Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844 - 1930)
Religious Procession in Kursk Province
Oil on canvas, 1880-1883
175 × 280 cm
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
Religious Procession in Kursk Province (also known as Easter Procession in the District of Kursk or A Religious Procession in Kursk Gubernia') (Russian: Êðåñòíûé õîä â Êóðñêîé ãóáåðíèè) is a large oil on canvas painting by the Russian realist painter and sculptor Ilya Repin (1844–1930). Completed between 1880 and 1883, the work shows a seething, huddled mass attending the annual religious procession carrying the famous icon Our Lady of Kursk its home at the Korennaya monastery to the nearby city of Kursk in western Russia.
The procession is led through a dusty landscape by robed, Orthodox priests who hold icons, festoons and banners over their heads. Behind them follow a crowd mostly of peasants, but ranging beggars and cripples, police and military officers to figures the provincial elite. Religious Procession lead to controversy when first exhibited due to the icon being held by a man who appears to be drunk.
The work is a continuation of Repin's social commentary in his work, and hightlights perceived abuses by both church and state. He wrote of the work, " am applying all of my insignificant forces to try to give true incarnation to my ideas; life around me disturbs me a great deal and gives me no peace – it begs to be captured on canvas..."
At the right, burly peasants carry a platform holding the icon inside an elaborate neo-classical case; only gleams of light reflecting off the gold riza icon-cover can be made out. Lines of peasants joining hands hold back the crowd, the foremost at the left trying to stop the crippled boy breaking through the cordon with his stick. Alongside ride peasant or priest stewards and officials and police in uniform, some of the latter beating back the crowd with their riding crops. Behind the icon follow priests and better-dressed people, carrying icons in front of their chest, and an "effete, dandified and bored priest" in vestments carefully straightens his hair. There is a comic effect with a stout middle-aged woman in a yellow dress and bonnet carrying an icon behind him, who looks very like a priest in his vestments. An empty icon-case, presumably that of the icon carried by the wealthy woman behind, is carried with as much reverence as the icon itself. On the hillside at right the less pious have gathered to watch and perhaps picnic. Further back another platform, holding what appears to be a circular icon, is preceded by two large banners, and behind that a large processional cross can be made out through the cloud of dust.
The Procession is representative of Repin's style the period, in that it first appears to be a scene everyday life in Russia. In fact, it pointedly shows people a range of social strata united and moving collectively towards their destination at Korennaya. As a painter in the late Tzarist period, Repin was preoccupied by ideas of class, and often worked in an immense, monumental scale which he saw as befitting his subject matter. By showing each social class working alongside one another, Repin implies that all the people of Russia share common responsibility for their, and their country's, faith.
Provenance and critical opinion
The painting was highly popular, but controversial. The journal publishing a favourable review by the leading critic Vladimir Stasov published an editorial in the next issue dissociating itself his views, and a second review by the editor. Stasov had made much of the violence of the riders to the crowd. Apart Leo Tolstoy, who praised the painting and regarded it as neutral in its depiction of the social system, all were agreed that it was hostile to the established social order. Another reviewer noted with disapproval the "undesirables who thronged around it at exhibition, noting a preponderance of liberated women with short haircuts, nihilistic young men, and a strong Jewish element; the chief characters of Imperial xenophobia".
The writer Richard Brettell summarised the painting as "a sort of summa of Russian society, diverse members of which move uneasily but restlessly together down a dusty path through a naked landscape towards a future that cannot be seen even by the painter." Critic Christian Brinton saw a mixture of "fat, gold-robed priests, stupid peasants, wretched cripples, cruel mouthed officials, and inflated rural dignitaries". Repin is less sympathetic to the privileged members of the procession, whom he depicts as uncaring and indifferent to their struggling fellow travelers. The disenfranchised members of Russian society are represented by, amongst others, the old and young peasants in the left foreground (serfdom in Russia had been abolished in 1861).
The icon was bought by the leading collector Pavel Tretyakov for a record 10,000 roubles, but Tretyakov wanted Repin to replace the maids carrying the empty icon-case with "a beautiful young girl, exuding spiritual rapture". Repin refused. Tretyakov's large collection was opened as a museum in his leftime, and is now, much augmented, the state-run Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.