Preaching Christ with a Paintbrush

The appearance of Christ before the People by Alexander Ivanov

This giant painting took Alexander Ivanov 20 years to complete and is now displayed at the Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow. To complete this work, Ivanov drew over 600 sketches of the individual elements of the narrative. The author attributed deep meaning to every detail of the picture.

Alexander Ivanov

The idea

Alexander Ivanov had the inspiration to paint the picture “Appearance of Christ before the People” in 1830 as he was visiting Rome as a part of a group of recent graduates from the Imperial Academy of Arts. At that time, he was associating with a large number of poets, philosophers and Russian writers. Most of these intellectuals were obsessed with the philosophy of romanticism. Ivanov shared their attraction.

He saw himself as an artist whose mission in life was not just to create art, but to preach with it. Consistent with this vision, he put before himself a range of ambitious goals which he took years to achieve. Shortly, he selected a universally known narrative and committed himself fully to depicting it in his work for the glory of his homeland Russia, which he had left. “If it that minute God had willed to deprive me of my worldly life, I would have thanked him just for finding the idea of my picture,” wrote Alexander Ivanov in his memoirs. The idea for the painting came from the Gospel of John. To the artist, the apparition of Christ expressed in a concentrated way the meaning of all the Gospels.

A giant canvas

At first, he realised his idea in a small-sized panting. Yet he was inspired by Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and decided to select a large canvas for his great work, measuring over seven metres in width and over five metres in height. It took him twenty years, from 1837 to 1857, to finish his great work.

Depictions of the Saviour and John the Baptist

The large canvas depicts the collective image of all mankind. At the centre of the narrative are John the Baptist, who is calling for repentance, and the Saviour, who had come to save the world.

John the Baptist is shown in the foreground. The features of his face reveal details of his ascetic life, his powerful and passionate character, the strength of his faith and his ability to convince. The sheer size and scale of his image underline the significance of his mission.

The depiction of the Saviour is smaller. He is seen at a distance, in the background of the picture. This choice of composition conveys a deep meaning on its own. The artist shows humanity deciding how to respond to the advent of Christ. The space of the Saviour is still separate from the space of the people in the foreground. Doctor Mikhail Allenov, doctor of history of arts, makes this subtle comment on the picture’s narrative: “There is no accurate measure in steps of the distance separating the spectators on this side and Christ on the other; this space is truly immeasurable. There is also not an insurmountable barrier to coming on that side. The distance gives us the sense of the distance of time and space that man is called to overcome before meeting Christ.

Comparing and contrasting people’s choices

Ivanov shows humanity at a crossroads when each of its members needs to make a conscious choice whether to accept Christ as the Truth and walk towards Him or to doubt Him and turn away.

The abounds in contrasts and comparisons – apostles and the Pharisees, slaves and owners, young and old.

Far on the right, we see a group of Pharisees descending towards the water. Their progress is one without a future or prospect. They elected to turn their backs on Christ and His truth. Still folds of clothing, hands crossed on their breasts and closed lips are all symbols of their bigotry and isolation. However, even this group has its dissenters. The young Nazarean in a grey cloak is shown turning impulsively towards Christ. For Ivanov, this is a way to show that any person may have a change of mind.

The apostles behind John the Baptist are a stark contrast to the Pharisees. The gold-haired John, Andrew and Peter are looking up towards the Saviour. Only one of this group, Nathaniel, does not share their inclination – he is still in doubt. As we are shown, there is no unity even within the ranks of the apostles. In this way, the painter rejects the idea of rigid separation of the people into faithful and unfaithful.

The author also depicts divergent responses of the people in front of John the Baptist to his call for repentance. His characters are as typical as they are timeless. The slave, a sufferer from worldly injustice, welcomes in Christ the hope for justice in heaven, if not on Earth. His master, shown with his naked back turned towards the spectator, seems unable to overcome the firm attachment of his flesh to worldly things. The shaking commoner represents a man who is apprehensive of change and discomfort, as he has become too accustomed to his well-to-do life. With his character of the sickly old man, the painter shows the difficulty of making oneself stand up and follow the way of spiritual revival at the close of one’s life. Next to him, we see a youth who is full of energy and enthusiasm but is still too inexperienced and knows too little about life and himself.

Selection of the characters

In depicting the faces of the characters, Ivanov utilised the method of comparing and contrasting, which was a novel approach for his time. To develop the desired character, he painted studies of male and female models and ancient statues and combined their facial features to create the desired character.

It would be fair to say that Ivanov had spent the greater part of his painting career developing the characters for his work, paying meticulous attention to every detail. Over 300 studies and portrait sketches that Ivanov had made for his grand painting have survived to our time. In many cases, creating a suitable character could take him a year or more.

It is believed that the model for the man in red closest to Christ was the painter’s friend Nikolai Gogol, a Russian Classic whom Ivanov treated as his spiritual authority. 

Ivanov also portrayed himself as a traveller with a staff sitting next to John the Baptist.

Service to Christ or art?

While working on his picture in Rome, Ivanov led a life of voluntary poverty and hermitage. He saw his work as his service to God and the people and committed himself fully to it. Yet sometimes art appeared to take a central place for Ivanov as an object of worship. This was a widespread trend common among many artists of his time. It was not compatible with genuine church life, and Gogol understood the potential dangers of this situation quite well. He spoke of the painting as having become the spiritual focus for Ivanov and said that he would not be able to complete his work until he directed his heart towards Christ. At that point, however, the artist was not prepared to take his friend’s advice.

He rarely went to church, and he bemoaned the formality of his religious education, which he believed was more ‘symbolic’ than ‘spiritual’. This partly explains why he was sometimes more attracted to the exploration of various philosophies and world-views than to communicating with the living God. Despite spending much of his life in a state of spiritual crisis, the artist never stopped looking for and desiring truth. After finishing the Appearance of Christ, he continued to explore biblical and religious themes in his art. He spent the last years of his life working on a cycle of works titled “Biblical sketches”, which, unfortunately, he never completed.

The Last Supper, the 1850s. Sketch

How the painting was received in Russia

In 1858 Ivanov returned to Saint Petersburg and brought his masterpiece with him. Against his hopes and expectations, the work was met with a mixed reaction. It was misunderstood by many viewers and art critics, who expected a straightforward narration of the known biblical story with a focus on Christ, and not the psychological responses of the human characters.

The author was unnerved by the cold reception of the work of his life. Soon, he died of Cholera, without receiving recognition for it during his lifetime. Just a day after his departure, the Russian emperor Alexander II purchased the canvas for a large sum and ordered it to be displayed in a large gallery in Moscow. He also decreed to award Ivanov posthumously with the Order of the Venerable Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles.

Eventually, prominent artists and critics recognised the great merits of his work and its remarkable contribution to Russia’s cultural heritage. Yet the most important message of for the generations to come is the call to look at the characters of his work and make their choice whether to meet Christ and in what way.

Adapted from:

Avatar photo

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. A most wonderful painting. Seeing it displayed in the gallery it draws in the crowd of today’s spectators, and they blend in perfectly with those on the canvas. And I would further state that the lives of the People of the foreground are no different than the lives of those painted by Ivanov. This painting is a true bridge from today to the time of Christ on Earth.

Know everything about Orthodoxy? We can tell you a bit more!

Subscribe for our weekly newsletter not to miss the most interesting articles on our blog.

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: