18 August 2018

Tales of Russian love
and poetry in the mosaics
in Mullingar Cathedral

Saint Anna … Boris Anrep’s image in Mullingar Cathedral was inspired by his former lover, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

The works of art for which the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is most noted are the mosaics in the side chapels dedicated to Saint Patrick and Saint Anne. These are the work of the Russian-born mosaic artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969), a celebrated artist and socialite who is best known for his monumental mosaics at the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral, and the Bank of England in London.

The Saint Patrick mosaic depicts Saint Patrick lighting the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. In the Saint Anne mosaic, Saint Anne’s name is spelled Anna, and the image of Saint Anne resembles the poet Anna Akhmatova.

Boris and Anna had an affair in Russia during World War I. But Boris Anrep left Russia before the October Revolution, and did not contact Anna for 48 years. Yet, she remained the muse who haunted his imagination. She appears in several of his mosaics, but this one in Mullingar is the only to include her name. In return, up to 34 of her poems are about him.

In England, Boris was close to the Bloomsbury Group and was a leading figure in London social and intellectual life from 1912 until the mid-1960s. In Ireland, he is known for his mosaics in Mullingar Cathedral. In Russia, he is associated with the Silver Age of Russian Poetry as the focus of many beautiful poems by Anna Akhmatova, including her Tale of the Black Ring. Anrep was also friendly with Nikolay Gumilyov, an outstanding poet and Anna’s husband, and Nikolay Nedobrovo, a talented critic, two prominent figures of the 1910s in Saint Petersburg.

But how did this Russian love affair end up being depicted in Orthodox-style mosaics in a cathedral in a market town in the Irish Midlands, and in mosaics in the National Gallery in London?

Boris Anrep was born Boris Vasilyevich Anrep in St Petersburg on 27 September 1883. The Anrep family, originally from Westphalia, belongs to Swedish and Russian nobility and family members included famous army officers from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

His father, Vassily von Anrep, was a professor of forensic medicine. He held senior positions in the Russian education and interior ministries and was elected to the Duma, the Russian parliament, in 1907.

From 1899 to 1901, Boris went to school in Kharkov, where he first met Nikolay Nedobrovo. He spent the summer of 1899 learning English in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and from 1902 he studied law in St Petersburg,.

After Nedobrovo introduced Anrep to the painter Dmitri Stelletsky, Boris took an active in the creative arts. In 1904, Boris travelled with Stelletsky to Italy, and there he was enthralled by the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. It was on this visit that he determined to become a mosaic artist himself.

He graduated in law at St Petersburg in 1905. He also met Yunia Khitrovo that year, and they were married in 1908. He then abandoned his law studies and left for Paris to study art, followed by a year at the Edinburgh College of Art in 1910-1911.

In France, Boris had become friends with the painters Henry Lamb and Augustus John, and he soon befriended other English artists and intellectuals, including Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf. He fell in love with Helen Maitland, a friend of Augustus John’s wife Dorelia. They lived together from 1911, had two children, and got married in 1918. However, the marriage was unhappy, and Helen left him to become the lifelong companion of the artist and critic Roger Fry.

Anrep worked with the art critic Clive Bell on Roger Fry’s second Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912. He was in charge of the Russian section and presented pictures by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Nicholas Roerich.

His first success in London came in 1914 he created mosaics for the Crypt in Westminster Cathedral.

By now, Boris was writing poetry in Russian and in English, influenced by the English romantics, including Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. His poem Fiza was read in 1913 in his absence in St Petersburg and would give its name to the society of poets that included Anna Akhmatova, her husband Nikolay Gumilyov, and Osip Mandelstam and became the centre of Acmeism, a new trend in Russian poetry.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Anrep enlisted as an officer in the Russian army and fought in Galicia until 1916. Before joining the army, he visited Nedobrovo in Tsarskoe Selo and was introduced to Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), who lived nearby. They met continually during Anrep’s short breaks in St Petersburg.

Anna, who was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, is regarded as one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century.

Boris described their relationship as a ‘warm friendship,’ but for Anna it was intense and inspired over 30 poems that trace their affair from her early hopes and dreams to her bitter disappointment at their parting. They include 17 poems in her third book and 14 poems in her fourth book ‘devoted’ to Boris.

These poems suggest strongly that Anna was passionately in love with Boris. She sees him everywhere in his absence. She dreams of turning the inattentive Boris into an attentive lover, she imagines him as an angel who will reward her for all her suffering, she fantasises about how he would react if she took her own life, she sees herself abandoning everything to live with him as a beggar in a foreign city, and she rails against his eventual decision to leave Russia and to leave her for England in April 1917, and to live permanently in England.

Boris had been called back to London as Military Secretary to the Russian Government Committee. He never returned to Russia. The same year, Anna used a line from Fiza as an epigraph to her book White Flock.

Back in London, Boris resumed his work as an artist. In 1917-1920 he was commissioned to decorate the hall of the Chelsea home of the artist Ethel Sands. This included a turquoise blue floor with Byzantine characters (1917) and walls decorated with portraits of Lytton Strachey, his companion Dora Carrington, and Virginia Woolf in male costume (1920).

He made the mosaics Christus Militans and The Vision of Saint John for the chapel at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (1921). Another commission was the vestibule in Mayfair for Sir William Jowitt, showing Various Moments in the Life of a Lady of Fashion (1922). Lesley Jowitt was shown telephoning in bed, in her bath, and at a nightclub. In 1923, he decorated the octagonal room in the Tate Gallery with eight panels, illustrating ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake.

The trustees of Saint Sophia, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater, London, commissioned Boris in 1926 to execute a major set of mosaics in the sanctuary. He designed a scheme of Byzantine-style mosaics depicting the Incarnation and the mystery of the Eucharist. They depict the Nativity, the Hospitality of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity, and angels with the chalice at the Eucharist.

He was invited back to decorate other parts of the cathedral from 1932 to 1956, with full length figures of the Major Prophets, busts of the Minor Prophets, and depictions of Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher with the Christ Child.

Boris also created four colourful mosaics that decorate the imposing staircase built by Sir John Taylor in 1887 for the entrance hall of the National Gallery. The mosaics were paid for by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld and Maud Russell, wife of the banker Gilbert Russell and another of Boris Arnep’s lovers.

The four mosaics are ‘The Labours of Life’ (1928) in the west vestibule, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929) in the east vestibule, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929) in the east vestibule, ‘The Awakening of the Muses’ (1933) on the half-way landing.

Anna Akhmatova, portrayed as Caliope, appears with other contemporary figures in these mosaics, including Sir Osbert Sitwell (Apollo), Clive Bell (Bacchus), Diana Mitford (Polyhymnia), Virginia Woolf (Clio), Greta Garbo (Melpomene), Lady Keynes (Terpsichore), Lady Christabel Aberconway (Euterpe), Maria Volkova (Urania), Mary Hutchinson (Eratoas) and as Lady Lesley Jowitt (Thalia).

Boris returned to National Gallery in 1952 to create the mosaics depicting the ‘Modern Virtues’ in the north vestibule. Once again, Anna appears in Boris’s mosaics, this time as ‘Compassion,’ alongside Loretta Young, Lord Rutherford, Winston Churchill, Margot Fonteyn, Edward Sackville-West, Lady Diana Cooper, TS Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Fred Hoyle, Augustus John and Edith Sitwell.

In this series, ‘Compassion’ is a portrait of Anna Akhmatova surrounded by the horrors of war. She is looking towards another panel that depicts Anrep’s gravestone, linking together his art and her poetry.

The mosaic of Saint Patrick by Boris Anrep in the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Boris is best known in Ireland for his two colourful mosaics of Saint Patrick and Saint Anne in the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar. The cathedral, built in 1933-1939, was designed by Ralph Byrne and the decorative work is by Oppenheimer of Old Trafford, Manchester.

Boris was living in Paris when John Kyne, Bishop of Meath, invited him to Ireland to create his mosaics in Mullingar Cathedral to mark the Marian Year in 1954.

His mosaic depicting Saint Patrick shows Saint Patrick lighting the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Saint Patrick is seen lifting the cross with one hand in a vigorous movement, and in his other hand he is holding a torch. The firewood is arranged in a Christogram, signifying the symbolic importance of the fire, an is also one of the signs of the strong influence of Eastern Orthodox iconography on this mosaic.

In the upper part of the mosaic, Christ is enthroned – Mullingar Cathedral is the first in the world to have been dedicated to Christ the King. Christ is enthroned between two angels, an image that draws on the composition of the Visitation of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity in Orthodox iconography, best known in the West through the work of the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev.

Below are inscriptions drawing on the Breastplate of Saint Patrick and images inspired by the High Cross in Castledermot, Co Kildare.

Saint Anna is the dominant figure in the mosaic by Boris Anrep celebrating the Marian Year in 1954 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

His mosaic to celebrate the Virgin Mary presents a scene clearly inspired by the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The young Virgin Mary is being presented to High Priest in the Temple by her mother, Saint Anne, as her father, Saint Joachim, watches on.

Although this was the Marian Year, the dominant figure in this scene is Saint is Anne. She is tall and swathed in dazzling yellow and blue. Below the figures, mirroring the style of the Saint Patrick mosaic in the side chapel opposite, there are Celtic crosses and motifs inspired by the High Crosses at Monasterboice, Co Louth, and a an ancient mediaeval hymn in Latin praising Saint Anne.

Boris gives her name not as Anne but as Anna, with the letters ‘S. Anna’ at the centre of the mosaic. The long face of the saint, with her large dark eyes and curved nose, has an uncanny resemblance to the poet Anna Akhmatova in her mid-20s.

Boris wrote that the face is ‘full of calm dignity.’ He also wrote that he was trying to capture her ‘touching motherly care’ and ‘culminating vision of her child.’ Perhaps he was thinking of Anna queuing outside the Kresty prison to bring food to her son Lev, incarcerated in a gulag.

In this mosaic, Boris transforms the woman he had abandoned almost 40 years earlier into an icon of endurance and acceptance.

He uses an unconventional spelling of Saint Anne in the mosaic and calls her Anna. Additionally, the saint’s image bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the poet Anna Akhmatova in her mid-20s.

Did Boris still love Anna, the woman who had remained his muse throughout almost 40 in exile?

During those four decades, Anna stayed on in St Petersburg, which became Leningrad, and she suffered throughout the Stalinist years. Gumilev, Punin and Mandelstam were murdered, and her son Lev spent years in a gulag.

For 30 years, Anna lived in an apartment in the Fountain House, a former palace in St Petersburg. It is now a museum to her memory and to that of her husbands, Nikolai Gumilev and Nikolai Punin, and her friend Osip Mandelstam, who were all murdered by the Stalinist regime.

For many years, Boris and Anna did not communicate. But they met again, and for the last time, in 1965, where Paris had been living since the end of World War II. Anna had been shortlisted in 1965 for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Sadly, Boris and Anna had little to say to each other. Anna had immortalised Boris in her poems in Russia, Boris had immortalised Anna in his mosaics and icons in London and Mullingar. But East is East and West is West, and the last meeting lacked the love and romance of their first encounters.

After receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, Anna suffered a heart attack and was taken to hospital in Oxford. From there, she was moved to a sanitorium in Moscow, and she died on 5 March 1966 at the age of 76.

Boris spent his last years were spent in Hyde Park Gardens with Maud Russell. His last great work, completed when Boris was almost 80, is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral which went back in style to the pre-Byzantine Roman mosaics, with little gold and far from the expected monumental sightless figures. They are full of colour, light and rhythm.

Boris Anrep died in London on 7 June 1969. He was cremated at Golder’s Green and his ashes were taken away. According to some sources, his ashes were buried at Mottisfont Abbey, where Maud Russel was buried in the family mausoleum.

Boris Anrep’s image of Christ the King in his Saint Patrick mosaic draws on the composition of the Visitation of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity best known in the West in the work of Andrei Rublev (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

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