant‐heap, for the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men.

As an epigraph to the first chapter of “Eugene Onegin”, Pushkin took a quote from Vyazemsky’s poem “First Snow”. However, the “young ardor” in a hurry to live and in a hurry to feel should not necessarily be associated with the first snow. It can also be compared to the first warmth of spring on the last winter day. And this warmth can very soon be replaced by low leaden clouds and winter cold.

But what am I saying? One runaway day,
Like a deceiving dream, like a ghost shadow,
Flashing, you carry away the inhuman deception!
And love itself, having betrayed us, like you,
Leads to experience with a ruthless lesson3

In the Pushkin’s story “The Blizzard”, the girl wanted to marry a poor army warrant officer, hovering in the clouds like a birdhouse on an aspen. Nature with its snowstorm does not allow the girl to do this and as a result she becomes the formal wife of a completely different person — colonel Burmin with “interesting pallor” (emphasized by Pushkin) on his face. The epigraph to “The Blizzard” is taken from “Svetlana” by Zhukovsky. The girl’s groom turns out to be a dead man, but she sees it only in a dream. The appearance of the real colonel Burmin should be considered an awakening from the sleep. Here there is a “sleigh near the house” and a nesting box on a thin aspen trunk and cold, dark wise, but indifferent pines.

In the small tragedy “Mozart and Salieri”, Salieri’s cold prudence is opposed to Mozart’s freedom and enthusiastic talent. At the end, Salieri remarks that the creator of the Vatican also was an assassin. Indeed, the creation of a dead idol from living talent must be recognized as murder in the name of a great goal. If “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” was written by Sergius of Radonezh in the 14th century, then the transformation of a genius poet into a dumb saint in the name of uniting and strengthening the Moscow state should also be considered murder in the name of a great idea.

Is the universal happiness of the world worth the blood of one tortured baby? In Dostoevsky’s book “Crime and Punishment”, Rodion Raskolnikov analyzes the theme of “murder by conscience”. Is it possible to cross over “some obstacles” to achieve great goals? Hey, it’s a big math! Is a person who has stepped over is also capable to bend over and pick up result with the help of which he will subsequently do great good to the world? What, after all, could be foundation of the objective ethics?

“The Silent Monastery”. Thou shalt not make unto thee any image.

Well, your monastery may stand then, Alyosha, if that’s how it is. And we clever people will sit snug and enjoy our brandy.

F.M. Dostoevsky “The Brothers Karamazov”.

In the foreground of the picture is a river, over which a flimsy “lava” bridge is thrown. On the other side of the river, the bridge turns into a path leading to the forest, in the depths of which there is a picturesque monastery. A velvet evening, golden clouds, a large expanse of calm water with a reflection of the coast and buildings barely vibrating in it creates a feeling of peace and quiet. The bridge invites you to go there, to the monastery across the river, where there is shelter and salvation. It is interesting that the old Russian word “lava” is consonant with the English word “love”.

Isaac Levitan. The Silent Monastery.
Isaac Levitan. “The Silent Monastery”.

Isaac Levitan. “The Silent Monastery”.

The bridge crosses the reflection of the monastery and the shore. Reflection is an image of reality created in something that has nothing to do with reality. In Dostoevsky’s story “The Double”, an exact copy of the protagonist appears, which displaces him from life and drives the hero to madness. To understand the main idea of the story, you need to remember the tragedy of “Shurik”. In 1965, the director of the comedy feature film “Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures”Leonid Gaidai took Alexander Demyanenko to the main role. It brought the actor incredible success, people began to recognize him on streets, he won universal love and popularity. But at the same time, the image of the light-headed “Shurik” stuck to Demyanenko tightly. He would never have been able to get a serious dramatic role, since he became forever a “cheerful, intelligent student” and otherwise no one could perceive him. The image completely replaced the real person. The relationship between a person and his image is not always negative. Today, actor Mikhail Boyarsky always appears in public in a black hat and this does not bother him at all. The image helps him to remain noticeable and unique in life. This did not stop him from playing a great role without a hat in Vladimir Bortko’s “The Idiot”.

As an epigraph to the second chapter of “Eugene Onegin”, which describes some Russian traditions and lifestyle, Pushkin took a pun from the words “O rus! Hor. O Rus!”. The Latin expression “O rus!” (Oh, village) has nothing to do with Russia, but this expression and the word “Rus” sound the same. Pushkin often contrasted the fabulous side of Russian life: the haven of calm, labor and inspiration “near the Lukomorye” to the real country of wild nobility and murderous ignorance.

In the part “Spring and Summer” of Sviridov’s suite “The Blizzard” it is shown how the same musical theme can illustrate two completely different moods or seasons. A simple set of small phrases using the CSS language engine can be represented by an infinitely large variety of images.

In Pushkin’s story “The Station Master” the girl is taken away by an officer “in a Circassian hat.” Easy, Pechorin will appear only eight years after Belkin’s stories. At the end of the story, the girl arrives, as the boy tells it, “in a carriage of six horses, with three little barchats and a wet nurse and a black pug”. This vision is quite consistent with the painting “The Silent Monastery”. However, the girl is more likely to end her life in the brothels of St. Petersburg or “Deep Waters”.

In Dostoevsky’s book “The Idiot” the theme of images and idols is analyzed in many examples. Prince Myshkin’s ideas about the world and Nastasya Filippovna’s about the prince have nothing to do with reality. And at the same time, the absolute reality and stockiness of Rogozhin is the main reason that Nastasya Filippovna is not able to love him.

The desire to live with synthetic feelings and replace strict scientific theories with beautiful fictional fairy tales can be compared to drug addiction. The end of drug addicts is usually so terrible that goosebumps run down the spine. In a “Time Magazine Special”, a Massachusetts resident named John, who has become addicted to opioid analgesics, told his story this way:

I’ve had a pretty good career in the automotive business. I made a lot of money, more than $ 100,000 a year. Then I started taking OxyContin. It was an amazing feeling, like a warm embrace of Jesus

It is interesting that expression “heroine of the Bible” consonant with the word “heroin” and the name of the main Christian rite “liturgy” is consonant with the word “lethargy”.

Main creature of Goncharov is Ilya Ilyich Oblomov, a landowner who rarely gets up from the couch and only indulges in dreams of how to live. No troubles (the decline of the economy, threats of eviction from the apartment) can move him from his place.

Dostoevsky don’t fool around. The leitmotif of Dostoevsky’s book “The Idiot” is Pushkin’s poem “There lived a poor knight in the world.” Don Quixote of La Mancha by Cervantes was the first analysis of the theme of creating images and idols in Spanish Renaissance literature. A famous Spanish proverb says “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Francisco Goya gave this name to his etching from the Caprichos cycle. Subsequently, he accompanied this name with an explanation: “When the mind sleeps, fantasy in sleepy dreams gives rise to monsters, but in combination with the mind, fantasy becomes the mother of art and all its wonderful creations.”

“Deep Waters”. Was there a boy?

So who is who, so who was who? —
we never know.
Who was nothing, he will become everything —
think about it.

B. Vysotsky “Transmigration of Souls.”

The painting “Deep Waters” was conceived and started in 1891, when Isaac Levitan lived in the village of Zatishye, which is now on the territory of the Staritsky District of the Tver Region. Levitan liked the landscape of a deap waters on the T’ma River near the old collapsed mill not far from the village of Bernovo. There he also heard an old legend that had previously inspired Pushkin to write the drama “Rusalka”, water nympf.

Familiar sad places!
I recognize the surrounding objects.
Here is the mill!
It has already fallen apart;4
The cheerful noise of its wheels fell silent …

Despite the fact that landowner, the owner of Bernovo, was married and had five children, he often chose serf girls for sexual entertainment. A young peasant woman, whom he looked after himself, was betrothed to one of his servants. So that he would not interfere with him, the landowner gave servant to recruits and the girl, realizing that nothing would save her from the landowner’s harassment, drowned herself in the river. According to another version, the girl’s name was Natasha, she was the daughter of a miller and was expecting a child.

Isaac Levitan. Deep Waters.
Isaac Levitan. Deep Waters.

In the foreground of the painting, there are footbridges that turn into the logs of the dam, to the right of which there is a deep waters, “Omut”. Behind the dam, on the other side of the river, a narrow path continues, which, bending around the coastal bushes, leads towards a dark forest. According to Alexei Fyodorov-Davydov, “everything is alarming and tense in this landscape: the darkening green of trees and bushes, and the yellow water in the light of the sunset, in different ways, but equally dramatic both in the standing mirror on the right and in the disturbing ripples on the left”.

The composition of the painting “Deep Waters” resembles “The Silent Monastery”. In both cases, the center is occupied by a bridge over the river, beyond which a path begins, going into the forest. At the same time, the calm serenity of “The Silent Monastery” is contrasted with the anxiety and danger of the picture “Deep Waters”. If in the first case the monastery symbolizes warmth and protection, then in the second case the legend about the drowned woman and Pushkin’s “Rusalka” are immediately remembered. V.A. Petrov wrote that these two paintings can be regarded as “a kind of antinomical pair.”5

As an epigraph to the third chapter of “Eugene Onegin”, Pushkin took a quote from Malfilatra’s poem “Narcissus or the Island of Venus”:

Elle était fille, elle était amoureuse.(Fr.)
She was a girl, she was in love

In original:

She (the nymph Echo) was a girl (and, therefore, sensitive, as all of them); (and therefore) was in love … and I forgive her; love (sensuality) made her guilty. Oh, if fate would also excuse her.

According to Greek mythology, the nymph Echo withered away from love for Narcissus, who loved only his own reflection and turned into a forest voice. This did not prevent her from having a daughter from the forest god Pan, Yamba, by whose name Pushkin’s favorite poetic meter is called. The girl from Pushkin’s “Rusalka” drowned herself from unrequited love. The girl in the legend of the village of Bernovo drowned herself in order to defend her freedom and take revenge on the master.

The popular visualization of Hamlet’s monologue “To Be or Not to Be” is accompanied by the figure of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, pensively holding Yorick’s skull. The monologue contains the following lines:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,

A girl from the village of Bernovo, drowned in T’ma river, did not agree to grunt and sweat under a weary life, despite the dread of something after death. In Russian fairy tales there is a stable image of the “Kalinov Bridge” thrown across the “Smorodina River”, connecting the world of the living and the world of the dead. What awaits the person on the other side of the “bridge”? Different religions and teachings answer this question in different ways. In dialectical materialism, there is nothing behind death, since there is nothing in the world except matter, and after death the life of matter stops. But the religious need for comfort requires the assumption of personal immortality. Death is always near and it is impossible not to think about it. The famous Latin phrase “Memento mori”6 in ancient Rome was pronounced during the triumphal procession of the Roman generals returning with victory. The slave behind the commander’s back periodically reminded the triumphant that, despite his glory, he remains mortal. Uncertainty after death is the main guarantor for the existence and vitality of most religions. If you behave yourself well, get saved and go to heaven, and if you don’t obey us, you will get eternal torment. Eternal, because in the tradition of Western religions, after death, no one comes back.

In the painting “The Silent Monastery”, after crossing the bridge, you find yourself in warmth and comfort, the whole atmosphere of the picture whispers the word “Paradise”. There is complete obscurity in the painting “Deep Waters” after the bridge. It is necessary to pay attention to the fact that in one place the lags in the painting “The Silent Monastery” are interrupted by two thin boards, and in the painting “Deep Waters” three thick and durable logs.

Eastern religions, including Buddhism and in particular Hinduism, believe that people live many times and after death they necessarily return, being born again. This very logical and humane assumption explains the main purpose of human life by the development of a matter independent “soul”. Treasures collected in the soul or “in heaven” — “they do not consume any rust, and where thieves do not undermine or steal”7. From the point of view of the person himself, death does not exist at all, because after he died in one life, he is immediately born in another, even if a thousand years pass on Earth. Death exists only for the observers of the dead body. Man himself cannot observe his death. If the painting “Deep Waters” can symbolize death from the point of view of the person himself, then the “The Silent Monastery” as the same is seen by those who wish to the deceased “The Kingdom of Heaven”.

However, the most practical issue in this case is to clarify the nature of this thing — “Soul”. If something exists after death: “Paradise”, “Hell” or simply a new life, then what exactly can be preserved “in heaven” and transferred through this bridge. It is clear that if there is nothing after death, then there is no question, but most important work by materialist Maxim Gorky “The Life of Klim Samgin” was entirely devoted to the topic of clarifying the nature of a human soul. The concept of “god-building” at the beginning of the 20th century is rather vague, but this is how the path of collecting treasures “in the soul” and not in hard currency could be called. The final result of self-development through many lifes may be getting out of the circle of samsara in our world and transformation to the next qualitative level — new god.

In the book “The Life of Klim Samgin,” the main character tries to separate the real reasons underlying human actions from the external image and empty theories. Behind something complex and exciting often hidden something simple and trivial, such as the pursuit of money or power. Is personality really nothing more than just a “phrase system”? A person invents himself for purpose, for example, to get rid of loneliness. Sensuality is the foundation of human nature. Klim Samghin constantly returns to the question “Was there a boy? Maybe there was no boy?” If after the death of a person “in heaven” something remains, then this is the basis for believing that “there was a boy”. By the way, the question: “Was there a boy?” in Gorky’s book is addressed to a drowned man.

In Pushkin’s “Rusalka”, based on which the painting “Deep Waters” was written, the action ends abruptly when the water nymph’s daughter meets the culprit of her mother’s tragedy. But what if those whose dormition is revered as a holiday visit their fans not in a dream or vision but in reality as happened in Pushkin’s story “The Undertaker”?

In Dostoevsky’s Demons, the main character Nikolai Stavrogin is deprived of the ability to feel. He, like the angel of the Laodicean church, is “neither cold nor hot”8. A man of an “empty soul”, as Stavrogin is shown, is not viable and his suicide looks completely natural. Despite the fact that one of the possible titles of Gorky’s book “The Life of Klim Samgin” is “The Story of an Empty Soul,” Klim, unlike Stavrogin, is far from emptiness and he will not end up his life in “Deep Waters” like Stavrogin, but will cross the bridge.

“The Vladimirka”. What is Truth?

Galloped over. I look —
is not something heavenly before our eyes:
Barren wasteland and absolute nothing —
And in the midst of nothing, a cast gate rose,
And a huge throng at the gate was sitting on its knees.

In May 1892, as a person of Jewish origin, by decree of Alexander III, Isaac Levitan had to leave Moscow. He settled in the Vladimir region in the village of Gorodok, located on the Pekshe River, not far from the Boldino station. Once returning from a hunt with his companion Sofia Kuvshinnikova, he went out onto the old Vladimirskoe highway. Kuvshinnikova described their impressions as follows:

The picture was full of surprisingly quiet charm. A long strip of road ran away in a white streak among the copses into the blue distance. In the distance, two figurines of a praying mantis were seen on it, and an old rickety golubetz9 with an icon worn out by the rains spoke of long-forgotten antiquity. Everything looked so affectionate, cozy.

Isaac Levitan. The Vladimirka.
Isaac Levitan. “The Vladimirka”.

Then Levitan remembered that this is the same Vladimirka, along which for centuries prisoners in shackles were chased on foot on the way to Siberia. Kuvshinnikova recalled how he said:

How much sorrowful, desperate, hopeless this golubetz had heard… Around them, prisoners are constantly took a rest. I have watched many times — Levitan winced painfully — What heavy pictures of human grief this road has seen! Hundreds of political prisoners walked along it together with the criminals. I seem to hear a shackle ringing somewhere near…

After finishing the painting, Levitan wrote its name on it — “Volodymyrka”. This was an unusual step for the artist — as a rule, he did not inscribe the names on the canvases. Despite the positive reviews about the painting, perhaps due to the severity of the perception of the plot, at the 21 exhibition of Peredvizhniki or the Itinerants, where it was exhibited, no one bought it. Then the artist simply donated it to the Tretyakov Gallery, so it received gift status.

Volodimirskaya road, which was also called “the great Moscow road”, appeared at the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th centuries. The word “Vladimirka” entered the Russian colloquial and literary lexicon as a synonym for the concept of a joyless martyr’s journey to Siberian penal servitude.

There is a tape recording made by Volodymyr Vysotsky himself a few minutes after the song “Paradise Apples” was created. In this recording, before the performance, Vysotsky says that he loves what happened and that is how he understands what this “Paradise” or “After Death” is. The first title of the song was “In Paradise”. The plot of the song is as follows: in order to go to heaven and eat heavenly apples, the hero of the song decided to die not by suicide, but so that someone else would kill him. Suicides are believed to be criminals and do not go to heaven. So he could go this way “on gratis”, not having finished his cup to the bottom, but in “Deep Waters”. From this point of view, M.Yu. Lermontov was analogously “killed” because, as it is believed, he deliberately provoked his death.

When the hero in the song finally rode up, he saw that paradise is an ordinary prison area, where souls serve their sentences under the supervision of angels and archangels. The hero did not like serving in paradise and having robbed the paradise apples he was killed. After that, he returns to earth with a bosom of heavenly apples. Vysotsky dedicated the song to his friend Vadim Tumanov. In 1948, 20-year-old Vadim, then the third mate of the captain of the steamship Uralmash, was arrested in Vladivostok and sentenced to 8 years in labor camps under Article 58 for “espionage, terror and anti-Soviet agitation.” According to Tumanov himself, the real reason was “love for Sergei Yesenin.” Not resigning himself to the verdict, he tried to escape from the Gulag eight times. As a result, taking into account convictions for escapes, the term increased to 25 years. Only after Stalin’s death, in July 1956, Tumanov was released, found not guilty, with the removal of his conviction and loss of rights. Vysotsky developed the theme of returning from the Gulag in the song “The Steam-bath in White”.

According to Vysotsky, paradise is only a temporary restriction of a person’s freedom, after returning from where he is again given the opportunity to commit crimes, that is, to live. The picture painted in the song “Apples of Paradise” is full of heavy tones and a prison theme. The poet presented the same theme about the “return from paradise” to a new life in the humorous song “On the Transmigration of Souls”:

Your soul strove upward
You will be born again with a dream
But if you lived like a pig
You will remain a pig.

The painting “Vladimirka” depicts an endless plain with a road running along it, stretching from the foreground to the depths upward, passing through fields, past copses and villages, and getting lost in a blue haze at the very horizon. The road consists of one wide central strip and two paths on the sides. The fourth path crosses the central ones at right angles and directs the gaze to the golubetz, next to which a pilgrim-wanderer stands with a knapsack on her shoulders. It seems to delineate what was before the golubetz and divides the space at “before” and “after” — an analogue of the bridge from the paintings “The Silent Monastery” and “Deep Waters”. The original golubetz was made of wood, but Levitan made it brick. These were the milestones. The result is milepost-golubetz.

Golubetz — a roof over a worship cross or a tombstone with a schematic roof or in the form of a hut symbolically means the house of a deceased person. Golubetz can often be found in Old Believer cemeteries. Milepost-golubetz can symbolize “intermediate death” along the path of samsara10. The whole plot of the picture from this point of view shows life, which is not interrupted by death, but continues to the horizon. At the same time, the praying mantis for the golubetz should symbolize “Memento mori”, which is what people actually do standing in front of someone’s tombstone.

The muted colors of the painting present a gloomy gray day. Ordinality and inviolability, as well as the inevitability of what is happening. Life is like a shackled stage from one golubetz to another. Where does God look, if he actually exists? Maybe this is a small church standing in the distance in the rays of the sun? Not at all: it is not necessary for an artist to depict himself in his painting. This little church is not an “observer”, but “those treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal”11. This is the result of the vertical movement of life. If “god” or extraterrestrial intelligence was the real author of these paintings, then in order to understand the author, you need to analyze and feel his work.

As an epigraph to the fourth chapter of “Eugene Onegin”, Pushkin took the phrase of the Swiss banker Jacques Necker from Madame de Stael’s book “Notes on the main events of the French Revolution”. Jean Necker addresses Gabriel Mirabeau: “You are too smart not to admit sooner or later that morality is in the nature of things.” A prudent financier teaches the life of a shocking speaker. Here you can again return to the monologue of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky’s book “The Brothers Karamazov”. The inquisitor explains to his interlocutor that following the laws of development of civilazation, not opposing them, is the only way for stability and tranquility. Only “law of breads, a miracle and the sword of Caesar” are the basis for a happy life for people. The punitive system of punishments of Nature dictates its rules to a person and drives him through life as a convict through Vladimirka.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry:
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabld,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.12

In the small tragedy “The Miserly Knight”, the old businessman vividly depicts all the advantages of the material values of the world. Later, in Dostoevsky’s book “The Raw Youth”, the same theme will be developed by Arkady. Opening his basement and lighting a candle by each box of gold, the old baron proclaims:

What is beyond my control? like some demon
From now on I can rule the world;
As soon as I want, palaces will be erected;
Into my magnificent gardens
The nymphs will come running in a frisky crowd;
And the muses will bring their tribute to me,
And a free genius will be enslaved
And virtue and sleepless labor
They will humbly await my award.
I whistle, and obediently, timidly
Bloodied villainy creeps in
And he will lick my hand, and in my eyes
Look, in them is the sign of my reading will.
Everything is obedient to me, but I am to nothing;

By no means, he is obedient to death. Regardless of whether there is something after death: paradize or a new life he will not be able to take his treasures with him.

“Over Eternal Quiet”. Only life.

One who observes the principle of Tao cannot be brought closer, cannot be removed, one cannot do something useful or harm him, he cannot be elevated and cannot be belittled. That is why he becomes above everyone else in the world.  —  Lao Tzu «Tao Te Ching».

Isaac Levitan. Over Eternal Quiet
Isaac Levitan. “Over Eternal Quiet”

The prototype of the church in the painting “Over Eternal Quiet” was a wooden church in Plyos13 built approximately in the 15th century in the style traditional for the times of Andrei Rublev and Sergius of Radonezh. In the 19th century such architecture might seem strange. Now such churches are not being built at all. Ivan Evdokimov in the biographical book “Isaac Levitan” wrote that for the artist meeting with this echo of dense antiquity was a real shock. Jew Levitan even asked the priest to hold Mass in it in order to fully experience the atmosphere of the 15th century. Evdokimov wrote:

The priest at first did not agree to serve in a dangerous place, the church was on the brink of destruction. The artist insisted. Finally he called the deacon. The old men served mass for two curious people. Everything was in order. The customers asked that the priest’s vestment be the oldest one that can be obtained in Plyos. The priest rummaged through his entire sacristy, and found a robe of a century ago, made of gold, tarnished brocade.

Already at the very beginning of the mass, at the first exclamations, Levitan became agitated. Sofya Petrovna noticed tears in his eyes. Suddenly he leaned over to her and began to ask how and where to put candles. The priest and the sexton served, glancing sideways at the amazing pilgrim, who never crossed himself, but wandered around the iconostasis with a bunch of candles and put them on all the images. Levitan’s cheeks were reddened. He was embarrassed by the smiling Sofia Petrovna and tried to look past her.

The first thing that comes to mind when looking at the painting “Over Eternal Quiet” is Gorky’s poem “Song of the Petrel”. Like a bird, a church surrounded by trees and old graves flies through space to meet the storm. The church also resembles a ship heading into some unknown distance. But if you look more closely, it turns out that the position of the church is quite static. She just stands still, calmly observing how a thunderstorm is approaching: it does not “scream”, does not “pierce the clouds”, does not “tear off the foam of the waves with its wing”. Judging by the tops of the trees, a strong wind is blowing. In the distance, bad weather is raging, there is a downpour with a thunderstorm, but the light in the window of the church speaks of warmth and complete safety. A church in the middle of a poor rural cemetery with old, long-forgotten graves calmly awaits the blow of nature. The composition found by the artist helps to sharply feel the immensity and power of the space that opens up to the viewer.

There are many versions of exactly which place is depicted on the canvas, but nowhere is it mentioned that this is an allegory of “the Kingdom of heaven”. The painting “Over Eternal Quiet” can be viewed as a “Vladimirka’s” different point of view. If the distant church in “Vladimirka” painting symbolizes the treasures of the soul “in heaven” and the look at these “heavenly treasures” is directed from the earthly path, then the painting “Over Eternal Quiet” shows a reverse look from the “heavenly dwelling of the soul” to earthly life. The laws of nature are completely static and not subject to change. Any system strives for the most favorable energy state along the path of least action. Any living system violates this order and tends, on the contrary, to complication and the least entropy. Life violates the laws of nature only because of the declaration of itself as living, often to the detriment of the development of matter. At “Vladimirka”, the “church-soul” is located above the road, on the border of the sky. In the painting “Over Eternal Quiet”, a church with a small burning fire is located in the very center. Clouds symbolizing the arbitrariness of nature are higher, but it is the “church-soul” that rises above material nature, since there can never be peace here.

The epigraph to the fifth chapter of “Eugene Onegin” Pushkin took from Zhukovsky’s poem “Svetlana”, a free translation of a verse by the German poet Burger “Lenora”. In Burger’s original poem, the girl who is carried away by the dead groom dies at the end. At Zhukovsky, the girl sees everything that happened only in a dream. When she wakes up, a living groom comes to her. In the first case, following the dead leads to “eternal rest,” in the second, the dream serves only as a kind of lesson for the girl. It can also be understood that Svetlana is Lenora’s new life, given to her after the “rest”. Now the girl has already experienced the problems of “dead love” and will treat life more carefully.

The poem about “the Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s book is a constant leitmotif of all these paintings. If in the case of “Vladimirka”, Inquisitor explains to prisoner by what principles life develops: laws of bread, a miracle and Caesar’s sword, but in the painting “Over Eternal Quiet”, the Inquisitor’s interlocutor simply listens in silence and at the end kisses his bloodless lips, bowing to his suffering. If the material must die sooner or later, then the “heavenly”, by definition, is immortal. With only one return from the dead, Jesus destroys all the harmony and logic of the Grand Inquisitor, and after him the “terrible and intelligent spirit of self-destruction and non-existence”. If death does not exist and each person has a long chain of rebirths ahead, then what place should earthly treasures play in all this: bread laws, a miracle and the sword of Caesar?

The painting “Over Eternal Quiet” returns back to the theme of first painting “March”, closing this cycle in a circle. The dark pines of wisdom in the painting “March” correspond to the clouds and a distant thunderstorm in the painting “Over Eternal Quiet”, and a small birdhouse hovering in the clouds on a thin aspen trunk turns into a church calmly and confidently looking into the face of an impending storm.

Remember when you were young
You shone like the Sun…14


  1. Boris Ioganson. F.S. Maltseva “Masters of Russian landscape. Second half of the 19th century” 2002, p. 31.
  2. Here and below translation of The karamazov Brovers by Constance Garnett
  3. Peter Vyazemsky “The First Snow”
  4. It is interesting that in his dedication to Vladimir Vysotsky “I am writing to you Volodya from the Garden Ring…”, Yuri Vizbor inserted these lines about the mill from Pushkin’s “Rusalka”.
  5. Petrov V. A. Isaac Ilyich Levitan. — Russian painters of the XIX century
  6. from lat. —“Remember death”
  7. Matt 6:20
  8. Rev. 3:15
  9. Tombstone with a schematic roof or in the form of a hut
  10. Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means “world”. It is also the concept of rebirth and “cyclicality of all life, matter, existence”, a fundamental belief of most Indian religions. In short, it is the cycle of death and rebirth. Samsara is sometimes referred to with terms or phrases such as transmigration, karmic cycle, reincarnation, and “cycle of aimless drifting, wandering or mundane existence”.
  11. Matthew 6:20
  12. Sonnet 66 by William Shakespeare
  13. A town in Privolzhsky District of Ivanovo Oblast, Russia, located on the right bank of the Volga River
  14. Pink Floyd “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” — “Wish you were here”
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