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Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
These lots have been imported from outside the EU … Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION, SWITZERLAND
Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)

St Mercurius of Smolensk

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
St Mercurius of Smolensk
oil on panel
29 5/8 x 30 ½ in. (75.2 x 77.5 cm.)
Painted in 1918
Dmitrii Rubinstein (1876-1937), St Petersburg, until at least 1931.
Pedro Leitess, Mexico City.
Dimitri Leitess, Geneva.
By descent to the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, Nicholas Roerich, Spells of Russia, London, 1920, listed p. 11, no. 117.
F. Grant (et al.), Roerich. Himalaya. A Monograph, New York, 1926, listed p. 196.
A. Yaremenko, Nicholai Konstantinovich Roerich. His life and creations during the past forty years 1889-1929, New York, 1931, illustrated pl. 60, listed pp. 13, 35.
V. Kemenov, S. Roerich, N. Sokolova (et al.), N. K. Rerikh: Zhizn' i tvorchestvo. Sbornik statei. [Life and work. Collection of articles], Moscow, 1978, listed p. 280.
E. Matochkin, Sviatye russkoi zemli [The saints of the Russian land], Samara, 2007, illustrated p. 15.
E. Matochkin (ed.), Nikolai Rerikh, Samara, 2008, illustrated p. 231, listed pp. 661, 668, no. 266.
London, The Goupil Gallery, Nicholas Roerich, Spells of Russia, April-July 1920, no. 117.
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Alexis de Tiesenhausen Senior Director, International Specialist Head of Dept, Russia

Lot Essay

Nicholas Roerich's St Mercurius of Smolensk is one of his most important works dedicated to Russian saints ever to appear at public auction. Held in the same family collection for over fifty years, this season St Mercurius of Smolensk is revealed to a public audience for the first time in just under 100 years.
The subject of the painting, St Mercurius, is inspired by a legend originating in the annals of the late 15th century. According to lore, in 1239 the formidable Mongol Horde, having already laid waste to many ancient cities, threatened Smolensk. The Virgin Mary appeared to Mercurius and, arming him with a divine sword, sent him to face the enemy. Fighting bravely, Mercurius killed the leader of the Tatar army, a giant of preternatural strength. Fearing the divine warrior, the Horde retreated and Smolensk was saved, although Mercurius was not spared – he was later beheaded by the son of the giant he had killed.
Roerich is known to have produced two versions of St Mercurius of Smolensk. The present composition is the first, painted in 1918; the second, a less finished variant, was painted a year later in 1919, possibly in response to a commission. Drawing parallels between the dangers to civilisation posed by the Mongol invasions and the terrifying storm clouds of war perpetually haunting 20th century nations, Roerich responded to the portentous times with a series of significant works devoted to holy warriors who defended Russia and Christianity on an epic and awe-inspiring stage. In this context, St Mercurius of Smolensk, alongside Procopius the Righteous Praying, Driving the Clouds away from Veliky Ustyug (1914), St Nikolai of Mozhaisk (1916) and The Saints Boris and Gleb (1919) can be interpreted as rousing calls to spiritual arms and reminders of higher, universal powers in the bleakest of modern times.
The spiritual, or perhaps more accurately, mystical, remains at the heart of Roerich’s work and, no doubt, explains his enduring appeal. While he occasionally attracted criticism for his coarse technique and theatrical effects; Alexandre Benois in his 'Russian School of Painting' (1916) disparagingly refers to Roerich’s use of colour as reminiscent of 'Russian gingerbread and round loaves'; the artist sparked fascination and curiosity among the public who viewed his esoteric work in wonder. Roerich's landmark exhibition at The Goupil Gallery in London in 1920, which included St Mercurius of Smolensk, caused a sensation as demonstrated by the ecstatic reporting in The Washington Herald from 7 July 1920: 'London has seen nothing more aesthetically stimulating: in this collection of 198 pictures there is not one but bears the stamp of genius. Here indeed is a great artist; poet, visionary, seer, as well as craftsman; he has imagination, fantasy, mystery; a true weaver of spells, weird and even verging on the grotesque at times. Splendour of color, design of the utmost significant, combine to make these pictures “magic casements”. Myth, allegory, legend and nature’s moods are his themes.'
To many, these “magic casements”, stained-glass windows into pagan times, are both transportive and transformative. The meticulous studies of the lauded cities of ancient Rus', including Izborsk, Pskov and Smolensk, that Roerich completed in the early 1900s were a constant source of inspiration and a reference point for Roerich's mystical compositions. In this way, Roerich's work is simultaneously backward-looking and groundbreaking, perfectly expressed by his collaboration with Igor Stravinsky for the hugely controversial and magnificent Le Sacre du printemps (Pictures of Pagan Russian in Two Parts), devised for the 1913 Paris season of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. St Mercurius of Smolensk is charged with a similar energy and one which reveals Nicholas Roerich as artist, ethnographer and shaman.

We are grateful to Gvido Trepša, Executive Director and Senior Researcher of the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

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