The Appearance of Christ to The People (1837–1857)

Alexander Ivanov (1806–1858)

Art facts:

  • Artist: Alexander Ivanov
  • Currently exhibits in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery
  • Original size: 213” х 295” inches
  • This work is linked to Matthew 3:13-16

About the Author:

            Alexander Ivanov was born on July 28, 1806, in Saint-Petersburg to a family of artists. He was only eleven years old when he entered as a student in the Imperial Academy of Arts, where he studied under the guidance of his father, Andrey Ivanov, a professor of painting. Ivanov was awarded two silver medals and, in 1824, received a gold medal. At the age of twenty-five, he moved to Rome, where he studied the arts of the classical world. When Ivanov was in Rome, he became friends with Friedrich Overbeck, a German painter, and leading Nazarenes member. The Nazarenes were a group of young and idealistic German painters of the early nineteenth century who believed that art should serve a religious or moral purpose. The name Nazarenes was given to them because of their devout way of life and the propensity to wear their hair in biblical hairstyles.  Because of this friendship and exchange of views with the Nazarenes, Ivanov concentrated on religious paintings.

About the Painting:

            The Appearance of Christ to the people or The Apparition of the Messiah is an oil painting on canvas by the Russian painter Alexander Ivanov (1806 -1858). It took twenty years to complete (1837–1857). The narrative of the painting is based on the first chapter of the Gospel, according to John.

            Ivanov believed the Gospels to be historical rather than religious and therefore sought to present his subjects in a more historical context.  The scene is set on the banks of the River Jordan, based on the Gospel of Matthew 3:13-16:

            “…Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’  But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.  And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him, and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’…”

            The painting alludes to several stories in the Bible. In the center, John the Baptist, wearing an animal skin, is standing on the River Jordan banks. He points towards the figure of Jesus in the distance, approaching the scene. Behind him, in the background, is a wide plain and distant mountains. His figure is small compared to the others; however, it stands out because of being a lone figure. In the foreground, there are many male figures of varying ages, some of whom are already undressed, waiting to be baptized.

            To the left, there are a group of disciples who will soon move on to spread the Lord’s word. To the left stands the young John the Apostle, behind him St. Peter, and further on Andrew the Apostle and Nathanael. In the foreground, people who watch the scene unfold are undecided about what to do, both young and older men. In the center, there is a wealthy man who was too rich to follow Christ and a slave, about whom Ivanov remarked that he meant to depict people who experienced, after a life in despair and suffering, “joy for the first time.”

            To the right, there is a figure that stands nearest to Jesus, who was depicted as the painter’s good friend, the writer Gogol. Before the wanderer with a staff seated not far from John is a figure sitting with a red headdress. The man is a self-portrait; the artist has captured his own features on the canvas.

            Also, to the right, we have the Pharisees and scribes who unbendingly reject the Truth. John admonishes the Pharisees and says: ‘He that cometh after me […] shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. At precisely that moment, Jesus approaches, wishing to be baptized by John. In the center of the group, the artist has painted a lean older man struggling to his feet buoyed by John the Baptist’s words.

            This is a beautiful piece, full of color and meticulous detail.  In 1858, Alexander Ivanov traveled to St. Petersburg, where he exhibited his beloved work of art. The lukewarm reception must have been heartbreaking for Ivanov. He died a few months later of cholera aged 52, not knowing that some years after his death his work of art would be hailed, by the likes of Ilya Repin, the most celebrated Russian painter of his day, as “the greatest work in the whole world, by a genius born in Russia.”