Nikolai Roerich sought divine inspiration in the wilds of nature and esoteric religions. Neil Lyndon traces a spiritual journey that took the artist from his native Russia to America, the Himalayas - and beyond

In Nikolai Roerich's The Praying Stylite (Ecstasy), an emaciated seer in loin-cloth, with beard streaming like a waterfall, stands alone like a statue in a barren, mountainous moonscape, his flesh tones blending with the colors of the rocks. It is a perfect picture of isolation in a self-regarding state that permits you to see yourself as a holy mystic or messiah. That was precisely the condition and the frame of mind in which Nikolai Roerich lived and worked in the last decades of his life.

Although The Praying Stylite (Ecstasy), to be auctioned at Bonhams London in November, is an earlier work, it shines an autobiographical light on the painter. He became, in many ways, the very model of a practitioner of transcendental meditation before the term was even invented. How did this spectacularly unusual person propel himself into such a state?

Delving into the life of Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947) is like entering a fable where 20th century genius is intertwined with many of its excesses. Science merges with law and overflows into art, mysticism, theosophy, freemasonry, new world order, chicanery and shamanism. Roerich found it hard to come across a new faith without becoming its vessel.

Born into a prosperous St Petersburg family, he was dragooned by his lawyer father into a career in law; but, along with intellectual curiosity, he exhibited extraordinary artistic talent at an early age. On the 3,000 acres of his parents' summer home, young Roerich sketched scenes from nature – a fox's head, a woodsman in the wilds – which are little wonders of technical control, observation, movement and emotional intensity. He also explored those acres for archeological finds – a pursuit which would, in adulthood, lead him across the world's most hostile wildernesses.

Always a frenzied bibliomaniac, furiously driven and obsessive, young Nikolai struck a deal with his father. He agreed to enter the law faculty of St Petersburg University if, at the same time, he could enroll and study at the Imperial Academy of Arts. He pursued both disciplines with distinction. From adolescence, his appearance was always studied – developing from the matinée-idol looks of a young Mickey Rourke to the white beard and pantaloons he adopted in his holy-man old age – but there was never anything foppish in his devotion to his work ("I wonder if I'll ever find time to die," he wrote about this time). His graduation project in 1897 at the Academy of Arts was a painting so assured that it caught the attention of both Tolstoy and Diaghilev. The Messenger: Tribe Has Risen Against Tribe combined archeological detail with historical narrative in a picture abounding in movement and menace. It prefigured Roerich's infatuation with primeval life – a preoccupation he was to follow and develop in Paris, where he studied with Fernand Cormon.

Blown away by Wagner's operas – first performed in St Petersburg in 1898 – Roerich was scathing about their hostile reception. "Evidently, every great accomplishment must go through the crucible of negation and mockery," he wrote. It wouldn't be long before he passed through that crucible himself.

From devising church frescoes in the medieval manner, Roerich moved to stage designs for the Mystery Plays which his contemporaries were re-staging in Moscow. In the same period, before the First World War, Roerich was also working with Diaghilev's Ballet Russes and brought images of the Tatar East to the London staging of Borodin's Prince Igor. As a member of Diaghilev's World of Art society, Roerich was in constant communication with the maestro, so it was natural that Diaghilev should include Roerich in the staging of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Roerich's sketches for the tribal costumes influenced Nijinsky's choreography – with the elbows and feet of the dancers defying classical rules as violently as did Stravinsky's score.

The Revolution brought exile, however, and took Roerich to Finland, where the northern lanscape of the Karelia region both energized and nourished him spiritually. The Praying Stylite (Ecstasy), painted in 1918 and measuring more than 1.5m high, expresses this spirituality in rich, shimmering tones on a monumental scale. The meditative figure has almost turned to stone himself, like the images of his ancestors carved into the rock behind him, illuminated by a sunset glow.

Another driving influence on Roerich was his wife Helena, whom he married in 1901. She was profoundly absorbed in Eastern religions and, as the translator of Madame Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, in the occult. Helena inducted Nikolai into the mysteries of Blavatsky's Theosophy, one of the esoteric faiths which sprang up as organized Christian observance waned. Its main tenets seemed tailor-made for Roerich.

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) saw herself as a missionary of the ancient truths and religious wisdom commonly understood in primeval societies, but which had been lost or buried through the process we generally describe as civilisation. She believed that a universal brotherhood of men could be unearthed through a connection with those lost forms of life, and she saw Buddhism as the essential medium of transmission for that revelation.

The Roerichs were enchanted by this vision. In New York in the 1920s during a visit to America, they founded Agni Yoga, a branch of yoga whose principles are closer to forms of religious observation than a stretch at your local gym. The Roerichs also founded a museum in New York, where The Praying Stylite (Ecstasy) was exhibited, and then, in 1923, undertook death-defying expeditions into the East which combined archeological research with haj-like pilgrimages of spiritual devotion. These expeditions were partly to allow Nikolai to pursue his archeological interests, and partly to deepen the couple's spiritual and religious yearnings. Another purpose was to provide Nikolai with the intellectual and physical material for his paintings, in the landscape where he would look for and find divinity.

Their five-year trek with their children through central Asia, the Himalayas and Tibet included a spell under house arrest and detention for five months during the Tibetan winter, when they were housed in tents. Of the 102 pack animals in their train, 92 died in the snows and the Roerichs themselves were lucky to escape with their lives. Despite these ordeals, however, Roerich kept up a non-stop stream of work, painting about 500 pictures. All can be seen as devotional works.

In further pursuit of the doctrines of Madame Blavatsky, Roerich also conceived of two of his more of his idealistic notions –
a great union of Asian nations to match Europe and America, and a world pact to ensure the protection of monuments and works of art in wars and conflicts. The second did formally take shape in 1935 as the Roerich Pact, supported in the USA by Henry Wallace (later to be vice-president) and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Wallace stood for President in the 1948 election, but correspondence with the Roerichs which revealed his own strange beliefs were dredged up by his opponents to discredit him. By that time the Roerichs had long since left the USA and never returned. Nikolai lived out the rest of his life in the Himalayas – in a state of transcendental ecstasy. Some of his followers believe he was the Messiah.

Neil Lyndon is a writer and journalist.

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