When one looks at the frescos painted by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926), one is overwhelmed by the sense of wonder and respect. Catholic religious painting is representational, Orthodox is symbolic, and Vasnetsov's paintings are realistic, but not sufficiently realistic to obliterate the symbolic meaning of the depicted figure or scene. They are found on the refined and narrow edge that imparts to the viewer both admiration for the sheer giftedness of the artist and the spiritual experience found beyond reason.
Vasnetsov was born exactly 170 years ago in a small village on the river Vyatka, about 400 kilometers north from Kazan' in Russia. His father was an Orthodox priest from an old noble family. He studied in the seminary in today's city of Kirov, but abandoned it in order to pursue studies at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
After graduation, he started traveling abroad and exhibiting with the famous art group Peredvizhniki. He was a member of the artistic colony in Ambramtsevo, the estate of the famous Russian entrepreneur and millionaire, Savva Mamontov. He decorated a small church with frescos at that place. He was married to Alexandra Ryazantseva with whom he had five children.
Vasnetsov's oeuvre can be divided into several groups. The first deals with Russian epic poems, history and fairy tales. Those authentic paintings emanate a sense of mysticism and awe. Like his brother Apollinary, he also painted landscapes and portraits. All of his faces seem to exhibit some kind of tacit suffering and deep understanding.
The Russian painter is arguably best known for his icons. He painted the St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, the capital of modern Ukraine, and the fabulous Church of the Saviour-on-Blood in St. Petersburg. With a style similar to many other Russian modernist painters applied to religious themes and holy images, his works can be seen as a powerful antidote to the precipitous secularisation and profanisation of pre-revolutionary Russian art and thought.