Victor Vasnetsov’s artistic career is impressive: he painted pictures, illustrated books, decorated churches, created architectural sketches (for example, he drew a sketch of the main façade of the Tretyakov Gallery).
His father was a village priest. A well-educated man himself, he provided his six sons with a multifaceted education. Two of them, Victor and Apollinarius, became famous artists. Victor studied at a theological college and then at a seminary where he explored icon painting. However, he never graduated from the seminary. He took advantage of a new seminary charter, which allowed seminary students to enter secular universities, and left for the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, with his father’s blessing.All Vasnetsov’s works were among the greatest achievements of Russian fine art in the late 19th – early 20th centuries. The artist managed to convey the power, epic magnificence, and creative energy of the Russian people, their allegiance to the homeland enshrined in the folk art, such as bylinas, songs, historical legends, and fairy tales. Vasnetsov was the first Russian artist to turn to bylinas — traditional epic poems, the main plot of which was some heroic event or a remarkable episode of ancient Russian history. His remarkable paintings as well as monumental masterpieces depicting historical and fairy-tale stories are well known to many people.
However, Vasnetsov himself considered the most significant work in his life to be the decoration of St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kyiv, dedicated to the 900th anniversary of the Baptism of Russia. He spent about 11 years doing it. He said, “There is no greater and more beneficial vocation for a Russian painter in Russia than decoration of a church.” In the course of his work, Victor Vasnetsov studied the artifacts of early Christianity in Italy, the frescoes of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, and used his knowledge of icon painting and church architecture, which he had received at the seminary.
All in all, he made about 400 sketches and painted over 2 000 square meters. While painting, he fell off the scaffolding under the dome of the church, but his canvas jacket miraculously caught a hook, which saved his life. “God saved me”, Vasnetsov said as he recalled this incident.
When choosing stories to paint, Victor Vasnetsov did not depart from the Byzantine traditions but added his own perspective to each piece, often stepping back from the canon and creating his own original version. Using documentary descriptions, hagiographic literature, and iconographic templates, he created a gallery of amazing images, a whole host of Russian saints: Prince Vladimir and Princess Olga, Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, and others. His frescoes had a distinct color similar to the bright, hearty, ornate and picturesque harmonies of Old Russian religious paintings and Byzantine mosaics.
The main frescoes depict the Baptism of Russia and the baptism of Prince Vladimir. There is a triptych titled The Joy of the Righteous in the Lord and God of Hosts in the central, left, and right areas of the cathedral.
The image of the Mother of God with the Holy Infant in her arms, painted in the Vladimir Cathedral, is truly outstanding. The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, reflecting the national ideal of motherhood and intercession, is echoed throughout the religious paintings by Victor Vasnetsov. It is no accident that the artist was known as the author of the “Russian Madonna”.
“When I saw his Mother of God with Baby Jesus, with transparent Cherubim and Seraphim, I felt how spiritually transparent the author himself was, with all his artistic majesty”, Feodor Chaliapin wrote.
At the time of decorating the Vladimir Cathedral, Vasnetsov conceived his own artistic embodiment of the idea of the atoning sacrifice, as the main idea of Christianity, creating a three-part composition. Its first part, The Only Begotten Son, the Word of God, presents Christ as a young man with a cross and a scroll in his hands, sitting on the throne in the clouds surrounded by symbolic images of the Evangelists.
The second one portrays God the Father – a majestic Elder with a large white beard, sitting on a rainbow among the stars, who stretches out his hands in deep sadness, but with amazing divine tranquility, offering his Son for the salvation of mankind.
Lastly, there is the Crucifixion with the image of the Calvary as seen from the Heaven. The angels, overwhelmed by sorrow and despair, support the cross with the dead Christ nailed to it.
The cathedral was consecrated in 1896 in the presence of Emperor Nicholas II and his family. Later, the artist went on to decorate churches in St. Petersburg, Gus Khrustalny, Darmstadt and Warsaw.
After the revolution, the artist worked only with fairy-tale themes. Almost all his works are scattered in museums, where everyone who loves the work of Victor Vasnetsov can see them. Victor Vasnetsov attempted to convey his Christian worldview in the language of ancient icons, bylinas, and fables of the Russian people, and called his work “a road to light”.