The mosaics by Boris Anrep at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar are a familiar spectacle to many parishioners. However, these works of art have reached a new international prominence and, in a sense, they have found their way back to their spiritual home in Russia. An event in St Petersburg last month, in the presence of the Irish Ambassador Philip McDonagh, casts new light on the links between the Mullingar mosaics and their Russian background.
Fintan O’Toole published an article in The Irish Times last month and much of this note is based on his report.
Boris Anrep was born in St Petersburg in 1883. Anrep trained in Paris but felt a duty to join the Russian army when the First World War broke out. Anrep met a young poet Anna Akhmatova when he was on leave in 1915. The following year they became close friends, and in 1917 they spent time together in St Petersburg. The precise nature of their relationship is not clear, but it mattered enormously to Akhmatova, as much as Maud Gonne mattered to WB Yeats. We know this because no fewer than 17 poems in Akhmatova’s third book, and 14 in her fourth, written in these years, are dedicated to Anrep.
Anna Akhmatova was to become one of Russia’s greatest poets in the 20th century and she suffered considerably during the Stalinist years. Despite the passage of time, that early love between the poet and the Anrep has endured in art.
In 1954, Anrep was commissioned to create a mosaic at Mullingar cathedral to mark Marian year. He had already made a large mosaic in Mullingar that depicted St Patrick lighting the paschal fire on the hill of Slane. The new work was to celebrate the Virgin Mary.
First, Anrep represents a scene that is clearly from the eastern Orthodox tradition, the story of the young virgin being presented at the temple by her mother, St Anne. It is Anne, tall and swathed in dazzling yellow, who dominates the image. And, second, she is not Anne but Anna. Very prominently at the centre of the mosaic are the letters “S. Anna”. The long face of the saint, with her huge dark eyes and curved nose, is an idealised portrait of Anna Akhmatova. Anrep 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”. Was he thinking of Akhmatova queuing outside the Kresty prison to bring comfort to her son? He was clearly intent on transfiguring the woman he had abandoned nearly 40 years before into an icon of endurance and acceptance.
Akhmatova lived in a flat in the Fountain House, a former palace in St Petersburg. It is now a museum to her memory. On 14 June the Irish Ambassador to Russia, the poet Philip McDonagh, unveiled a large mosaic in the stairwell of the museum. It is a beautiful replica of the Our Lady and St Anne mosaic from the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar. The work of her former lover Anrep has finally made it to her home in St Petersburg.
In his speech to mark the occasion, Ambassador McDonagh explains:
By a long and winding road, Boris Anrep, about whom Anna wrote these words, comes today through mother Mary; because in the mosaic from Mullingar Cathedral that we are replicating here, Anrep shows us Mary with St. Anne; and in St. Anne, we have a portrait of Akhmatova, whom Anrep had by then not seen for nearly 40 years. Anna’s portrait by Boris Anrep will stand here in the House on the Fontanka in remembrance of a great love.
The unveiling of the replica mosaic at the Akhmatova Museum was attended by, among others, Fintan O’Toole, Joe Woods of Poetry Ireland and a senior representative of the Russian Orthodox Church.
On St Patrick’s Day 2013, Ambassador McDonagh unveiled in the stairwell of the Irish Embassy in Moscow a large scale replica of Anrep’s St Patrick mosaic, the original of which is also in Mullingar cathedral.
Many thanks to Julie Cummins for providing the beautiful images for the replicas. For contact details, check out www.juliecummins.com.