Leading Light of Christianity. Nero’s Torches, signed.
Oil on canvas, 88.5 by 175.5 cm.
Executed c. 1876.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007.
Private collection, UK.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Authenticity has also been confirmed by the experts L. Gladkova and T. Karpova.
Authenticity certificate from the expert L. Gladkova.
Literature: T. Karpova, Genrikh Semiradsky, St Petersburg, Zolotoi vek, 2008, p. 74, mentioned in the text.
On offer for auction, this monumental study of Genrikh Semiradsky’s most famous painting, Leading Light of Christianity. Nero’s Torches, is the only one of the artist’s large-scale preparatory works for this canvas that still remains in private hands.
His four years of intensive work on the seven-metre Leading Light of Christianity. Nero’s Torches (from 1873 to 1876) saw Semiradsky produce many graphic sketches, preparatory studies and a series of preliminary drawings, the majority of which, like the painting itself, now reside in the collection of the National Museum in Kraków (Poland).
The idea to paint this majestic canvas from Roman history first occurred to Semiradsky during a tour of Europe, with the artist sharing his thoughts in a letter dated September 1873 to the conference secretary of the Imperial Academy of Arts, Petr Iseev: “The subject of the painting is taken from the first persecution of the Christians under the Emperor Nero. In the splendid garden of Nero’s Domus Aurea, preparations are being made for a lavish nighttime feast. In a clearing in front of the palatial terrace, a crowd has gathered, impatiently awaiting the start of the grand spectacle: human torches, formed from Christians on top of high posts, bound with straw and coated with tar, positioned at equal intervals. The torches have yet to be set alight, but the emperor has already arrived, brought in on a golden litter and surrounded by an entourage of hired flatterers, women and musicians. The signal has been given and slaves are preparing to set the torches aflame, the light from which will illuminate the most despicable of orgies. Yet these very same torches have dispelled the darkness of the pagan world and, while burning in terrible agony, diffused the light of the new teaching of Christ. That is why I am thinking of naming my painting Christian Lights or Leading Lights of Christianity.”
Work on such a composition could only be started “on the very site of the action, amid the inexhaustible material that is provided by the museums here, the ruins and even the local people”, and so the artist cut short his travels and headed straight for Rome.
In addition to a breathtaking historical subject and a setting that teems with ornate sumptuousness, Semiradsky sought to produce an archaeologically accurate and authentic picture of antiquity, one that was destined to buttress his fame as an erudite artist. Semiradsky derived his descriptions of Nero’s Domus Aurea, which had long since been destroyed by the time he put paint to canvas, from Suetonius’s work The Twelve Caesars. In order to give the greatest possible verisimilitude and genuine colouring to the scene, the artist considered the archaeological material very closely – the evidence of which can be seen, for instance, in the study’s carefully drawn balustrade of Nero’s palace, which Semiradsky copied from the surviving fragments of its gallery.
Tatyana Karpova, the author of a monograph about Semiradsky and a specialist on the artist’s oeuvre, stresses the significance of this particular version of the composition, which is on offer for auction. She notes that “the format, more elongated than in the actual painting, enables Semiradsky to avoid the compositional shortcoming of the original – the overloading of the left-hand side and the excessive nearness of Nero’s “human torches” to the viewers. In the study, the line of torch poles – against the backdrop of a sunset sky – produces a stronger dramatic impression” (T. Karpova, Genrikh Semiradsky, St Petersburg, Zolotoi vek, 2008, p. 74). The study itself is notable for its pictorial freedom and compositional mastery.
Indeed, in the final composition, Semiradsky would reject the effect of presunset lighting, which seems to envelop the whole scene in a delicate pink haze. However, on the whole the artist did retain the colour treatment he had achieved in the study, as well as the plein air accents (specifically, the group of patricians in dark clothing by the wall, the emperor’s scintillating golden litter in the centre, and the figure of a man holding a piece of red material in the foreground, ready to give the signal for the execution to begin).
All this leads us to regard this study not only as the closest we have to the final version of the famous picture, but a separate page in the biography of Semiradsky. This is particularly the case, as according to the recollections of his contemporaries the artist was always as proud of his studies as he was of the finished works (“his studies always won first prizes”). Semiradsky himself admitted to a friend from his Academy days, the historical and religious painter Karl Venig, that “studies are his domain” and that, when composing them, he feels “right at home”.
The immense, Europe-wide furore that accompanied Leading Light of Christianity. Nero’s Torches brought Semiradsky fame in his lifetime, the title of professor, a gold medal at the Paris World’s Fair, the French order of the Légion d’honneur and, indeed, requests for a repetition of this composition. However, despite the abundance of works in Semiradsky’s legacy that are associated with the Leading Light, this study offered here for auction remains one of the most harmonious, inspired and self-contained of the artist’s images.