Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Mestrovic's Religious Works: From Sacred Motifs to Iconographic Programmes

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Mestrovic's Religious Works: From Sacred Motifs to Iconographic Programmes

Article excerpt

'The highest subject for art'

Raised in the small village of Otavice in the Dalmatian hinterland, Ivan Mestrovic spent his childhood in a deeply religious and patriarchal family, drawing inspiration from the Bible and national epic poetry. Those were the very first sources for his artistic creations and according to his mother, the first sculpture he ever made was the crucified Christ carved in wood.1 His views on the use of sacred motifs in art were stated in the monograph on his work published in 1919, and indicate why they became a continual theme throughout his work:

Mestrovic himself considers the religious cult the most beautiful product of mankind's soul and brain, and in consequence the highest subject for art. The Serbo-Croats as a nation, he says, are religious but not bigoted, and they cultivate and create faith, being thus artists in themselves.2

From 1912, when he created the Head of Christ in Otavice,3 until his death in 1962, religious motifs occupied a major part of his oeuvre. Numerous depictions of the Virgin, angels, saints and apostles, crucifixions and scenes from the Life of Christ occupied him. In addition to this, complete iconographic programmes were designed for and installed in the interiors of churches such as Our Lady of the Angels in Cavtat, the Most Holy Redeemer in Otavice, St Mark's Church in Zagreb, Our Lady in Biskupija and St Cross Chapel in Crikvine-Kastilac, in Split.

Mestrovic's reasons for turning to biblical themes in 1912/13 have been cited on numerous occasions. As for many other artists involved in and affected by the First World War, the presence of death and destruction impelled him to search for meaning in the emblematic example of suffering, that of the Passion of Christ. However, Mestrovic had an even more compelling reason to explore further themes and images already present in his work: the heroic Kosovo Cycle, imbued with nationalist sentiment, which stemmed from the centuries-long struggle of the Slavic people, expressed in his art with so much conviction and pathos. In the years just before the First World War, through his adherence to religious motifs, Mestrovic reached a more universal sense of grief and suffering, applicable to the whole of humankind, rather than just one nation. The artist himself said that 'the feeling of the general suffering of mankind then occupied a stronger place than that of just one's own people'.4

The exhibitions of Mestrovic's work in Britain and the introduction of religious motifs

The exhibitions of Mestrovic's works in Britain (London, 1915/1917; Bradford, 1918; Edinburgh, 1918; Brighton, 1919), which presented a new forceful sculpture, seized the attention of both public and critics. But it was the works devoted to religious subject matter that received the most praise, whether for their technical excellence or their spiritual melancholy.

In his religious works the choice of certain motifs was complemented by a modification of his visual language. The national ardour in the Kosovo Cycle and the sheer penetrative force of his muscular mythical heroes ceased before the catastrophe of the First World War. Its destructive forces were expressed through accentuated and at times grotesque details, emaciated forms and deformed anatomy. The sources for those visual forms were to be found in Gothic art, as Mestrovic recounted to Joza Kljakovic, a fresco painter and close friend:

I believe, Joza, that Gothic is the closest to the religious mystery. It strives to reach the heavens, just like a Gothic Man who aspires to stretch up to the heavens. Just like a tree in a shadow that grows to reach the sun, such is a Man who lives in spiritual darkness - and we all live in darkness - that wants to reach celestial light. This impelled me to rely upon the Gothic.5

Because of Mestrovic's ability to appreciate the effect of different materials, and also because of the working conditions in his studio, religious subjects tended to be executed in wood. …

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