No one knows exactly how kissing came about, whether it was instinctive or learned behavior, yet its influence is hard to overstate. From greetings to displays of affection, signing papers (seal with a kiss) and marriage pronouncements, New Year’s celebrations and religious traditions, kissing has been part of many cultures for the longest time. And few illustrated the importance of this affectionate act better than the Russians during their kissing rituals.
At the time of Ivan the Terrible, women used to be kept indoors, sheltered from interactions with strangers. The only exceptions allowed were with friends and highly regarded guests during a kissing ceremony. This rite usually meant that the host’s spouse would sip wine from a goblet, bow, and then pass it to the guest. On special occasions the latter was invited to kiss the wife on the lips, which was considered to be a great honor.
You can see how such an intimate setup would have been fertile ground for jealousies and infatuations. It’s no surprise then that one of the most suspenseful scenes in Alexei Tolstoy’s 1862 novel Prince Serebrenni revolves around this hospitality tradition, which in turn inspired Russian artist Konstantin Makovsky in masterfully depicting The Kissing Ceremony (at the Feast of Boyar Morozov). Boyars were high ranking members of the aristocracy, close to the tsar. According to the plot, the main character Nikita Romanchov (Prince Serebrenni) and Elena Morozova, the spouse of boyar Morozov, used to be infatuated with each other. Unfortunately, during the prince’s extended absence, Elena was forced to marry Morozov, a much older man who could protect her. The night before the feast, while Romanchov and Elena were talking about love, they were overheard by the jealous husband, who waited until the next day to test the fidelity of his wife.
In the painting, Morozov, the old man to the right with a long, white beard, is waiting to see the reaction of Elena when Romanchov kisses her. Romanchov is the man wearing a green tunic and leaning forward, while Elena is the pale, tall woman holding a large, golden goblet. As Morozov is frowning and tensely gripping the arm of his chair, his right hand rests dangerously close to a dagger. Next to him, a jester whispers devilishly into his ear, emboldening the boyar’s worst suspicions.
The contrast between the depiction of the two genders couldn’t be greater. To the left we have Morozov’s mother, daughters and spouse looking composed and reserved, perhaps even tense. To the right, the men are unrestrained, raucous and drunk. One of them has passed out and another one is sleeping with his head on the table.
A diffuse, golden light washes over the hall, emphasizing the richness of the decor. Although the scene takes place in the 17th century, Makovsky gives the painting an authentic feel, not least because of the intricacies and the wonderful details that he captures. Notice, for instance, the wrinkled carpet under Romanchov’s feet. It looks so natural, a faithful rendering that enhances the realism of the scene.
The authenticity that Makovsky masterfully conveys is, by no means, accidental. The Russian artist consulted numerous historical sources for his paintings and he was an avid collector of costumes, textiles and antiques. All this helped him in recreating a tangible, idealized past of Russia, steeped in gold and long forgotten traditions, which continue to fascinate to this day.
Next time: Itsy bitsy spider…