There are those moments in our lives when we are called on to accomplish an overwhelming task. We become nervous, sweaty, shaking messes, but most of the time we try our best to hide our nervousness and complete our task despite our fears.
What do our fears say about us? How might we be courageous when we are pulled into an overwhelming adventure? I was thinking about these questions as I read the story of Ilya Muromets.
Ilya Muromets was a great hero in Russian folk tales. He was a Russian bogatyr, which is similar to a knight. He went on many adventures and was fearless in his service to those around him.
Legend has it that Ilya was born crippled. He was unable to walk until he was 33 years old. It was then that a group of men entered his home, told him he’d become a bogatyr, and gave him an elixir made of honey. The elixir enabled him to walk, and he began his journey as a knight of and for Russia.
Toward the end of his life, after many adventures, he decided to ride his horse through the land he loved. On his journey, he came to a three-way crossroad. The first way led to death, the second to marriage, and the third to wealth.
Fearlessly, Ilya took the first way. He came upon a palace occupied by robbers, where he fought and defeated them all. He then returned to the crossroads and changed the sign so fellow travelers would know that the first path was now safe.
Ilya then built a cathedral, spent the rest of his life as a monk, and died with his right hand making the sign of the cross.
Viktor Vasnetsov’s ‘Knight at the Crossroads’
Viktor Vasnetsov (1848–1926) was a Russian painter, designer, and architect. Many of his paintings focused on Russian folklore and mythology. He carefully tried to bring life to what may be apocryphal tales as if they were real events, and his paintings were very popular in Russia.
In “Knight at the Crossroads,” Vasnetsov interpreted the story of Ilya, who was a monk, although much of his life is shrouded in mystery. Vasnetsov encouraged our eyes to move throughout the composition. We start with the primary focal point on Ilya in full armor sitting on his horse. He also has a shield, a quiver of arrows, and a long spear. The spear points at the skull on the ground.
Above the bones on the ground is the secondary focal point, an engraved rock that reads: “If you go straight ahead, there will be no life; there is no way forward for he who travels past, walks past, or flies past.”
The land surrounding Ilya is indeed barren, and the sun appears to set on our hero; the only life there—besides Ilya and his horse—is crows. A crow in flight, finally, points its beak back at Ilya, so we can move throughout the composition again.
Taking the Path Less Traveled
Vasnetsov depicted the moment Ilya makes a decision to take the path less traveled. Ilya willingly takes the difficult path. The sign at the beginning of his journey assures him that he won’t return alive and death surrounds him, but Ilya remains unfazed.
What fuels this type of courage? In order to uncover insight into this question, it is also necessary to ask another: Why would Ilya willingly take a path that guarantees death?
He could be a thrill seeker, simply curious, or a skeptic, for these personality types would also, theoretically, take this difficult road, all for different reasons.
It’s what Ilya does after he takes the doomed path and defeats the robbers that informs us why he may have taken the path in the first place: He returns to the sign at the crossroads and changes it to let fellow travelers know that the once-doomed path is now safe. Ilya is interested in the safety of his land’s people.
Maybe the sun in the painting isn’t setting on Ilya, but on those robbers who would have caused Ilya’s fellow countrymen harm. Ilya doesn’t attempt this dangerous quest and adventure for his own honor; he endures it for others.
Sacrificing himself for the sake of others makes Ilya a symbolic representation of the ethical, and as the ethical he is compositionally positioned higher than the skulls and bones, the representation of that which plagues his land.
Ilya’s spear points down at the skulls and bones not as if that’s his fate but as if that is the consequence for those who would selfishly harm others. In the end, the truly ethical is always elevated above and defeats what is selfishly harmful.
To answer our aforementioned questions: I think Ilya willingly takes the doomed path because he wants all areas of his land to be safe for its inhabitants, so it is therefore selflessness that fuels his courage.
Our ability to access selflessness seems to coincide with our own sense of spirituality. I leave, then, with this question: How might we access our own selflessness and fuel a courage that brings safety and peace to our communities?
Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist.