Few literary writers have left their mark on the realm of thought and art as fiercely as Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novels and stories have brought forth – with an incredible pathos and novelty – questions that are seared into the condition humaine. Dostoevsky’s feat to give flesh and blood to various philosophical, psychological and theological debates has enticed poets, philosophers, theologians, artists and film directors. The ideas presented in books such as The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov have been of an enduring value, as they continue to echo in the works of many thinkers.
Among those who stand on the shoulders of this gambling, bearded, Russian giant is the great Andrei Tarkovsky, a giant in his own right in the field of cinema. Although living a century apart from Dostoevsky, Tarkovsky has proven himself to be a faithful disciple of Dostoevsky by touching upon the same subjects and debates as Dostoevsky, and by craftily imbuing his films with considerable philosophical depth. This is evident in films such as Stalker, Solaris and, as the focus of this essay, Andrei Rublëv. Andrei Rublëv, a fictionalized epic based on the famous Russian icon painter, is of particular interest, because in this film, I argue, Tarkovsky weaves Dostoevsky’s religious views – as espoused in The Brothers Karamazov – into the narrative fabric of Andrei’s life’s journey.
And thus I have set out the goal of this brief essay: to argue that the titular character of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublëv represents key facets of Dostoevsky’s religious views. However, it must be noted that my argument is based on a specific interpretation of Dostoevsky’s religious views. There are, of course, various interpretations of various facets of Dostoevsky’s thought, but I aim to make use of the interpretation given by Igor’ Evlampiev, a noted scholar on Russian thought.
To achieve this goal, I have divided this essay in two parts. Firstly, I will present Evlampiev’s interpretation of Dostoevsky’s religious views, and thereby lay the foundation for an investigation of the story of Andrei Rublëv itself. Secondly, I will sketch out the plot of Andrei Rublëv, focusing on the scenes that are relevant to my argument, and view them via the aforementioned interpretation of Dostoevsky. I conclude with some general remarks.
I am of the belief that viewing the story of Andrei Rublëv through such a lens may reveal the depth of Andrei’s spiritual odyssey and provide a greater understanding of the religious background at play in the film. And, because our enjoyment of art increases with our understanding of it, I hope it may contribute to a greater appreciation of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece. At the same time I must emphasize that I have no pretentions of having discovered the ‘true’ interpretation to one of Tarkovsky’s works, but rather of having found a fruitful way to engage with a work of art.
Dostoevsky and Religion
Before we turn to Tarkovsky, Evlampiev’s interpretation of Dostoevsky must be understood. Although there are various elements to this interpretation, I focus on those that are relevant to my argument. Key is the idea of joy. Here, joy is understood as an experience of ‘mystical plenitude’. That is, the attainment of an absolute completeness of existence, a ‘fullness’ of life. This joy is the foundation of our Being and gives us a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the entirety of the universe. As noted above, joy is a mystical sensation: it is about a merger with the divine, and as such cannot be grasped intellectually. It is about the way we relate to God. It should be evident that the ‘flavour’ of Christianity Dostoevsky is propagating is mystical Christianity.1
For Dostoevsky, humanity is able to acquire perfection and enter into an eternal union with God.
The other type of Christianity is Orthodox Christianity, the Christianity that is recognized throughout history and that is represented by the (Orthodox) Church. This ‘traditional’ and ‘Orthodox’ view of Christianity conceives humanity as sinful and imperfect. As such, humans are barred from truly unifying with God on earth. Mystical Christianity, the Christianity advocated by Dostoevsky, disagrees on this point. For Dostoevsky, humanity is able to acquire perfection and enter into an eternal union with God. It is our task to strive towards this earthly perfection via this mystical joy, the precise character of which I will address further on. For Dostoevsky, the distinction between ‘Orthodox’ and ‘mystical’ Christianity is, respectively, the distinction between ‘dark’ and ‘light’ Christianity.2
As is typical with Dostoevsky, the ideas that he engages with are voiced via the various characters that inhabit his works. The religious ideas sketched above are no exception to this tendency. It is the The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s magnum opus,that represents the aforementioned religious views the most vividly. In this work, Dostoevsky voices said ‘dark’ and ‘light’ Christianity via two characters: Father Feropont and Father Zosima, respectively. I cannot give a general outline of The Brothers Karamazov here, as the plot is too complex and multifaceted to briefly summarize, nor is such a summary necessary for my argument. A short description of those characters that are relevant to this essay is adequate enough.
Firstly, the cantankerous Father Feropont, Dostoevsky’s representative of Orthodox Christianity. It should be of no surprise that Dostoevsky paints him rather negatively: Feropont is a misanthropic monk who has entirely withdrawn from the earthly world and engages in rigorous ascetic lifestyle. Father Feropont is a crazy and odd character, one who believes that there are tiny devils everywhere. It is obvious Dostoevsky wants us to think that Feropont is a character we ought not to take too seriously.
Secondly, we have Father Zosima, the embodiment of what Dostoevsky considers to be the ‘true’ version of Christianity. Father Zosima symbolizes said mystical Christianity because Zosima believes in the potential perfection of humanity, he believes in the ‘fullness of life’ via mystical joy. For Zosima, humanity can realize paradise on earth. This belief is brought forth the most adequately when Zosima quotes his deceased brother: “life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we won’t see it; if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.”3
Zosima – and per extension, Dostoevsky – believes that via a mystical understanding, that the world is governed by an absolute unity between humanity and God, we may achieve a union between ourselves, one another, and God. This requires a transformation of humanity’s Being, a transformation that happens through joy.4
However, a specific type of joy is required. A type of joy that is constituted by both a ‘lower’ and a ‘higher’ aspect. The ‘higher’ type of joy is the idea of a true religious belief. That is, the belief in the possible divinity and perfection of humanity. The ‘lower’ type of joy, however, has to do with a completeness of life, with the possession of a life energy which is necessarily required to truly affirm one’s religious belief. The tragedy of Ivan Karamazov’s character in The Brothers Karamazov is found in his inability to appropriate, besides the ‘higher’ form of joy, this ‘lower’ aspect of joy. Ivan is unable to ‘ground’ the religious view of perfection in the earthly life. The opposite is the case for Dmitri Karamazov, who only possesses a voluptuousness of life, a thirst for earthly life, without connecting it to the true religious idea.5
In short, two strands of Christianity are at play in The Brothers Karamazov. On the one hand, there is the ‘dark’, Orthodox Christianity – represented by Father Feropont – that conceives humanity as sinful and imperfect. Opposed to this type of Christianity, is the mystical Christianity, that believes in humanity’s potential to achieve a merger with God and thereby a plenitude of Being. This mystical plenitude is conceived as joy, which consists of two elements. Dostoevsky advocates for this strand of Christianity via the character of Father Zosima. It is against the background of this opposition, that we may trace the journey of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublëv and brand him as a Dostoevskian hero.
Briefly put, the story of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublëv is the story of a gifted artist who is struggling with his own art, religion, and a sense of purpose amidst great historical events. The story is set in 15th century Russia, or to be more accurate, the area that would later be part of what we would now consider ‘Russia’. This was a turbulent time, as the Mongol-Tatar Golden Horde served as a constant threat, sacking and enslaving cities and rural areas. It is during this epoch, where violence was ever looming, that Andrei Rublëv lived.
The Andrei we meet at the beginning of the film is one who can only participate in the higher form of joy.
The Andrei we meet at the beginning of the film is one who can only participate in the higher form of joy. That is, joy as the belief in the divine origin of humanity and the possibility of attaining perfection as a person. Here, Andrei’s fate is akin to that of Ivan’s. Andrei is not able to truly experience joy. What is required to experience joy in its totality, the ‘lower’ type of joy, is something Andrei cannot find. This is evident in act two, when Kirill, a fellow monk and icon painter, jealous of Andrei’s talent, says of Andrei: “But he is lacking – fear and faith – the faith that comes from one’s heart.”6 Andrei does not possess the voluptuousness of life, the life energy that is required to truly give weight to religious belief.
This lack is further expressed in act four, when Andrei, whilst travelling, is confronted with a group of pagans performing their forest rituals in the nude, celebrating and holding joyous festivities. In the grip of curiosity, Andrei sneaks into the forest and quietly tries to observe the feast and the free acts of eroticism the pagans partake in. However, Andrei is discovered and bound to a pillar. He is freed by a naked pagan woman who tries to convince Andrei of the value of their way of life, but she is rebuked by Andrei, who describes their ways as beastly. In other words, it is sinful behaviour.
That same year, in 1408, Andrei, together with his entourage, completes the task they were given: furnishing the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir with religious iconography. However, as Tarkovsky subtly demonstrates, the work of the artist is always subject to the whims of political conjuncture. That is, the brother of the Grand Duke of Moscow, eager to acquire power and frustrated with his brother, raids the city of Vladimir, assisted by Tatar forces. The Assumption Cathedral is plundered, and Andrei’s works are destroyed.
During the siege on the cathedral, one of the plunderers tries to rape a woman – a ‘holy fool’7 – that Andrei is sympathetic towards. To prevent this from happening, Andrei decapitates the rapist, but is left with an agonizing sense of guilt. Unable to cope with the fact that he has taken a life and broken over the destruction of his art and the emptiness of the violence in the world, Andrei vows to never speak or paint again.
Andrei’s attempt to repent for his sins is representative of the aforementioned ‘dark’ Christianity. That is traditional Orthodox Christianity. Not only is Andrei’s conception of himself as ‘sinful’ and ‘imperfect’ characteristic of this view, but Andrei’s withdrawal from earthly life by refusing to speak or paint, by refusing to engage with the world and its people, is very ‘Feropontian’. By severing his connection to the world, Andrei plunges into asceticism and acts akin to Father Feropont, Dostoevsky’s representative of the worst facets of Orthodoxy.
Fifteen years after the sack of the Assumption Cathedral, Andrei remains committed to neither speak nor paint. However, the affairs of the world continue, and the Grand Prince orders the construction of a new bell tower for the city of Vladimir. Boris, an adolescent boy and son of a famous, but deceased bellmaker, convinces the Grand Duke’s envoys to put him in charge of the construction, asserting that he is the only one to know the secret technique to do the job successfully, a technique he says his late father taught him.
While a few dozen workers undertake this monumental and strenuous task under the supervision of the confident and self-assured Boris, an aged Andrei quietly observes the young boy from afar, intrigued by the boy’s ability to single-handedly organize the construction of such an arduous undertaking. As time passes and the project nears completion, Boris appears visibly tired and in disbelief with regard to his own success. The Grand Duke, his entourage, foreign diplomats, and the inhabitants of the city of Vladimir gather to witness the unveiling of the completed bell, eagerly awaiting the first ringing of the bell.
The moment of truth approaches and the tension is rising, as failure will surely have dire consequences for Boris. However, the bell successfully rings and the crowd erupts into joy, celebrating, cheering, and waving. Andrei is impressed by the joy that is created by Boris’ work and realizes that his own work might bring about joy too. Whilst walking away from the crowd, Andrei discovers an utterly exhausted and sobbing Boris on the ground. Boris, who is unable to appreciate his own success, breaks down crying, admitting to Andrei that his father never told him the secret technique. In an absolutely beautiful moment of compassion, Andrei holds the boy in his arms and comforts him, breaking his vow of silence and uttering his first words after fifteen years, telling the boy:
Don’t [cry]… Don’t… Look how it turned out… We’ll go together… I’ll paint icons, you’ll pour bells. Hm? Let’s go? Let’s go to the Trinity [Monastery], let’s work together. What a feast for the people. What joy he created, and still he cries.8
It is at this moment, when confronted with the joy Boris enables in people, that Andrei attains the “mystical plenitude of one’s existence and his mergence with the whole universe.”9 Andrei discovers that true religious belief is found within the joy he discovers through Boris. The higher joy Andrei possessed is now complemented by the lower joy, the joy of the people that is brought about by art, festivities, and pleasurable things. Andrei changes from a Feropont-figure to a Zosima-figure: one who trades a strict, ascetic Orthodoxy for a mystical experience of joy, directed at the joy for others, for the world.
From the exposition on Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublëv I provided above, it appears evident that many of the motives in Dostoevsky’s view on religion reappear in this artistic representation of Andrei Rublëv’s life. In the beginning, Andrei is steeped in ‘dark’ Orthodox Christianity, being able to only experience the ‘higher’ form of joy. In agony over his and the world’s actions throughout the film, Andrei plunges further into this ‘dark’ Christianity, withdrawing from the world and its sins. However, when confronted with the joy that a young adolescent – Boris – brings about in the people, Andrei is reinvigorated and attains the mystical understanding that is found in joy to truly transform. It is on the basis of these points that I argue that Andrei Rublëv is a ‘religious hero’ in the Dostoevskian sense. I think there are many other facets of Andrei’s story, subtle or explicit, that are worthy of the ‘Dostoevskian’ analysis I practiced above. These could be the topic for a longer, future essay.
- Igor Evlampiev, “The Concept of Joy in the Context of F. Dostoevskij’s Understanding of the Essence of Religious Belief,” Studies in East European Thought 66 (2014), no. 1/2: 142. ↵
- Evlampiev, “The Concept of Joy in the Context of F. Dostoevskij’s Understanding of the Essence of Religious Belief,” 139. ↵
- Evlampiev, “The Concept of Joy in the Context of F. Dostoevskij’s Understanding of the Essence of Religious Belief,” 140. ↵
- Evlampiev, “The Concept of Joy in the Context of F. Dostoevskij’s Understanding of the Essence of Religious Belief,” 140. ↵
- Evlampiev, “The Concept of Joy in the Context of F. Dostoevskij’s Understanding of the Essence of Religious Belief,” 143. ↵
- Andrei Tarkovsky, dir., Andrei Rublëv (Columbia Pictures, 1966), Youtube, 00:21:09-00:21:24, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7a944HD-TJ0. ↵
- In Eastern Christianity, a ‘holy fool,’ is one who acts in a foolish or insane as a form of piety. It may be considered a peculiar form of asceticism. This ‘foolish’ behavior is often done on purpose, but in the case of the ‘holy fool’ in Andrei Rublëv, this does not seem to be so. ↵
- Не надо, не надо… Вот и всё… ну и хорошо… Видишь, как всё получилось… ну и хорошо. Вот и хорошо… Вот и пойдем мы с тобой вместе… Ну чего ты?… Я иконы писать, ты колокола лить… А?.. Пойдём?.. Пойдём с тобой в Троицу, пойдём работать… Какой праздник-то для людей… Какую радость сотворил и ещё плачет… (I am the first to admit that this translation is possibly very flawed. The translation has been brought about through a mix of my basic Russian, a dictionary, and online instruments. I am nonetheless of the opinion that it adequately brings forth the joy that Andrei discovers.) ↵
- This quote originates from the faculty lecture Professor Evlampiev had given on 09-03-2020, titled “The reflections on true Christianity by L. Tolstoy, F. Dostoevsky and F. Nietzsche” ↵