|“Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks” by Ilya Repin. 1880-91. (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)|
Copyright © Edward Riojas
Once in a great while, an old story begs repeating – like today.
While recently researching a Russian art movement, I ran across an artist and one of his more famous works – both unknown to me. I have a strong hunch you aren’t familiar with the two, either. Given untold numbers of pieces created by artists, and given the limited examples studied during an art history education, there are bound to be massive gaps in knowledge. It’s okay. My own mind is rather like Swiss cheese, too, when it comes to art history.
I could have ignored the painting, but recent events stained by Islamic knuckleheads have given ample reason to dust off the painting and re-tell its story. I am talking about Ilya Repin’s “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks,” painted during 1880-91.
The canvas is rather large at 6 feet, 8 inches tall by 11 feet, 9 inches wide, but the scale is not so unusual for a composition packed with figures in a historical drama. The word “drama” isn't quite right, because the painting is definitely a comedy. In fact, a quick glance at some of the figures in the painting may hearken to conventions more commonly used in Mad Magazine. But before we closely look at what is being depicted, let’s stay serious for a bit and examine its artistic qualities.
Regarding composition, the piece is quite stable – perhaps even static. The artist placed the horizon near the upper third of the painting, following a comfortable design norm. The sky is punctuated by vertical and near vertical lines of weapons held aloft, which adds interest, along with a scuffling of diagonals in the center. The foreground figures are arranged in a circle, which translates to an ellipse when foreshortened. The focus of the painting is within the center of this ellipse. All this is held together with muted color that leans toward an earthen palette.
But enough of the composition; enough of the color – you want the story. Fine.
The painting depicts the completion and reading of a written reply to the Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, who had offered terms of obeisance and submission after being troubled with a defeat at the hands of the surly Cossacks. It is a scene that was certainly contrived, as is common with monumental, historical events lacking luster and devoid of theatrical sunshine.
During the time when Repin worked on the painting, Zaporozhian Cossacks were held in high regard by Russian society. They were glorified as underestimated heroes. Visions of the Battling Bastards of Bastogne should come to mind. There is something very endearing about underdogs who get ornery, say what’s on their minds, and manage the unfathomable.
The Sultan’s request of the Cossacks used some rather highfalutin language – especially when written for a bunch of rustics:
“Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian Cossacks:
As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians - I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.
– Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV”
You should be able to guess the gist of the Cossacks’ reply if only by studying the painting. Mind you, these were the same folks who had recently defeated the Sultan in battle. Their words were worthy of the saltiest sailor; their candor, laughable; their jesting, hysterical. Unfortunately, most of the foul translation is not very appropriate for even this curmudgeonly blog. You’ll have to hunt for that version on your own, but you can get the flavor of their reply in this gentler translation of the message:
“The Cossacks of the Dnieper to the Sultan of Turkey:
Thou Turkish Satan, brother and companion to the accursed Devil, and companion to Lucifer himself, Greetings! What the hell kind of noble knight art thou? The Devil voids, and thy army devours. Never wilt thou be fit to have the sons of Christ under thee: thy army we fear not, and by land and on sea we will do battle against thee. Thou scullion of Babylon, thou wheelwright of Macedonia, thou beer-brewer of Jerusalem, thou goat-flayer of Alexandria, thou swineherd of Egypt, both the Greater and the Lesser, thou sow of Armenia, thou goat of Tartary, thou hangman of Kamenetz, thou evildoer of Podoliansk, thou grandson of the Devil himself, thou great silly oaf of all the world and of the netherworld and, before our God, a blockhead, a swine's snout, a mare's arse, a butcher's cur, an unbaptized brow, May the Devil take thee! That is what the Kozaks have to say to thee, thou basest-born of runts! Unfit art thou to lord it over true Christians!
The date we write not for no calendar have we got; the moon is in the sky, the year is in a book, and the day is the same with us here as with thee over there, and thou canst kiss us thou knowest where!
– Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host.”
I don’t think I need to draw the parallels for you to see the resolve of a different culture in time dealing with a mutual enemy. Repin, in masterful manner, has captured the essence of the historical moment in the guise of fine art. And amid the seriousness of it all, we smile.