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NIKOLAI KONSTANTINOVICH ROERICH
'Corona Mundi,' 1921
Sold for £434,500 (RUB 34,895,427) inc. premium
THE RUSSIAN SALE
LONDON, NEW BOND STREET
Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich (Russian, 1874-1947)
'Corona Mundi,' 1921
signed with artist's monogram (lower right), verso with affixed label on stretcher '172 Corona Mundi / Crown of the World / NR', stretcher bars and interior of the frame inscribed with additional numbers, frame with applied sticker with number '186'
tempera on canvas
143 x 91cm (56 5/16 x 35 13/16in).
N. Roerich Museum, New York. c. 1921
Collection of Nettie & Louis Horch, c. 1935
Acquired from the above by a private American collector, c. 1989
By descent to the present owner, 1990
Roerich Museum Catalogue, 8th edition, New York: Roerich Museum, 1930, page 17, no 172
The Architectural Record, New York, 1921, August, cover illustration
In 1920, the Chicago Art Institute invited Roerich to tour some of his most significant works throughout the United States. 'Corona Mundi,' or 'Crown of the World,' was one of 400 works the artist chose to bring on this travelling exhibition. The painting executed in 1921 is remarkably complex in its symbolic language and in its artistic message.
Compositionally, the work can be traced back to a series of thirteen paintings commissioned in 1914 by L.S. Livschits for a private chapel in his villa in Nice. Each panel was to depict an allegorical Tree of Life between a pair of male and female saints. It was the only monumental architectural project the artist would undertake in his career.
The use of symbolism was particularly important for Roerich in this period. Cataclysmic social and political changes coinciding with the outbreak of the First World War fostered Roerich's interest in a new symbolic language, and universal messages began to permeate his works. Turning away from subjects associated with the impermanence of daily life, Roerich instead sought tropes that could transcend the constraints of time and geography. Roerich's work in this time was therefore characterized by his utilization of a universal symbolic language that could embody ideals that spoke to a deep spiritualism, and to which he would return throughout his career. In the words of a critic, 'He populated his world not with participants in transitory dramas and comedies, but with spokesmen for the most steadfast ideas about the truth of life, the millennial struggle of good and evil, the triumphal procession of a bright future for all.'
'Corona Mundi' was meant to resemble a rich, elaborate tapestry, a sacred cloth unveiling an important message about the unity of the spiritual and the earthly, the eternal and the quotidian. The muted tones, deep olive greens, warm reds, and soft browns, create a balanced colour palette, while the minimalist style brings to focus the allegorical significance of the composition. A female and a male saint stand on either side of the Tree of Life, holding in their hands the crown of the Kingdom of Heaven and a church, respectively, to simultaneously symbolize both the union of the divine and earthly realms, as well as the spiritual offerings of sacrifice and charity to humanity. Within the roots of the tree rests an eagle, with bowed head and closed eyes, symbolic of a fiery baptism, while doves of peace, signifiers of the pure and good, rest peacefully in its branches.
Nikolai Roerich repeatedly returned to the image of Tree of Life, tracing its significance to early apocalyptic visions and medieval Russian religious teachings. He wrote: 'Before the war there were dreams...Saint Prokopiy spoke: do not abandon the Earth. The Earth is fiery hot, scorched by evil. The heat tests the roots of the Tree of Life, but Good weaves holy nests in its branches up above...Guard the Tree of Life, for it is where Good dwells. The Earth is the source of sorrow, but from sorrow grows joy...' For Roerich, the Tree of Life therefore came to symbolize man himself, who according to Roerich, should constantly be conscious of bringing together the divine and the earthly. As an artist and philosopher, Roerich always sought to find the balance between the present, physical world and the ephemeral, metaphysical one. 'Corona Mundi' therefore embodies the artist's lifelong philosophy to unite the earthly world with the spiritual. Seen in this light, 'Corona Mundi' emerges as Roerich's most significant allegorical work to ever appear on the art market.
We are grateful to Mr. Gvido Trepša, Senior Researcher at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York for his assistance in researching the present lot.