Great Works: The Murdered Tsarevich Dmitry, 1899 (197cm x 175cm), Mikhail Nesterov

Russian Museum, St Petersburg

This is an idealised portrait of the murdered Tsarevich Dmitry, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. It is a portrait of young innocence destroyed, a martyred child-becoming-man transformed into a living religious icon. It was painted almost exactly 300 years after the event it commemorates.

The landscape is not exactly idealised, although you could say that in its almost otherworldly settledness, and in its striving to present a portrait of a Russian landscape pinioned by Russian orthodoxy, it hovers on the cusp of idealisation. It is a kind of dream of the idea of Mother Russia – echoed in the closed, dreamily expectant eyes of young Dmitry. He is a beautiful, even-featured boy, pallid of skin, with a child's slightly unruly auburn hair peeking out from beneath his bejewelled crown. His head is surrounded by a halo – the circle of that halo is mirrored in the half circle of the rainbow at the top left of the canvas, and in the halo that surrounds the head of Jesus – or is it God the Father? – who raises his hand in blessing towards the boy.

It represents a sweet and almost guileless embracing of the worst. In spite of the blood of his sacrifice, the child, being who he is, will always be safe in the arms of God, no matter what might befall his body. There is no alarm in his face. His hands are folded resignedly and dutifully, one upon another. Taller and more elegant than you might expect a child of eight to be, he is the very model of pretty, poised resignation.

This is a painting which seems to insist upon ascension. Everything seems to be extremely light of weight and rising heavenward. The birches are extraordinarily slender, their foliage feathery in the extreme. They seem about to float upwards. There is a contest here between different kinds of richness. There is the richness of the young saint's garments, which seem almost afloat around his body, and the lovely artifice of all of this, and there is a similar degree of artifice in the natural world that spreads itself like a richly emblazoned carpet around his beautifully decorated white shoes. The flowers on his undergarments and the flowers that decorate the ground at prettily even intervals, reminding us of heraldic decoration – all this seems to be of a piece with the greens and the yellows and the golds throughout the painting. (Even Dmitry's own face seems to be a strange mixture of green, yellow and gold.)

There is an ethereal weightlessness about all of this. The varying greennesses of the natural world, and the hints at immateriality that gold never fails to embody, seem to interpenetrate. The decorative patterning of those sprays of flowers that surround the feet of Dmitry remind us of the flowers that grow in the garden just behind the kneeling angel in Fra Angelico's Annunciation.

The positioning of the child is thought-provoking. He is not centre-stage. He does not preside over the scene. In all due modesty, he has stepped to one side, almost as if to introduce us to the fullness of what his presence here embodies – the values of his homeland as it is represented by this landscape. This homeland is a place where politics and religion are thoroughly enmeshed with the land itself. They are all of a piece – God has sanctified the tsars.

And yet we know that this is not quite so. There is too much special pleading here. All this is a pleasurable fantasy. Just as Boris Godunov did away with this child, so the Romanov dynasty will be challenged in the very city where this painting hangs – St Petersburg – within six years of the date of this painting. What is more, the Russian Museum, the painting's home, is just across the Neva from where the Battleship Aurora, symbol of the Bolshevik Revolution, used to be moored. That is gone now too.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942). A member of the so called 'Wanderers' school, Nesterov was among the greatest of Russian painters. His talents ranged widely, from portraiture and landscape to genre painting, and his memoirs and essays give us vivid portraits of his contemporaries in the art world of his time.

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