by Holly McMurtry
Holly McMurtry is a SRAS graduate pursuing an MA in Russian from Middlebury College.
This paper was presented at the International Center for the Roerichs in Moscow in 2003.
Note: The following article was taken from an issue of Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies, a scholarly journal created by The School of Russian and Asian Studies. For more information about Vestnik, click here.
In 1922, while in Chicago as a guest of the director of the local opera company, Nicholas Roerich created a series entitled “Sancta” consisting of six paintings: “And We Are Not Afraid,” “And We Labor,” “And We Continue to Fish,” “And We Open the Gates,” “And We Bring Light,” and “And We See.” It has been argued previously that these works are closely connected thematically to the spiritual teaching of the great Russian ascetic, the Reverend Sergius Radonezhsky, for whom Roerich created a number of other paintings during his life. However, taking into account that this series was painted by Roerich during America’s economically prosperous but socio-politically and socio-culturally conflicted post-WWI era, it is necessary to not only consider the influence that Saint Sergius’s teachings had on Roerich, but also to take into account the cultural milieu of the United States that shaped Roerich’s creativity at the time and ultimately led him to paint this series.
In this paper, we hope to establish that Roerich painted “Sancta” in order to reveal a spirituality that, while based on one of the greatest icons of Russian culture, was intended to draw attention to those universal spiritual values that, as it seemed to Roerich, had been forgotten by Americans. To demonstrate this, we will provide a cursory discussion of the situation in America leading up to his arrival and during his stay and how the socio-cultural atmosphere of the time affected the artist. In addition, we will seek to understand the message that Nicholas Roerich attempted to convey to the American people with the creation of “Sancta.”
America in the 1920s
Nicholas Roerich arrived in America at the beginning of a decade that would later be known as the “Roaring Twenties.” He found a country that had recently lost its innocence during the First World War, when it became clear that the United States could no longer stay politically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. One part of society, particularly the older generation, reacted to this fact by trying to rebuild the socially-constructed barrier that had existed between the United States and the rest of the world before the war, thereby setting a tone of extreme isolationism and ‘Americanism’ (see, e.g., the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and the violent ‘Red Scare’ of 1919). In addition, the reactionary national legislature passed a series of ludicrous laws, such as the infamous 18th amendment to the Constitution (the ‘Prohibition Act’ of 1920 banning alcohol), which were intended to halt the rapid social, economic, and political progress of the post-WWI era.
Of course, these conservative sentiments succeeded only in inspiring the younger generation to rebel against the puritanical traditions of the Victorian era and to begin a free-spirited rampage into self-discovery best personified by the ‘flapper,’ a woman who flaunted her sexuality, bared her skin, smoked and drank with men, and reveled in the newfound freedoms reluctantly given to women post-WWI. This era was also compounded by a rapid escalation of materiality, as mass production, electricity, cars, radio, and film became central foci of American culture. As Frederick Lewis Allen writes:
Each of these diverse influences – the post-war disillusion, the new status of women, the Freudian gospel, the automobile, prohibition, the sex and confession magazines, and the movies – had its part in bringing about the revolution [in manners and morals]. Each of them, as an influence, was played upon by all the others; none of them could alone have changed to any great degree the folkways of America; together their force was irresistible.
It is no surprise that Nicholas Roerich – artist, student of religious philosophies, and visionary – became disillusioned with America when he encountered the materialist and wanton cultural atmosphere during the early 1920s that found “[. . . ] all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” In contrast to this nihilistic viewpoint, Roerich also encountered a massive renaissance in the arts as the free-spiritedness of the age encouraged writers and artists to explore their creativity and to leave behind traditional conventions and expectations. Indeed, the 1920s were arguably the most creative decade in America’s history. Playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill transformed American theater from ‘vaudeville’-type shows to serious dramas, a movement seen also in the burgeoning silent film industry. American writers in Paris such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway epitomized the disillusionment and listlessness of the ‘Lost Generation’ while US-based writers such as William Faulkner and the Black-American authors of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ captured the revolutionary fire of the era. Similarly, the bleak realism of Edward Hopper’s paintings and the passionate, sexualized paintings of his contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, further symbolize the dualism inherent to American culture at the time. Even European art styles such as Surrealism, Art Deco, Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada, which had long been shut out from the American mainstream, flourished in the artistic landscape of the 1920s, so much so that the French sculptor Gaston Lachaise moved to America because he believed that, “the soil most fertile for the continuity of art – is here.”
This new wave of cultural development gave rise to many discrepancies and conflicts within the American socio-cultural environment. Nicholas Roerich sharply felt the fatality of the extreme American pragmatism that was obstructing spiritual and cultural development. Zinaida Litchman, Roerich’s future assistant, complained to the artist “. . . that they treat art like a business in America and look for profits in everything, and the young people are not interested in either painting or music.” Roerich was especially concerned that the average American youth was not interested in art. He believed that this generation’s emphasis on self-discovery was in fact a search for something deeper and more concrete, and that the key to finding this inner contentment was art. He wrote: “The light of art will illuminate numerous hearts with a new love. The feeling will first come unconsciously, but after it will clean all of the human conscience. And how many young hearts are searching for something true and beautiful.” These beliefs led Roerich to champion the foundation of several cultural institutions in America including The Institute of Unified Art, The International Cultural Center “Corona Mundi” (The Crown of the World), and The Artists’ Union “Cor Ardens.” The main goal of these institutions was the unification of people through art because Roerich believed that art, in its own manner, is the universal lingua franca.
These foundations were Roerich’s answer to the American cultural and spiritual needs for a social figure who was also concerned with spirituality at the same time that the creation of the series “Sancta,” as well as individual paintings such as “Bridge of Glory” and “Meditation,” were his answer to the same needs as an artist. According to one scholar, Roerich’s paintings from the early 1920s are “brighter, clearer, and more ethereal.” In creating the series “Sancta”, Roerich returned to the moral roots of his own culture – i.e., to the teachings of Saint Sergius Radonezhsky – in order to promote the revival of moral values in America and stimulate spiritual and cultural development.
American exhibitions of Roerich’s work were enthusiastically received and caused a sensation. Against the backdrop of the Red Scare, which had portrayed Russians as “horrid-looking Bolsheviks with bristling beards,” a completely new and unknown Russia appeared in America with this series. Indeed, no artist had ever managed to convey the entire depth of the Russian soul as effectively as Roerich did in these paintings. As P. F. Belikov writes:
With these canvases Roerich recreates the nature and ancient Russian architecture of his motherland that was so close to his heart. Scenes from the lives of Russian ascetics unfold against their backdrops. Their simple-hearted labor and their spiritual pureness are conveyed so grippingly, so sincerely, that these paintings continue to move viewers even today after so many decades have passed. Even then they were a revelation for Americans. Missing his motherland, Roerich praised the moral strength of his people, the harmonious way of life that is reached in integration with nature, peaceful labor and humaneness.
However, the artist’s ultimate goal in painting this series was not the redefinition of the American view of Russians per se. Instead, Roerich sought to combat the growing materialist and isolationist movements in America by projecting moral and cultural values that he believed are universal.
The Series ‘Sancta’:
In this light, the “Sancta” series can be viewed as six paintings unified by the high ideals of earthly yet spiritually symbolic human acts. Even the titles of the paintings offer, “insight into the horizons of spiritual heroic acts towards which Roerich’s artistic search was aimed.” The unifying “And We . . .” not only expresses the fact that these paintings belong to one series, but attracts attention to the deeper meaning of universality, unity, and collaboration. Likewise, these words establish a connection between the present and past, between us and the monks portrayed in the paintings, between 1920s America and St. Sergius of the 14th century.
This theme of universal spirituality is demonstrated in a number of aspects of the series “Sancta.” For example, in “And We Open the Gates” we see Roerich’s expression of the theme of ‘openness’ that Saint Sergius demonstrated with his life. The gates divide the painting into two compositional and conceptual plans. Embodying the border between the earthly (the foreground of the monastery that is still covered in darkness) and heavenly (the background on the other side of the gates that is illuminated by the rising sun) worlds, this division allows the viewer to feel the exact moment of passing through the ‘holy gates’ into the world of the spirit. At the same time, the painting seems to remind us of the need to keep ourselves open to the world ‘out there.’ This can be seen as a reaction to the growing isolationist movement in American culture at the time.
Similarly, “And We Continue to Fish” addresses the universal value of ‘collaboration’ when in the pursuit of a common goal. Looking at the monks – at their strained, angular, and somewhat unnatural positions – the viewer senses all of the difficulty connected with the concurrence of actions during collaborative work. On such a small vessel, it would only take one of them losing his focus to not only put the others in jeopardy, but to defeat their larger cause. The awareness of their involvement in a shared objective helps them to continue in their hard work, while providing them with the understanding that they can only withstand life’s raging stream unified. This theme was especially pertinent to American socio-politics of the 1920s, as the debate over whether to join the League of Nations had continued to rage since it was rejected by the United States Senate in 1920. Although relevant to the American situation in 1922, the theme is obviously also derived from St. Sergius’s emphasis on personal obligation when working towards a common end.
The painting “And We Bring Light” expresses a similar theme of ‘service’ to mankind. In this scene, monastic walls are shown in the twilight of sunset. Deep from within the recesses of the monastery, faint specks of light are seen that appear to become stronger as they move out of the darkness and closer to the viewer. These specks are candle flames burning in the hands of the monks. On one level, this painting represents the monks bringing their ministry and teachings to the world in silent humility. As they leave the monastery, they sacrifice the safety of familiar surroundings and enter a world of darkness with only the light they carry to show them the way. It is certainly important here to note that Saint Sergius’s has long been associated in Russia with the words “light” and “torch.” As Borisov writes, “He became for his contemporaries a true light, a person who was able to submit his entire life to the evangelical commandments of love and like-mindedness.”  With this painting, Roerich was likely encouraging America to leave behind the familiar and to reach out beyond her borders in order to bring to the world the great potential that she had to offer.
The first three paintings discussed above deal with interrelated themes – openness, collaboration, and service – and arguably are all reactions to the isolationism and ‘Americanism’ that Roerich observed while in Chicago. The rest of the series changes thematically and appears to focus more on the conflicts internal to American society. For example, in “And We Are Not Afraid” Roerich seems to encourage his viewers to be courageous and to have faith in the face of uncertainty and chaos, again following the teachings of St. Sergius, who told those wishing to enter the hermitage: “The Lord will not give you over to be tempted more than you can bear. Today we are filled with sorrow, but tomorrow our sorrow will turn to joy, and no one will be able to take the joy away. Be bold, be bold, people of God!”
In this painting, an elder-monk and a young monk face each other against the background of a Russian winter landscape at sunset. The soft halftones of the pink and light blue shades of the snow give the onlooker a sense of calm and harmony that corresponds with the inner world of the monks. However, this is only a first impression. The painting gradually reveals an intense struggle and a resulting spiritual equilibrium. The bright pink reflection of the sunset shades the slopes of the snow-covered mountain in the background with a disturbing lilac color, while the dark violet shadows that creep across the mountainside intensify the sense of alarm. The broken rhythm of the shadows and the indefinite shapes they form remind us about the presence of chaotic forces.
At a time when the American lifestyle was drastically changing, Roerich certainly felt chaotic forces at work in the American culture. He no doubt perceived the extreme polarization between the conservative older generation (the ‘elder-monk’) and the rampaging younger generation (the young monk) to be a fearful reaction to the rapidly evolving society of post-WWI America. With this scene in “And We Are Not Afraid,” Roerich admonishes Americans not to be frightened by the chaos and uncertainty facing them, but to seek spiritual harmony and balance.
In “And We Labor,” Roerich expresses Reverend Sergius’s teaching that simple physical labor is the basis of a person’s spiritual and moral perfection. Furthermore, he seems to challenge the American pragmatic concept that the goal of labor is materialistic gain instead of the attainment of spiritual satisfaction. In this scene, the monks leave the monastery that sits high on a hill with shoulder-yokes and buckets early in the morning when the sky is filled with the golden light of the sun. Bent under the weight of the yokes, they fulfill their responsibility to bring water to the monastery by slowly and calmly going down to the river. However, even though their labor is difficult, they toil without complaint knowing that their work, while seemingly inconsequential, is actually vital to the common good.
This sense of fulfillment is transmitted by the artist with the help of color and lines. The first thing that the onlooker notices is the bright yellow color that floods the entire canvas. Similar to this all-pervading light, feelings of harmony, peace, and holiness are born in the intensity of the strenuous labor of the monks. The flowing lines of the winding river, of the bent figures of the monks, and of the crescent-shaped yokes are repeated in the rounded curves of the hills. The linear rhythm of these elements adds lightness and mystique to the paintings and helps to communicate a sense of balance, calm, and daily satisfaction.
Finally, in “And We See,” the artist places before his viewer the symbolic culmination of the spiritual journey undertaken by all who adhere to the universal truths laid forth in Saint Sergius’s teaching. He does so by depicting a heavenly vision – an obvious reference to the many heavenly visitations that Saint Sergius, according to his biographer, received throughout his life. The focal point of this painting is the depiction of the countenance of The Uncreated Savior. It is completed in traditional iconographic manner on a mantle that is revealed by an angel. The most amazing part of the countenance of The Savior is the gaze of his all-seeing eyes – kind, humble, but at the same time strict and deeply penetrating into the soul of the onlooker. Similar to the monk who is stunned by the heavenly vision in the left part of the painting, the viewer finds it difficult to withdraw his eyes from the image of The Savior. It is as if all the hopes and dreams of a person searching for spiritual transformation are concentrated in that image.
For the monk, having seen the face of The Savior, this moment becomes the testament to the completion of his spiritual journey. Due to diligence, patience, and love for the Higher Being, this journey becomes real in the end. In addition to this, those precepts connected with the Higher Being acquire clarity and validity. The heavenly appearance helps the monk to understand that all the trials and tribulations he has endured were not in vain. Each one of his actions now gain meaning and power. Just as in “And We Labor,” the evenly distributed golden color of the painting conveys a feeling of sanctity and spiritual fulfillment. Although obviously Christian in premise, the theme of ‘attainment’ – i.e., the completion of a search – is in fact universal. With this painting, Roerich reminds the American people, many of whom had thrown morality and spirituality out the window, that there is a ‘meaning’ to life – a spiritual raison d’être – and it is achieved and understood through the ideals encapsulated in the teachings of Saint Sergius and visually expressed in this series.
V. M. Sidorov once said of Roerich: “His great service is that he gave Americans eyes to a new understanding of the culture of the Russian people. The paintings themselves, composed on the subjects of ancient Russian history and folklore, full of symbolism and philosophical depth, were unique messengers of Russia.” While undoubtedly correct, we must not forget that Roerich painted “Sancta” for an American audience that was not familiar with Russian history and folklore and certainly would not have known about the life and teachings of the Reverend Sergius Radonezhsky. However, he painted this series believing that the spiritual teaching of a 14th century Russian saint could have an effect on a materialistic American public of the 1920s because of their universality. Out of this duality between Russian and American, past and present, and heavenly and earthly, Roerich was able to create something new – the series “Sancta” – which was meant to serve as a Hegelian ‘synthesis’ for the extreme social, political, and cultural conflicts of his audience.
This new interpretation of “Sancta” sheds a different light not only onto the series itself – taking it from a purely Russian to an ecumenical level that transcends chronological and spatial boundaries – but onto the artist as well, adding another dimension to the depths of his persona. So much is concentrated on Roerich’s time in India and how his life and work became a combination of Russian and Indian that the synthesis of Russian and American has been largely ignored until now. Although his time in America was short, only three years, the impact was great, as demonstrated by the series “Sancta.” Further research is needed in order to discover to what extent this Russian-American synthesis affected Roerich’s other paintings of the period and how it played out in his later life and work. Regardless of what such future studies may show, it is unquestionable that the universal values portrayed in “Sancta” appealed to a conflicted American audience in the 1920s and, as such, may continue to appeal to the polarized American society of today. As such, Roerich gave not only to America, but to the world, a true monument of art that deserves greater acknowledgement in these troubled times.