Description: PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION, ENGLAND
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THE VARANGIANS ON THE DNIEPER
134.5 by 235cm., 53 by 92½in.
signed in Cyrillic l.r. and dated 1876
oil on canvas
Sotheby's Sale Icons, Russian Pictures and Works of Art, London, 15th December 1994, lot 44 (acquired by present owner from this sale)
G.Caffiero, I.Samarine, Seas, Cities and Dreams: The Paintings of Ivan Aivazovsky, London: Alexandria Press, 200, pp.220-221, 282, ill. No. 157
The story of the land of Rus can continue in one direction towards modern Russia, or in other directions, eventually towards the Ukraine or Belarus. Rus is none of these, or at least it is a shared predecessor of all three. Franklin and Shepard, The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200, New York, 1996
The earliest written historical document narrating the origins of Rus dates to the 12th century and is known in English as the Primary Chronicle (Russian: Povest Vremennykh Let). It tells of the founding of Rus (pronounced Roos) in the 9th century. In the chronicle it is the rivers and waterways that define place, and the tribes and peoples take their names from them. Aivazovsky's epic canvas The Varangians on the Dnieper (otherwise known as The Varangian Saga, The Waterways from the Varangians to the Greeks) is a rare depiction of pre-mediaeval Russia painted in the mid 19th century. A monumental work showing a Varangian fleet stationed on the river Dnieper, the artist captures a mood of romance by bathing the scene under the golden rays of a setting sun. It can be considered one of the most significant works by Aivazovsky to be offered at public auction and one of the few works he painted on a Russian historical theme.
According to an anonymous account in the Chronicle, it was Saint Andrew who founded Rus's capital cities of Kiev and Novgorod. We are told how the Saint, desiring to travel from the Crimea to Rome, sailed up the Dnieper until he halted one night by a bank below some hills. Rising the following morning he extolled to his disciples a vision: Do you see those hills, how God's grace shines forth upon them? God will cause a great town to stand there, and many churches to be built and he then blessed the hills and planted a cross on what was to become the site of the town of Kiev. Travelling further north he then reached the site of the future town of Novgorod. Clearly written at a time when Rus had long been Christianised, it shows a politically motivated editorial perspective that is not wholly reliable.
Early Rus was pagan, characterised by semi itinerant tribes of Slavs and other ethnic peoples trekking along the rivers, through the dense and sparsely populated northern forests between the Baltic and the middle Volga. Its development into a thriving and coherent nation by the 12th century was forged in part through two extremely powerful neighbours: the Varangians to the north and the Byzantines to the south. The rivers bore witness to the changing fortunes of those who lived on their banks, and those who travelled their often dangerous waterways.
Despite the immense sophistication and power of the Byzantines and Arabs, they lived in perpetual terror of invasions by sea from the North. Byzantine sources tell of a particularly fierce raid on Constantinople in the second half of the 9th century, which was most likely one of numerous attacks. In his sermons Patriarch Photios likened the Northerners' arrival in Constantinople to that of a thunderbolt. A large fleet, said to have numbered 200 ships, arrived in the Bosphoros without warning. The raiders pillaged along its shores and devastated the countryside and settlements outside Constantinople. They terrorised the citizens of the capital by sailing past the city walls raising their swords in mass unison as if threatening the city with death by sword. At this period, it was the river Dnieper that had become the main artery of Rus activity in the South, and their boats could cross the Black Sea to the Anatolian coast in just 48 hours, enabling them to make surprise attacks.
Such well armed, navel prowess had developed in the seafaring tribes of Scandinavia, and the Varangians were notorious throughout Western Europe for their voracious appetite for slaves, material riches and the appropriation of land. The growth of Rus, from which Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus eventually emerged, was inextricably tied up with these Scandinavian Vikings, who were a catalytic force mobilising and centralising a previously fractured nomadic tribalism. It has led to fierce debates which touch upon issues of ethnography and national identity.
According to the Chronicle it was a Varangian chief named Rurik who gained control of Staraya Ladoga, and thereafter established and built a settlement in Novgorod. His name derives from "Famous Ruler", so probably he could be seen as an archetypal powerful Varangian settler in the emerging land of Rus. This suggests that the local tribes were indeed, in places, under Varangian rule, and thus would have been influenced by their social mores and cultural heritage. The earliest known examples of the Russian kovsch have been excavated in Novgorod, and take their form from a Viking longboat, similar to those in Aivazovsky's painting. Yet, the land of Rus by virtue of its geographical location and its long, wide waterways was necessary to those wanting to trade between north and south; the ancient slavic tribes increasingly found themselves in the centre of an immense, as yet untapped resource as a wheel of historical change set into motion, carrying them along as well as their northern invaders. By the end of the 9th century the Greeks and Arabs used the term "Rus" indiscriminantly to describe any raid coming from the North down the Dnieper, suggesting that these invaders were culturally and ethnically not singularly Varangian.
Passage down the river Dnieper was said to be perilous due to a number of naturally occurring granite ridges projecting far into the river and for centuries the Dnieper had been an obstacle rather than a vehicle for progress for travellers and traders. The Slavs and other tribes living along the river were offered protection against nomadic marauders in exchange for produce and keep throughout the long, cold winters for which Russia is famous. This enabled the Rus seafarers to gain material weath and political power through their constant soldiering, and facilitated their freedom to travel south and trade.
Raids on Byzantium gradually stopped since by the 10th century the Dnieper Rus looked instead to securing organised trading ties with the Greeks. This served to civilise those living within the land of Rus, and heralded the growth of a new period of stability and economic prosperity. It was during this period that Rus became Christianised, adopting the Greek Orthodoxy of their main trading partners rather than Roman Catholicism. By the 11th century, Rus began to look West, strengthening its commercial ties with Western Europe and thus the significance of the waterway from the Varangians to the Greeks diminished.
Aivazovsky painted a cycle of large scale canvasses glorifying the history of the Russian navy and it is possible that the offered lot was conceived as part of this series. It is strikingly similar in size to a work hanging in the Central Naval Museum, St. Petersburg: Nicholas I Reviewing the Black Sea Fleet. Certainly comparison with these early invincible heroes of the seas would have elicited feelings of national pride and naval achievment, if not emphasised a longstanding tradition. Later, at the turn of the century, many Russian artists took up the themes of early Rus, in particular Nicholas Roerich and Viktor Vasnetsov who were preoccupied with the establishment of a Russian School of Art, and in doing so searched deeply among the historical and cultural origins of their nation.