Antokolskii’s Inquisition

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When Mark Antokolskii published his autobiography in a major St. Petersburg monthly, Vestnik Evropy [“The Herald of Europe”] in autumn 1887, it was during unprecedented state anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia. The autobiography celebrates the liberal culture in St. Petersburg of the 1860s, when he grew into an artist as a student at the Imperial Academy of Art. The translated excerpt below describes how Antokolskii came to make the clay model of the relief, “The Raid of the Inquisition on the Jews during Passover,” as a product of his own search for beauty in art. In the short introduction, I explain that although this specific piece remained unfinished to the end of his life, its artistic concept was the philosophical undercurrent of his artistic creativity and placed his conception of Jewish identity at the very heart of his art.


A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture




Stasov, Mark Antokolskii, 941.


As Marcus Moseley reminds us, “it is the wider socio-historical processes that must be taken into account in explaining the origins and persistence of the autobiographical impulse,” Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 446, and it is important to understand “the wider socio-historical processes” that provided the background to Antokolskii’s autobiographical account of partiality or bigotry. The divisions in the Academy largely reflected the pluralistic nature of the Great Reforms. In contrast to the emerging “open society” in Western or Central Europe and the United States, with the four-estates system (nobility, clergy, townspeople, and peasants) gradually streamlined into upper and lower social classes, the Great Reforms multiplied “soslovie” (literally “estates,” but by the 1860s denoted “castes”) consisting of corporate-like communities with familial, cultural, geographic, and economic ties. For example, Antokolskii belonged to the corporate-like Jewish community of Vilna, which had its own self-governing and taxation systems. These “castes” overlapped with the emerging social classes, due to industrialization, and all groups were simultaneously brought under an excruciatingly multivariate legal system of “four statuses,” akin to the four-estates of pre-modern Europe. See, Gregory L. Freeze, “The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History,” The American Historical Review 91.1 (Feb., 1986): 11–36. The Academy therefore belonged to “castes” close to the royal court. Although helped by the emergence of the raznochintsy (“those of different ranks)” in the Academy, as the first and only Jew, Antokolskii was quite a minority.


Stasov, Mark Matveevich Antokolskii, 901.


Musya Glants, Where Is My Home?: the Art and Life of the Russian Jewish Sculptor Mark Antokolsky, 1843–1902 (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), 109.


See, Gintsburg, “Antokolskii, Mark Matveevich,” Evreiskaia Entsiklopedia, 796. Some of Antokolskii’s Jewish subjects include Moses, Samson, Deborah, Shylock, Jeremiah, and a Cantonist, which, like the Inquisition, were never finished. In the Soviet period, Antokolskii was considered to be an important sculptor in Russian history, but his Jewish background was diminished in importance or completely ignored. An example of this is Kuznetsova’s M. M. Antokol’skii: Zhiznʹ I Tvorchestvo (Moscow, 1989), which is the first monograph on Antokolskii in any language. Kuznetsova suggests that Antokolskii begins his autobiography when he was already in St. Petersburg as he disliked his Jewish upbringing. This is totally false. The autobiography is about how Antokolskii became an artist, a process that began in St. Petersburg. In fact, every summer, Antokolskii returned to Vilna. At one point in the autobiography, he writes that the Jewish community in Vilna “has nothing grand or fascinating, but it is calming with its [natural] harmony,” Stasov, Mark Matveevich Antokolskii, 906. Also, Antokolskii planned on settling down with his new wife in Vilna in 1869, before his health forced him to opt for a warmer climate in Italy (Agranovskii, 173–174).


Kuznetsova, M. M. Antokol’skii, 53. He refers to the realist painters like his close student friend and roommate, Ilya Repin, or, Ivan Kramskoi, among others.


Letter to Stasov, December 20, 1876, in Stasov, Mark Matveevich Antokolskii, 288.


Kuznetsova, M. M. Antokol’skii, 50.


Glants, Where Is My Home?, xxii. Also, according to Glants, they were examples of “devotion to humanity—martyrs for truth and kindness,” idem. 171.


Letter, January 28, 1874. Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” (found in Part V, Chapter 5 in Brothers Karamazov) is based on Luke 4:1–13 and the “three temptations” in Matthew 4:1–11. Many Christian thinkers in the twentieth century saw Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” as a prophecy of the rise of the totalitarian state, specifically in the deep, echoing, and climactic silence of Jesus condemned to death by the Grand Inquisitor for allowing freedom of faith in the world. To the best of my knowledge there is no connection between Antokolskii’s and Dostoevsky’s representations of Jesus. Nevertheless, Antokolskii’s Jesus predates The Brothers Karamazov and it is not unlikely that Dostoevsky read the coverage of the public controversy that Antokolskii’s Jesus aroused in Russia in 1873. On the controversy and Antokolskii’s Jesus, see Olga Litvak, “Rome and Jerusalem: The Figure of Jesus in the Creation of Mark Antokol’skii,” in The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, ed. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 441–496.


Letter, March 2, 1877, in Stasov, Mark Matveevich Antokolskii, 305. He later wrote on representation of Jews, “it is necessary to know them as I do. It is also necessary for one to live among them and to feel how life boils. . . .,” Glants, Where is My Home?, 86. Apparently, toward the end of his life, Antokolskii worked on a novel or a “Jewish chronicle of Vilna” called “Isaak” (Ibid., 336), but no manuscript was ever found.


Kuznetsova, M. M. Antokol’skii, 253.


Letter to Stasov, June 25, 1895, in Stasov, Mark Matveevich Antokolskii, 788.


Stasov, Mark Matveevich Antokolskii, xxxvii.


When it was founded in 1875, the Preobrazhenskoye Jewish Cemetery was a section of the Preobrazhenskoye Christian Cemetery that was split off by train tracks after St. Petersburg started to undergo industrialization. The cemetery, with its many tombs and monuments for the wealthy and famous St. Petersburg Jews of late imperial Russia, was not maintained throughout soviet rule and suffered much wear and tear. Reconstructions began only in 2007. The monument for Antokolskii, who died at a Spa in Hamburg in July, 1902 was erected in 1909. The designer of the monument is unknown.


  • Mark Antokolskii, sketch for The Raid of the Inquisition on the Jews during Passover, (from Brockhaus and Efron, Jewish Encyclopedia 1906–1913, Wikimedia commons).
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