Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov
- Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov
- saint barbara
- signed with initials in Cyrillic l.l.; also inscribed in Latin St. Barbara/ to honourble Mr. Crane / for remembrance / M. Nesteroff / 1924
- oil on canvas laid on board
- 21 by 17cm., 8 1/4 by 6 3/4 in.
One of the major events in late nineteenth-century Russian art history was the decoration of the newly built Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev. Three of the most important artists of the time, Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Vrubel and Mikhail Nesterov, were commissioned to decorate its walls with murals that today still rank among Russia's and Ukraine's prime modernist religious art works. Supervising the work in the Cathedral was Adrian Prakhov, whose family provided a lively intellectual sanctuary for the young artist. The twenty-three year-old Nesterov became very close to Prakhov's daughter, Elena, and the couple were even briefly engaged.
A charming demonstration of Nesterov's love for Liolia, as he called Elena, is an 1894 portrait which served as a prototype for his Cathedral mural of St. Barbara the Martyr that very same year.
The tragic figure of the virgin and saint who was murdered by her own father for her conversion to Christianity acquired a singularly meek and tender depiction in Nesterov's portrait. He himself considered it his "best mural in the cathedral".
The Vladimir Cathedral murals marked a public breakthrough for Nesterov, establishing his reputation as an exquisite modern-day Russian icon painter. However his depiction of St. Barbara the Martyr caused a great furore. The Saint's resemblance to her model, a well-known figure in Kiev high society, proved too obvious. After the remark of a certain grande dame that she was not inclined to pray to Elena Prakhova, the mural was censured by the Church Council. Nesterov was ordered to repaint his portrait in a manner that contained less overt allusions to the object of his affections.
The offered version of Saint Barbara was painted a full thirty years later in 1924 and without the strict church supervision to which he was subjected in the 1890s. Rooted in Byzantine and Russian iconographic tradition, it presents a highly personal perception of the Christian martyr. With Prakhova again as its manifest model, this painting breathes an even more intimate tenderness and serenity than its 1894 counterpart.