This year, Maslenitsa (aka “butter week,” or a time of gluttony preceding Lent) will be celebrated across Russia from March 4-10.
Maslenitsa originated as a pagan holiday to welcome spring. Later, the holiday attained significance in the Orthodox faith. Varying in dates from year to year, Maslenitsa falls eight weeks prior to the Orthodox celebration of Easter. The week-long homage to spring is now become a time of merriment before the somber, 40-day Great Fast: Lent.
Blini – thin, pancakes served plain or with sweet or savory toppings – are the traditional food eaten during Maslenitsa. Each blin is cooked to a buttery-gold hue, as it is a symbol for the sun, which has returned after the long winter.
Although photographs may well capture the festivities of this important holiday week, there is much to be said for how paintings can help us understand the spirit of a place. And Russian artists, like artists of other countries, turn to their folklore and holidays as an inspiration for their work. In doing so, they have each captured something unique. Here are a few signal examples.
The large-scale realist genre painting by Makovsky is set in St. Petersburg and captures hundreds of people – from bundled children, actors, and peasants, to government officials, and true ladies and gentlemen – all gathered in a town square to celebrate. And indeed, celebration is in the air: with all the depicted movement and pushing through crowds, you can almost hear a flurry of shouts and cheering, arguments and laughter, rumbling off the canvas. Critic Vladimir Stasov, Makovsky’s contemporary, praised the painting for the way it captured the flurry of activity amid the cold air, with pink reflections of the winter sun.
Maslenitsa is a recurrent theme in many Kustodiev paintings. This brightly colored image is not set in a specific city. The crowded fairgrounds are tucked behind the theater on the right side of the painting. At the center, we have the cheerful atmosphere of the comings and goings of red-faced townspeople. The rolling, snowy hills add drama and movement to the painting. But, interestingly, the angles and the composition of the painting draw our eyes up to the small church at the top of the painting. Does Kustodiev want the viewer to recall the coming Lent?
Surikov’s painting focuses in on one specific activity: a game roughly translated as “capturing the snow fortress.” The game consists of a snow town, often built in an open field or on a river bank, then doused in water that becomes ice in the sub-zero temperatures, fortifying the construction. On the last day of Maslenitsa, two teams are organized—the defenders and the attacks of the “town.” As Surikov depicts it, branches can sometimes be used as a means of defense. The event is, of course, a draw not only for participants, but a cause for joyful cheers from the many spectators. You can still find variations of this game played in cities across Russia.
Artist Simon Kozhin captures another key activity of Maslenitsa in his painting: the torching of a large straw Maslenitsa-scarecrow, the symbol of winter. This pyrotechnically activity is laden with symbolism, from the way it is built to the meaning behind burning it. Many think of the act as expressing the centuries-old idea of renewal: burning away the old and preparing to start anew. Similar to the tradition of Groundhog Day in the US, the way the Maslenitsa burns is also said to be an indicator on the arrival spring. After all, the faster winter burns, the sooner spring will come.
Maslenitsa has not only been an inspiration for artists historically, but continues to permeate into the imaginations of contemporary artists. In the case of Igor Shaimardanov, it takes on a satirical tone. After what appears to be a night of drink-filled celebrations, a large sun, depicted as a blin, rises to the center of the painting.
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Although modern life, especially big city life, can often feel less community-oriented, Maslenitsa is still a holiday that people are eager to celebrate together. Nearly all Russian cities still have fairgrounds, outdoor skating and games to celebrate, as well as the burning of Maslenitsa. There will also be many occasions to eat blini, whether it’s with classmates at school, one’s family, or in crowds at a fair. But if you can’t make it to a fair, maybe you can try your hand at making some of those golden-sun pancakes.
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