Executed with apparent disregard for technical finesse, Repin’s Golgotha offers a starkly unconventional interpretation of familiar subject matter. It is a Crucifixion without Christ, whose body has already been removed from the place of execution, leaving yawning emptiness at the center of the painting. Two dead thieves remain, tied to their crosses. A third cross rests on the ground, its nails, its crossbar, and the surrounding area saturated with Christ’s blood. With brutal realism, Repin depicts a pack of carrion dogs licking the blood; one, positioned at the foot of the empty cross, looks out of the painting as if in response to the viewer’s presence.
The desolate feeling of emptiness created by Christ’s absence is countered by a pinpoint of light in what appears to be his tomb in the background, outside the city wall. While working on the painting, Repin was engrossed with the events surrounding Christ’s resurrection. Indeed, Christ’s absence from Golgotha might be seen as presaging the moment of resurrection, a subject Repin depicted the following year in his Morning of the Resurrection.
The artist’s reputation as a leading figure in Russia’s powerful Realist movement had been established in the 1870s by his painting Bargehaulers on the Volga (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg). When he painted Golgotha fifty years later, in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, separated from friends and associates in Russia by a redrawn border with Finland, the artist was beset by anxiety for his homeland and by physical handicaps that included the atrophy of his right hand. The difficulty and expense of obtaining canvas for a large-scale work like Golgotha prompted him to use ordinary linoleum (reversed to expose its burlap backing) as a surface for this painting.
While never primarily a religious painter, Repin renewed his allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church at this time. Religious subject matter, not previously of major consequence in his work, presented itself as a vehicle for the feelings of hope and despair called forth by contemporary events.
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