The Glamorous, Mysterious Women of the Russian Middle Ages (Konstantin Makovsky)

His liberal-minded friends scoffed at him, but the "Tsar's Painter" made the world fall in love with the beauty and traditions of Russia's past

Originally appeared at: RUSSIAN ART FOR THE SEEKING SOUL

In my grandparents living room, as in the living rooms of so many Russian emigres, hung one of the most magical paintings of my childhood, Konstantin Makovsky’s “A Russian Wedding Feast.”

Of course, the lavish meal (especially the swan), the layered, rich costumes, the church-like richness of the interior, captured a child's imagination.

But my eyes, like all the teasing or sympathetic or drunk eyes of the guests on the painting were turned magnetically to one point: the lovely figure of the young bride. Eyes cast down, figure wrapped in the rich dazzling dress, she bends before fate, but does not break. 

Konstantin Makovsky was a prolific artist, one who achieved success in depicting whatever he undertook. Social woes, historical events, and portraits of the rich and famous (including the first official portrait of Theodore Roosevelt) came alive under his brush. The Russian Emperor Alexander II referred to him as “my painter” and his contemporaries dubbed him “the brilliant Kostya.”

Makovsky’s paintings also sold for more money than any other Russian artist could even dream of, perhaps purely because of the careless confidence with which he named his outlandish prices.

They were so steep that Russian collectors, even the famous Tretyakov, couldn’t afford them (or simply couldn’t justify such daylight robbery). Thus, most of his paintings--including my beloved “Russian Wedding Feast of the 17th Century"--found homes abroad.

But the story of his passionate life and artistic development will be left for another day. Instead, today will be dedicated to the most vibrant subset of his painting: his portrayals of the traditional beauty of medieval Russian women.  

Awaiting the wedding crowns 1884 Makovsky loved portraying women and, as he himself admitted,  “The best beauties vied with each other to pose for me.” But it was not the portraits of the seductive beauties of his liberal age in their fashionable outfits that charmed his audiences. More than anything, the glowing, ruddy women from the faraway past won Makovsky undying fame both at home and abroad.

Depicting the Culture of the Russian Medieval Nobility

In the 1880s-1990s, Makovsky created an extensive series of historical paintings called the “Boyar Cycle”, in which he depicted scenes from the Russian past. He especially focused on the 17th century, which saw the final flowering of Boyar culture.

The Boyars comprised the highest social rank in feudal Russia from the 10th century to the 17th century. They had wealth and influence, which they did not fail to use at times to plot against and undermine the tsars themselves.

Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich Choses a Bride, 1887

In addition to their unwieldy independence and frequent insubordination, the boyars had a very vivid, rigid and traditional culture of life and dress. All these elements clashed with Peter the Great’s modernising project, and thus, in the end 17th century, under the iron fist of Peter, the era of the boyars entered into the past.  

Yet their customs and traditions continued to fascinate Russians.  And though his democratically minded friends scoffed at him, Makovsky continued to depict the Boyars. He delighted in the details of their modest, though very lavish, dress and in their traditions.

The Kissing Ritual

He painted not only individuals, but rituals, such as meals, the process of choosing a bride, pre-wedding traditions and, of course, wedding feasts.

Makovsky also created several paintings of one of the most unusual Boyar customs, the kissing ritual, during which the head of the household allowed his respected guests to solemnly kiss his wife as the ultimate sign of hospitality... This ritual, mentioned in several historical accounts from the 15th-17th centuries , still remains shrouded in mystery. 

At that time, women, especially in Boyar circles, barely appeared in the company of men outside of her own family. The  16th-century official guide to social and home life, Domostroy (Home-Building) strictly regimented how and where women appeared in society. They usually remained in the women's quarter, called the Terem, during any social events. 

The Kissing Ritual

At the same time, women received deep respect, and even reverence, from the members of society. Thus, if the master of a house allowed his guests to see and greet his wife through the kissing ritual, he exhibited the ultimate sign of hospitality, trust and love possible. The guests in turn, exhibited the highest sign of reverence possible by bowing to the ground as they greeted and received drink from the hands of the mistress of the household.

Avid Collector of Artifacts

Makovsky often invested the proceeds from his paintings in the purchase of relics of the past. In search of “beautiful antiquity”  he wandered about flea markets almost daily, building up a valuable collection. 

From the memoirs of his daughter:

"An enormous old glass ebony cabinet with twisted columns stretches along the length of the entire wall, filled with old boyar costumes, hung and arranged inside: brocade, multi-colored sarafans (traditional Russian dresses- L.I.), priestly hand bands trimmed in pearls, kokoshniks (traditional Russian headdress-L.I)  in intricate pearl lace. 

The patterned luxurious dresses glow wonderfully, glittering with opaque blue, pinkly-gold silk and silver ...

On the fireplace ledge there are ancient household items--what beauty! Silver dippers, shell goblets, basins for washing, fans; all my father’s favourite items from the boyar era.

He searched for them, collected them, and depicted them on many of his paintings: his Russian, true, inherited antiquity. "

Sometimes, Makovsky would invite friends and dress them up in Boyar clothes. He staged the meals and rituals he loved to portray to better capture the movement and play of costume with personality.

Playing Blind Man's Bluff 1890s

The Loss and Return of Makovsky's Legacy in Russia

Many of Makovsky's contemporaries believed that art's most salient purpose consisted of effecting social change and complained bitterly that his portrayals were too brilliant and insensitive.

His crime, they believed, was that he too lovingly depicted the backwards society of the past, instead of maintaining a socially-aware paranoid suspicion of the ‘dark’ traditional times and a healthy despise for all the rich or aristocratic echelons of society.

But Makovsky’s fame and wealth gave him complete independence, and his love of life, and the historical past, was irrepressible.

In the Soviet times, his work fell out of vogue as remnants of a hierarchical, and corrupt past. His collection of artefacts was unceremoniously sold off and the remaining paintings were gifted to ambassadors of other countries where his work was treasured. 

Today, however, Makovsky Boyar paintings again grace Russian halls and houses. And wherever they are, whether in France or the United States or Russia, a heroine's soft eyes, shining even more brilliantly than her resplendent outfit, still drop a luminous screen over a story.

(For more articles about Russian culture and art, subscribe to the author's blog)

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