The first symbol of Czar Peter’s modernisation of Russia is the establishment of the great fortress on the river Neva, at the centre of which is the resplendent Cathedral of the Saints Peter and Paul. Its spire is a needle piercing the sky, an exclamation mark, saying ‘this is the city that Peter built.’
This was the first cathedral built to reflect Peter’s grand European vision. It was designed by an architect from the West called Trezzini and it marks a sharp break from Russian tradition. You have to go to the side of the building to see that perched on its cupola is a tiny onion dome, which looks like a boiled sweet, an embarrassed concession to the old Russian ways. In all but name, this is an Italian Baroque cathedral transplanted onto Russian soil: look at its sexy curves of its facade, and those Borromini hips jutting out! But to see how sharply it marks a break from the conventions of Orthodoxy, you have to go inside.
This is such a far cry from the humble interiors of old Muscovite churches. The inside of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral is like that of a secular palace – there is something almost sickly about the surfeit of decoration here. There are trompe l’oeil classical columns almost like sticks of barley sugar. You have to go to the far end of the church to appreciate the magnitude of the transformation wrought by Peter here. Sure, there’s still an iconostasis but it has been changed into a huge gilded piece of Baroque scenery. There are icons, but far fewer , and painted in the Western style. There is something cursory about them; they feel almost like postage stamps stuck into the pages of an album.
It was not just the Russian church that was being transformed. Peter ordered Russian men to shave off their beards and wear European clothes. He also changed the Russian calendar to synchronise with the West. But the most dramatic change in Russian ways of seeing, thinking and being was announced by a single painting. This is a work of art that today hangs in the State Hermitage Museum.
That is Rembrandt’s Jonathan and David, an intimate retelling of the Biblical story from the first book of Samuel. It is a moment of parting: Prince Jonathan, son of King Saul, is telling his friend David that he must flee the kingdom or his father will kill him. It is a religious painting, but unlike any work created by an iconographer. There is chiaroscuro, there’s a space you can enter, there is a hugely complicated picture of human psychology and suffering, none of which are present in the shadowless world of the icon. This painting represents everything that Western artists had been doing for half a millennium and that the Russians had been unaware of in their world of small wooden churches and forest refuges. When this picture came to Russia, it marked a seismic cultural exchange. Russian artists would respond to this type of realism, this type of space, with their own fantastic, immediate, deep tradition of realism. Russian collectors would respond to the new art; Russian taste would be transformed. And the reason that this Rembrandt is significant is that it was one of the first pieces that Czar Peter himself acquired, and it is the very first Rembrandt to come to Russia.
Peter had opened the floodgates, and in the galleries of the Hermitage, you are surrounded by his legacy: a deluge of provocative Western art; art infused with eroticism and sensuality; a far cry, indeed, from the world of the icon. Russia really would never be the same again.
(From Andrew Graham-Dixon’s The Art of Russia.)