Boyarynya Morozova

Boyarynya Morozova
Vasily Surikov. Boyarynya Morozova. 1887. Oil on canvas. State Tretyakov Gallery

Boyarynya Morozova – the famous painting by Vasily Surikov, which reveals an episode from the life of an equally famous person. It presents the events of November 1671, when the noblewoman Theodosia Morozova was sent into exile from a Moscow house by order of the Russian Tsar. She was one of those personalities who became a symbol of the Old Believers in Russia. The painting itself, which appeared at the fifteenth exhibition of Itinerant artists, became a special milestone in the development of Russian painting. It has everything – drama, historical truth, hidden images, brightness of characters and surroundings. How and when was “Boyarynya Morozova” written? Why did the personality of the noblewoman arouse such interest of the painter?


The end of the XIX century for Russian art was marked by an increased interest in its own roots – both culture and history. Used to be dominated by certain Western trends. And now writers and poets, sculptors and artists are trying to reveal the essence of the Russian soul and the past of Russia. This is especially clearly reflected in the painting. An example of this is the painting by Vasily Surikov “Boyarynya Morozova”.

According to scientists, Surikov’s interest in the history of the Old Believers appeared in his youth. The early years of the future artist were spent in Siberia, where there were many supporters of the “old” faith, which made up the lives. It is assumed that the godmother introduced the young Surikov to the text of The Tale of the Boyaryn Morozova, which describes the life and death of Feodosia Prokopyevna.


In November 1671 Boyaryna Morozova was arrested together with her sister Evdokia. Attempts have been made on several occasions to urge women to abandon their former beliefs. The old religious principles and their supporters caused a split in society, and the king himself fully supported the new church reforms. It was not the faith itself that changed, but some of its important aspects and even symbols. So, for example, the reformers demanded to abandon the use of two fingers for baptism, since in Europe they were baptized with three. Many church books had a lot of mistakes and mistakes, and therefore they had to be rewritten.
And if the patriarch, together with the tsar, insisted on using Greek texts as the basis, then the boyarynya Morozova and other Old Believers advocated working with ancient Russian books. The sisters Theodosia and Evdokia were tortured. Some considered Morozov a saint, others an apostate. The people even wanted to burn the unwanted boyar, but the council of sixteen boyars stood up for a representative of a noble family. This did not save Morozova – she died in a monastery earthen prison from exhaustion.


However, in Surikov’s painting, we still cannot see the further fate of Morozova, but she reveals to us the scene of her departure. As described in the book of the historian A. M. Panchenko “On Russian History and Culture”, at the moment when the boyar’s sleighs were passing the monastery, she folded her hand into two fingers, “lifting high, often fencing with a cross, and often ringing the headdress.” It was a symbol and gesture of disobedience, endless faith in the old ideals and principles.

It is this episode that we see on Surikov’s canvas. The artist himself said that the crow that fought in the snow pushed him to write the picture. It must be admitted that the main character of the canvas really does have some resemblance to this bird. The prototype for the image of Morozova was a woman whose name has not been preserved in history. She was also a supporter of the Old Believers, Surikov met her at the Rogozhsky cemetery.

However, the type of the boyaryn became mixed – the features of the artist’s aunt, Avdotya Torgoshina, are noticeable in it. The painter had more than a hundred sketches on which portraits of heroes were painted, which later took their place in the picture. The history of art keeps the legend that initially Surikov allegedly wanted to use a small canvas. But he could not fit all the characters he had conceived on it. As a result, a canvas of 304 × 587.5 cm was chosen.


The central and truly magnetic image of the picture is the boyarynya herself. One of the richest people in Russia, she rides on a simple sleigh covered with straw. This is a symbol of the upcoming torture, torment and starvation. At the time of her arrest, she was only 43 years old, but the canvas shows almost an old woman. Exhausted and haggard, she does not lose her fortitude, she is ready to repulse her enemies at any moment. Physical weakness and spiritual strength are incredibly intertwined in this image. She knows she is doomed to perish, but she will never back down from her ideals.

The crowd is no less vividly depicted. The artist found samples of 17th century costumes to reflect the events of that time as truthfully as possible. A motley crowd can be viewed for a very long time, and the most amazing thing is people’s emotions. They are extremely contradictory, because someone sincerely regrets Morozova, someone is inspired by her courage, someone looks condemning or even laughs.

Please note that only the holy fool sitting in the snow answers with a two-fingered boyaryna. Others, even her supporters, are afraid to turn out to be objectionable to the tsar, and therefore do not dare to take a bold step. Sleigh with Morozova seem to split people – just as the ideas and principles of Old Believers and reformers split society.
“Boyarynya Morozova” is a striking picture filled with dynamics and emotions that Vasily Surikov has masterfully managed to convey.

The canvas was written in 1884-1887, but the events of the second half of the 17th century are shown in it absolutely accurately. All the details are realistic and truthful. As art critic Galina Churak noted, looking at Surikov’s creation. “We become involuntary not just accomplices – we witness what we see – we enter this inner atmosphere of the picture”. And this is the truly mystical attraction of “Boyarynya Morozova”.

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