The "Last Supper" in Russian Debates

Inessa Medzhibovskaya, Princeton University

The recently completed restoration of Leonardo's mural in Milan permits us to witness an unprecedented revival of the so-called "everlasting" debate around the Last Supper as a problem of representing the Eucharist in religious art. Russian voices in the debate, as well as Russian pictorial contributions to it, have hardly been in the focus of mainstream art theory and criticism in the West. Drawing on the theology of vision and various aesthetic ideologies, this paper will discuss the Russian place in the debate by following the development of the subject in the nineteenth century Russian art.

The timeframe here does not include Symbolism and the avant-garde. It is restricted to the high era of realism, of which Nicholas Ge's "Tajnaja vech;erja" (1862) is arguably the culmination. That painting was so unevenly received, and has itself been a subject of so many artistic commentaries, that it rightfully earns itself a place as a milestone modern successor to Leonardo in the history of European art, in a period of interpretation dominated by the school of the "historical Jesus.">

The point of this paper is that both contradictory artistic visions (and commentaries) of the Last Supper in Russia are inseparable from the Orthodox notion of the Eucharist, to which the scene of the Last Supper itself is not central. For the Russian mind of the nineteenth century, the scene of the Last Supper as such has been a social phenomenon, existing separately from the liturgical representations of the Eucharist. When the two contradictory natures come too dangerously close—Ge's painting in this regard was a most powerful statement—then there is an eruption of values and spiritual terms of reference. Russian painters find themselves at a crossroads. The anti-Academy flank (the future "Itinerants"), influenced by Renan and the new French religious art, in search of inspiring realistic heroes, are trying to paint Jesus with a human face (Ch;elovekobog). They are typically attacked for painting Jesus and His disciples as if they were democratic demagogues and, God forbid, revolutionaries. The more conservative painters (such as Semiradskij and Beidemann) continue elaborating the slightly secularized liturgical line (Bogoch;elovek) which many, especially the precursors of Symbolism, find trite and out of date in its artistic expression.

Russian literature holds up a mirror to this agon, recording points of view in the debate and taking sides in it. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoj's painter Mixajlov, working from the position of the historical Jesus, is censured for making his Jesus a Ch;elovekobog. In this second section, the paper concentrates primarily on the role of a writer's commentary over a painting. It undertakes a detailed comparison of Tolstoj's and Dostoevskij's reading of the "Last Supper" and of Ge, which brought the Last Supper debate into the mainstream of engaged social discourse.

The final portion of the paper discusses the Eucharist as a form of consummation from the point of view of ethics of vision. In this third part, the paper extends the comparison between Tolstoj and Dostoevskij, who disagree in their understanding of moral movement and moral vision, by invoking Mixail Baxtin, the conventional watershed for their differing logocentric convictions. Baxtin's comments on the aesthetic space of the Last Supper, supplemented by his ideas on participative and form-shaping action, open a new dimension in the discussion of the Eucharist as a topic in art and as a precept of reciprocal, responsible sacramental vision. The Russian concerns enter into a very productive dialogue with the early twentieth-century German religious sociology of Georg Simmel and Max Scheler, by whom Baxtin was directly influenced. The paper concludes that Baxtin's ideas of the Eucharistic vision are more consonant with Tolstoj than with Dostoevskij. The reasons underlying this paradox are examined in the concluding remarks of the paper.