Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962) grew up in Otavice, a little village in the Dalmatian hinterland. He was brought up in a traditional rural family, in a patriarchal community, the world views of which were formed under the influence of Old Slavic mythology, folk superstitions, local customs and the Christian tradition. The only literature accessible to the young Meštrović was the Scriptures and the folk epics. And it was motifs from the New Testament and from folk tradition that first set off his boyish imagination in the direction of creative work. According to some sources, his first work is Jesus on the Cross, a sculpture that he did in Otavice, carving wood with his shepherd’s knife.
During his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Meštrović’s exhibition activity in the framework of the Secession group was regular and continuous. It is interesting, however, that at the 24th Secession Exhibition in 1906, devoted to sacred art, he did not take part, explaining that he “did not concern himself with religious topics”. How was it then that from a young artist uninterested in religious themes he became one of the very best of creators of religious art? In this exhibition of Meštrović’s religious works, using a great deal of evidence, we shall attempt to provide an answer. But for the beginning of the understanding of their meaning and importance, Meštrović’s viewpoint is very telling, for “Meštrović considers the religious cult the most beautiful product of mankind’s soul and brain, and in consequence the highest subject for art”. Such an approach, formulated in the first monograph, printed in London in 1919, can be applied to the whole of his religious oeuvre.
Artistic creation was for Ivan Meštrović always anchored in profound life experience. With his creations, particularly those inspired by religion, he constantly re-examined the sense of his own existence, and of existence in general. Through works created on the foundations of Old and New Testament, he set up his own personal communication with the divine. Developing his own interpretations, he redefined some iconographic and thematic patterns, to which he gave the seal of authenticity and eternity. Like art too, belief for Meštrović was not only a convention that was taken for granted, but an essential need and the point of life itself.