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Christ in the Desert

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Christ in the Desert
ArtistIvan Kramskoi
MediumOil on canvas[1]
Dimensions184 cm × 214 cm (72 in × 84 in)[1]
LocationTretyakov Gallery[1], Moscow

Christ in the Desert or Christ in the Wilderness[2][3] (Russian: Христос в пустыне, romanized: Khristos v pustyne) is an 1872 painting by Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi, reflecting the temptation of Christ. Kramskoi was offered a professorship for the painting by the Russian Academy of Arts Council, but having learned that in the beginning of 1873, rejected it (he had been expelled from the Academy earlier, and chose to keep his "youthful commitment to independence from the Academy").[4] Subsequently, it became one of the favourite paintings of Pavel Tretyakov, who bought it for his gallery in the year the painting was finished.[4]


The theme of Christ's temptation had attracted Kramskoi already in the early 1860s. In that period he made the first sketch of the composition.[4] The first version of Christ in the Desert is dated to 1867, but turned out to be unsuccessful. Kramskoi realized that the choice of vertical format was inappropriate. He opted for the horizontal format and introduced the pallid rocky desert in the background.[4]

Kramskoi described the early history of the painting in his letters to writer Vsevolod Garshin.

The painting[edit]

Christ in the Desert is one of Kramskoi's Jesus-themed paintings, the other being Rejoice, King of the Jews and Herodias. The painter examines the religious subject matter from a humanistic, moral, and philosophical perspective, and proposes a psychologically-life-based interpretation of the reflections and experiences of Christ. The subject of the painting is connected with the described in the New Testament forty-day fast of Jesus Christ in the desert, where he retreated after his baptism, and with the temptation of Christ by the devil, which occurred during this fast. According to the painter, he wanted to capture the dramatic situation of moral choice, inevitable in the life of every person. The horizon line runs quite low, dividing the painting approximately in half. The lower part features a cold, rocky desert, while the upper part depicts the pre-dawn sky, a symbol of light, hope, and future transformation. The figure of Jesus Christ, dressed in a red tunic and a dark blue cloak-himation, dominates the space of the painting, yet remains in harmony with the surrounding harsh landscape. In the solitary figure, depicted among the cold stones, one can sense not only sorrowful contemplation and fatigue, but also the readiness to take the first step on the rocky path leading to Golgotha. The restraint in the depiction of the clothing allows the main focus to be on the face and hands of Christ, which create psychological credibility and humanity in the image. The tightly clenched fists are located at the very geometric center of the canvas. Together with the face of Christ, they represent the semantic and emotional center of the composition. The clasped hands, located at the horizon line, "in a volitional tension, seem to be trying to bind, like a keystone, the whole world - sky and earth - into one." Christ's bare feet are wounded from long walking on sharp stones.
The painting is static, with no action, but it shows the work of Christ's thought and the strength of his spirit, preserved despite all the suffering he has had to and will yet have to endure.

Ivan Kramskoi sold his work to Tretyakov for 6,000 rubles. (6000 Russian Imperial Rubles from 1873 are worth $1,698,000 in 2024.)


The painting received a wide feedback and appeared at the Peredvizhniks' second exposition of 1873. Pavel Tretyakov wrote: "I liked Kramskoi's Saviour very much... that's why I was harrying up to purchase him, but many people did not appreciate him much and the others did not at all. In my opinion this is the best painting in our school recently; maybe I am mistaken".[5] Critic Vladimir Stasov noted that a "sorrowful note sensibly resounds in the general physiological array of the work".[6] Vsevolod Garshin outlined the "expression of immense moral force, hatred against evil and complete resoluteness to fight it".[7] According to Ivan Goncharov, who wrote "Christ in the Desert. A Painting of Mr. Kramskoi" (original Russian title: "Христос в пустыне». Картина г. Крамского"), "the entire figure seems to have diminished a bit from its natural size, contracted, not from starvation, thirst and bad weather, but from internal, inhuman insight to his thought and will during the struggle of forces of spirit and flesh".[6] He also emphasized that "there is nothing festive, heroic, victorious — the future fate of the world and of all livings is concealed in that miserable, small being, in pauper appearance, under the rags, in humble simplicity, inseparable with true majesty and force". The Russian art researcher Georgy Wagner wrote the article "On the Interpretation of I. N. Kramskoi's Painting "Christ in the Desert" (Russian: "Об истолковании картины И.Н. Крамского "Христос в пустыне").


  1. ^ a b c d "Christ in the Wilderness". Tretyakov Gallery. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  2. ^ "Ivan Kramskoy". The American Society of Portrait Artists. Archived from the original on 24 December 2009. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  3. ^ "Jesus Christ in the Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi". Art Studio. Archived from the original on 5 October 2016. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d Христос в пустыне (1872) Крамской (in Russian). Kramskoy.info. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  5. ^ Татьяна Юденкова. Неустанное служение. К истории коллекции П.М.Третьякова (in Russian). Наше Наследие. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  6. ^ a b Крамской И. "Христос в пустыне" (in Russian). Near You. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  7. ^ Немировская, М.А. Иван Николаевич Крамской. —Л.: Художник РСФСР,1969, с. 25