Artists and Fools: Iurodstvo in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev

Robert Efird, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

In the second chapter of Sculpting in Time Andrei Tarkovsky devotes considerable attention to reflections on the nature of art and the vocation of the artist. Great art, in his opinion, always conveys a sense of the divine to its audience, acting “above all on the soul, shaping its spiritual structure.”(41) The creative act is, essentially, an act of faith on the part of the artist, a liminal figure whose fundamental objective is to fashion finite material into an expression of the infinite. Commenting specifically on Andrei Rublev Tarkovsky writes: “I wanted to investigate the nature of the poetic genius of the great Russian painter. I wanted to use the example of Rublyov to explore the question of the psychology of creativity, and analyze the mentality and civic awareness of an artist who created spiritual treasures of timeless significance.”(34)

Indeed, the mentality of the artist as well as the function of art in human society constitutes perhaps the dominant theme of Andrei Rublev. As Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie conclude in The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: a Visual Fugue “the nature of the artist and his responsibility to the community is perhaps the theme that most pervades and unites the film, and almost every episode presents at least one variant on it.”(86-7) Yet Andrei Rublev’s exploration of the creative psyche reveals an element in Tarkovsky’s conception of the artist unmentioned in his theoretical writings and largely ignored by subsequent analyses of the film. My contention is that the portrait of the artist, and artists, inhabiting the world of the film has been critically influenced and, to a large extent, determined by the images and culture of iurodstvo. Through carnivalistic reversals, trickery, unexpected violence and various other inexplicable actions Rublev and the other artists featured in the film consistently exhibit the tell-tale characteristics of the holy fool outlined in studies of the phenomenon by Panchenko, Saward, and Thompson.

My paper will first discuss the various manifestations of iurodstvo found in Tarkovsky’s film and then elaborate on these findings in an examination of several key sequences. As I shall demonstrate in my conclusion, not only is the conception of the artist that emerges in Andrei Rublev consistent with the cultural image of the holy fool, the narrative process of the film itself, with its baffling ambiguity and persistent ellipses, frequently adopts the enigmatic posture of the fool, at times even acting in concert with its protagonist.


Johnson, Vida and Graham Petrie. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1994.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Trans. Kitty Hunter-Blair. New York: Knopf, 1987.