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Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) The Highest mountains stand as the witnesses of the Great Reality by Rene Wadlow

Nicholas Roerich, the Russian painter, explorer, and cultural activist, whose birth anniversary we note on 9 October, stressed throughout his life the role of beauty and culture in bringing humanity together in unity. “True art is the expression of the radiant spirit.” Art is the manifestation of the coming synthesis of the spiritual and the material. The gates of the sacred source must be opened wide for everybody, and the light of art will ignite numerous hearts with a new love. At first this feeling will be unconscious, but after all it will purify human consciousness. Bring art to the people “where it belongs. We should have not only museums, theatres, universities, public libraries, railway stations and hospitals, but even prisons decorated and beautified.”

His inspiration is still at work today in many efforts to preserve the art of the past and to create an art of the future which speaks to the highest aspiration of the person.

Roerich gained recognition at a young age in St. Petersburg art circles. His paintings of early Russian life, inspired in part by his archaeological excavations of tumuli “a reminder of the Vikings in Russia” were popular among those who were looking for inspiration in the Russian past.

There were some among the Slavophiles of the early 1900s who felt that Russia had a unique culture and thus a special role to play in the salvation of humanity. They rejected anything coming from Western Europe. However, Roerich, while close to some of the Slavophiles, especially Princess Maria Tenisheva and her efforts at the experimental village Talashkino, was never hostile to artistic creation from non-Russian cultures. As he said “The chief significance of an artistic education lies in opening up wide horizons to the pupils and in inculcating the conception of art as something infinite.” Roerich believed that one had to preserve and develop what was best in local culture as a contribution to a world culture in which the best of local cultures would be preserved. “Culture is a constant becoming, a dynamic evolution of a living world.”

Probably the most influential aspect of Roerich’s Russian period was his cooperation with Igor Stravinsky for the theme and the music of the Sacre du Printemps and with Sergei Diaghilev for the ballet, costumes and scenery of the Sacre in Paris in 1913, a music and dance which revolutionized ballet at the time. As Roerich wrote of Le Sacre “The eternal novelty of the Sacre is because spring is eternal, and love is eternal and sacrifice is eternal. Then in this new conception, Stravinsky touches the eternal in music. He was modern because he evoked the future; it is the great serpent ring touching the great past —the sacred tunes that connect the great past and the future.”

The Sacre is the most Dionysian of Roerich’s inspiration. His painting of 1911 “The Forefathers” at the time of Roerich’s collaboration with Stravinsky might almost be a sketch for the opening of the Sacre, whose early pages quiver with the sound of pipes. Here Dionysus-like, primitive man charms with his piping a circle of wild beasts, in this case, bears, reflecting the Slavic tradition that bears were man’s forefathers.

Stravinsky was presented to Roerich by Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian with a holistic vision of art: music, painting, dance, and the publisher of The World of Art magazine. Roerich had already designed some of the sets for Borodin’s Prince Igor produced by Diaghilev in Paris in 1909. Roerich produced the outline and the theme for Le Sacre and later designed the sets and the costumes.

In 1901, Nicholas Roerich had married Elena Ivanovona who shared his interest in art, music and the philosophy of China, Tibet and India. Later, in the West she wrote her name as Helena and also published under the pen name Josephine Saint-Hilaire On Easterm Crossroads (1930). The Russian composer Moussorgsky was her uncle. The young couple cooperated with the Buriat Lama Dorzhiev in building a Tibetan Buddist Temple in St. Petersburg.

Dorzhiev saw the possibility of an alliance of the Buriats, Kaimyk and other Buddhist tribes living in the eastern part of Russia with the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who was the most politically aware of the Dalai Lamas. The alliance was to be headed by the Tsar Nicholas II and would have been a counter weight to English and Chinese influence in Tibet.

From Dorzhiev, the Roerichs learned of the Tibetan text and ritual, the Kalachakra (The Wheel of Time) and of the coming of a new historical-astrological cycle “The New Age” to be marked by a new Buddha, Maitreya. (1) Nicholas II, however, was not to become “the Bodhisatva Tsar”. He was soon caught up by the 1917 Russian Revolution. By 1918, the Roerichs left Russia foreseeing the Soviet policy of controlling all art forms for narrow political purposes.

After a short stay in Western Europe, the Roerichs moved to the United States where his paintings had already been shown. With American friends, he created the Master School of the United Arts in 1922 in New York City, where music, art and philosophy were taught. Students were advised to “Look forward, forget the past, think of the service of the future. Exalt others in spirit and look ahead.”

In 1924, the Roerichs left for India and travelled especially in the Himalayan areas. For Roerich, mountains represented a path to the spiritual life. “Mountains, what magnetic forces are concealed within you. What a symbol of quietude is revealed in every sparking peak. The highest knowledge, the most inspired songs, the most superb sounds and colors, are created on the mountains. On the highest mountains there is the Supreme.”

The Roerichs undertook a number of expeditions to Central Asia and the Altai Mountains of Russia (1923-1928 and 1933-1935) along with their son George, who became a specialist of Tibetan culture and language. George Roerich’s Trails to Inmost Asia (Yale University Press, 1931) is a good and unsentimental account of these trips, George being assigned the hard work of running the logistics. Nicholas Roerich always remained convinced of the need to preserve local culture. He put an emphasis on collecting folk tales and traditional practices of medicine, especially the use of herbs. “In every encampment of Asia, I tried to unveil what memories were cherished in the folk memory. Through these guarded and preserved tales, you may recognize the reality of the past. In every spark of folklore, there is a drop of the great Truth adorned or distorted.”

Roerich’s desire to make known the artistic achievements of the past through archaeology, coupled with the need to preserve the landmarks of the past from destruction, led to his work for the Banner of Peace to preserve art and architecture in time of war. Roerich had seen the destruction brought by the First World War and the civil war which followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. He worked with French international lawyers to draft a treaty by which museums, churches and buildings of value would be preserved in time of war through the use of a symbol — three red circles representing past, present and future— a practice inspired by the red cross used to protect medical personnel in times of conflict.

Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace. Henry A. Wallace, the US Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President, was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace — the Roerich Peace Pact — signed at the White House on 15 April 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony. At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “At no time has such an ideal been more needed. It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity. It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs. Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in addition the unique contribution of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and truly religious of whatever faith.”

As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways, and everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era. We deplore the loss of the libraries of Louvain and Oviedo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Rheins. We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities. But we do not want to inscribe on these deeds any words of hatred. Let us simply say: Destroyed by human ignorance —rebuilt by human hope.”

After the Second World War, UNESCO has continued the effort, and there have been additional conventions on the protection of cultural and educational bodies in times of conflict, in particular The Hague Convention of May 1954 though no universal symbol as proposed by Nicholas Roerich has been developed.

Today, the need to bring beauty to as many people as possible is the prime task of developing a culture of peace. As Nicholas Roerich wrote “The most gratifying and uplifting way to serve the coming evolution is by spreading the seeds of beauty. If we are to have a beautiful life and some happiness it must be created with joy and enthusiasm for service to art and beauty.”


See Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre Maitreya: The Future Buddha (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 304pp.)


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens