I absolutely love this painting. It’s just two people walking in a pastoral setting, but there is so much there to see. It was painted in 1917, in the midst of the ongoing turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution that would result in one of these men being exiled and the other dead. The former, the man in the background wearing a black suit, is Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. The one in the front is Fr. Pavel Florensky. Bulgakov gave his own thoughts of this work. Frs. Bulgakov and Florensky are pensive: revolution is upon them and their beloved Russia. Each as a way of expressing their concern. Though the painting was done in Fr. Florensky’s back yard, the setting is actually that of the woods of the Monastery of Saint Sergius. Fitting. You can read his thoughts and much more here.
Umberto Eco once said that an author should die once his or her work has been published; their intended meaning of the text is irrelevant once the text has been finished – it is up to the reader, not the writer, to derive meaning. With this in mind, I offer my own interpretation Nesterov’s work.
Orthodox theology has been in a bit of a stale age. Why this is happening is anyone’s guess. Certainly the horrors of the Communist revolution and the subsequent generation of misery did not help. Neither has the recent phenomenon of phyletism which is increasing rather than decreasing been of any help. But there were other places, other strains, that could have picked up where the writers of the late 19th and early 20th century left off. Instead there has been a palamist resurgence in the form of neo-patristics and a neo-athonite insistence on hesychasm being the sole means through which theology is “done”.
Bulgakov and Florensky are the Orthodox writers of the early 20th century par excellence. On several occasions John Milbank has told me that he believes that Bulgakov is the greatest theologian (not just Orthodox theologian) of the 20th century. And while Bulgakov was writing amazing works of vast scope and depth, Florensky, a polymath, was infusing his theology into everything he did, including his works on imaginary numbers, physics, and electrical engineering.
In this painting, then, I see the hope of Orthodoxy. I do not see it limited to one man, but in the unity of the two – a dialogue, not a monologue. They are walking together, along a common path. They are close, indicating the closeness of their friendship, but also of their common journey. Bulgakov, in his business suit, is deep in thought. He is pensive. He is working out the complexities of his theological and philosophical concepts, seemingly in a worldly manner – in a school, a seminary. He is dealing with critics, detractors, and others who are more eager to attack than try to understand. Maybe he’s going to talk at Cambridge, or Oxford, or Basel, or Harvard. At any rate, he has the vast richness of Orthodox thought, hymnography, and hagiography at his disposal He’s brilliant, and he’s formidable. He’s trailblazing.
Pavel Florensky is altogether different. He is no less pensive, no less formidable, but where Bulgakov is seemingly fretful, Florensky is interior, deep in prayer. In Florensky the glory of God saturates everything. God is always revealing something; you just need the eyes to see it. Those “eyes” come from intense study and from a life shaped in prayer, reverberating with the love God has for us, his prized creation. So where Sergei Bulgakov frets and furrows, Pavel Florensky exudes prayer and peace.
And that is the glory of Orthodoxy.In these two, the wrestling of the intellect and the peaceableness of the nous are merged into one. There is always work to be done, and the work is intense and the work is challenging. But the beauty of God is everywhere, if you have the eyes to see. Those eyes come from that very work, and from the devoted life in prayer that is expected of everyone who calls him or herself a Christian.