For October’s Blind Spot post, I watched the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic medieval story of art and faith, Andrei Rublev. The film is an episodic rumination on the connections between faith, art, and suffering as seen through the life of the the title character, who was one of the greatest painters of icons in the Orthodox church. There is more scripture recited in this film, through the mouths of characters and in voice-overs, than in any other film I can recall seeing. Faith is an integral part of Andrei Rublev’s world, but his faith is never a simple proposition to assent to, but rather a struggle with the reality of God’s encounter with a sinful world.
The early 1400s in Russia, as depicted in Andrei Rublev, is a time where political leaders are vicious and duplicitous, and the authority and influence of the Church is pervasive, until it comes up against violence that it cannot resist. Andrei is an artist and a monk, a man of deep faith and conflicted relationship to those around him. His singular devotion to his artistry leads him to wound others indirectly on multiple occasions. Early in the film he slights his artist companion Daniil with his presumption. In another episode he confronts a group of forest dwellers he encounters celebrating a pagan ritual, chastising them for their idolatrous behavior. Later, when he has been commissioned to paint a church with the Last Judgment, he delays for months, leaving his crew of workers to restlessly await his inspiration to return to work. His conflict with his society reaches a head when he kills a soldier during a raid who is attempting to carry off a woman to rape her. After this, he remains silent for years as penance for killing a man, and even gives up his painting to perform menial labor in the monastery where he lives.
Tarkovsky’s episodes in the life and times of the artist provoke the viewer to consider many questions. What is the place of Art in life, when misery, hunger, plague and violence surround you? What is the place of Art in religion? What should be the relationship between religion and the politics of power and influence? The example of Andrei in the film reminds me of the time when the 20th century Catholic activist Dorothy Day responded to the charge (repeated often enough in other contexts) that the Church should not be spending money on buildings and art by making a new Cathedral in San Francisco, when it should be helping the poor instead. Her response was beautifully articulated:
The church has an obligation to feed the poor, and we cannot spend all our money on buildings. However, there are many kinds of hunger. There is a hunger for bread, and we must give people food. But there is also a hunger for beauty – and there are very few beautiful places that the poor can get into. Here is a place of transcendent beauty, and it is as accessible to the homeless in the Tenderloin as it is to the mayor of San Francisco. The Cathedral in San Francisco is one of the few places where the poor can go and sit down and be with God in beauty … (source)
The Greek summons Andrei. Kirill is not chosen.
In an early episode, a second-rate artist called Kirill, who had been part of Andrei’s company, leaves the monastery in anger when he is not called to join Andrei in working with Theophanes the Greek, a great artist. He takes the opportunity to denounce the monks and clergy, accusing the churchmen with the words of Christ of being moneychangers and corrupt hypocrites. Near the end of the film, however, he comes back, repenting of his harsh words and begging for any place at the monastery. Is his return mere self interested way to ensure he has a meal in a time of famine, or is it a recognition of value in the work of the church? It is not clear, but probably his motives are mixed. Throughout the film, characters with such mixed motives are shown to achieve both great things and commit great atrocities.
It seems significant to me that the episode where Andrei stubbornly refuses to paint the Last Judgment follows the incident in which he encountered the pagans in the forest. After he ran from them and rejoined his companions, they witness a brutal roundup of several of the pagans by Christian soldiers. Though it is not explicit, it seems that Andrei cannot be comfortable with a depiction of the violent destruction of the heathen, when he has seen its like in person: soldiers beating and capturing the pagans. That does not mean he excuses or identifies with the pagans—he resists them and is repulsed by them—but neither can he stand in personal judgment over them. It seems to me that is why he cannot paint the Last Judgment, but chooses to change the subject to paint a feast, like the banquets of heaven described in the parables of Christ.
In the climactic sequence of the film, the young son of a bell-maker, Boriska, is approached by men on horseback in the midst of a plague-ravaged village and asked about the whereabouts of a certain bell-maker. Boriska tells then that all the artisans in the village have dies from the plague, but he manages to convince these men, who are emissaries of the Crown Prince, that he has inherited from his father “the secret” of making great bells. With nothing to lose, the emissaries take Boriska with them, and he is put in charge of casting a great bell for the Prince’s tower. His arduous and cruel management of the bell-making project makes him appear either incompetent or a mad genius. As it turns out, he is able despite all odds to create a tremendous bell through his gritty determination, and perhaps good fortune. In a burst of emotion, he reveals to Andrei, who has been observing his labors, that he had not acquired any “secret” of bell-making from his father after all. That had been a bluff to ensure that the emissaries would lift him out of his misery and give him the commission of making the Prince’s bell. The question arises then, where was the value of his efforts: was it in the product or the process? There seems to be a nobility not just in the success, but in the willingness to try and make his best attempt at art, in simply doing the hard work, rather than in a reliance on an abstract “secret” or the genius of inspiration.
And can there be value in spending money on public art even when the patron is as corrupt as the Prince? In the joy of the workers and the villagers who observe the ringing of the great bell, the work has transcended the wicked man that demanded it. And Andrei Rublev is inspired by Boriska’s success to break his silence and to return to painting—the act of sheer will that achieves the making of the great bell moved him to take up his brush to create icons again, for God’s glory and the edification of the faithful.
Andrei Rublev’s life, as depicted by Tarkovsky, poses many questions for the 20th- and 21st-century viewer. The answers to the difficulties presented are not given, but there is hope in the end. It is astonishing to think that this film was created in the Soviet Union. Indeed, it was censored—it is not exactly a flattering look at the archetypes of those wielding political power, and the role of Christian faith in upholding the moral and economic fabric of society is far too positive for communist approval. Tarkovsky himself mirrored his subject in his determination to create his art regardless of the political context that he lived in. The scenes of the Tartar raid of Vladimir culminate in images of the painted Cathedral’s artwork being burned and desecrated. Communism similarly fought to break down the images and influence of the Church in the 20th century. But both Tarkovsky’s art and Andrei Rublev’s art have outlasted the persecutors of their times.
In a glorious coda to the film, color images of the real Andrei Rublev’s icons fill the screen with their still-radiant hues. The art, then, has the final word, and as any true artist would appreciate, it is allowed to speak for itself, on its own terms. It calls us to engage in a contemplation of mysteries, of God, of humanity, and of the faith that connects God to humanity and each man to all others.
This post is part of the Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee blog.