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Unique Roerich offered at MacDougall's Russian Art Auction
Nicholas Roerich, St Mercurius of Smolensk. 1919. £350,000–500,000.

LONDON.- MacDougall's Russian Art Auction on 30 Novmeber features a unique painting by Nikolai Roerich. Saint Mercurius of Smolensk is the culmination of an important and relatively little researched period of the Roerich’s oeuvre. The work, from a major American collection, was painted in 1919 and concludes the years of the artist’s spiritual quest and turmoil, which he experienced during the First World War and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Empires fell and cultural antiquities, repositories of the memory of generations, were reduced to ashes. The period from 1914 to 1919 was also arduous for Roerich in other ways, as he, living a life of a doomed to wandering exile, had to survive not only spiritually but materially as well.

In this time of anxiety and despair the artist created a series of works devoted to the warrior saints and intercessors who defended Russia and the Christian world at the time of the Mongol invasions, in which Roerich found a parallel with the events of his own time. The painting entitled Saint Mercurius of Smolensk was created in London in 1918. It was based on the events of 1239, when, according to legend, a young warrior under the command of the Prince of Smolensk went to fight single-handed with the Mongolian troop surrounding the city. He put them to flight, but his head was severed in the unequal battle. Miraculously, at the behest of the Virgin, the Saint was able to return from the battlefield to Smolensk, bringing the good news of victory and divine intercession to its citizens.

The painting was a landmark for Roerich and in 1919, upon its sale, the master decided to recreate it. Infrared study of the canvas presented for auction reveals early stages of the artist’s work. The initial composition, which can be detected under the top paint layer, shows that the artist began by following the earlier painting, as he was probably commissioned to do. But having outlined the city buildings on the far left and the angels on billowing clouds in the upper right corner, he gradually painted them over, abandoning the decorative character of the first work. The arch of the city gate becomes the compositional centre of the picture, and the triumphant angels, trumpeting the good news, are positioned now above it. The palette is more restrained, than in the earlier work, with a predominance of solemn reds. The landscape seen through the arch opens up the space of the canvas, as if breaking through the intense drama of the foreground and pointing the way to the future. In this picture, for the first time in many years, Roerich expresses faith in the triumph of divine providence and in the power of spirituality to overcome darkness and chaos.

William MacDougall, co-Director of the MacDougall’s auction house, commented: “Saint Mercurius of Smolensk from 1919 finalised the quest of the artist, who attained a new level of spiritual formation and cast off a burden of pain and doubt. The work should be of great interest to both museums and art collectors”.

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