Reflecting on eternity

the iconographic programme for the family mausoleum
(1930 – 1938)

Meštrović built the family mausoleum in Otavice for himself and his family; yet as a church, it was intended for the inhabitants of his home village. Since he was both client and builder, he was completely free to design and decorate it according to his own wishes. The iconographic programme, the uncommon depiction of Christ on the altar (Eternally Crucified) and sketches for the decoration of the dome reveal in their style and ideas his personal understanding of the faith and his search for models in eastern religions.

Luke the Evangelist

Zagreb, 1929
bronze, 195 x 128 x 61 cm
owned by the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-26

In his thinking about the design of the four evangelists for the family mausoleum – the church of the Most Holy Redeemer, whom he planned to locate in semicircular niches in the zone under the dome, Meštrović shows various stylistic versions. The first version is enshrined in the monumental bronze reliefs Luke the Evangelist and John the Evangelist (Zagreb, 1929), and in smaller studies from the same period. Luke the Evangelist is formed in powerful, clean volumes, enclosing a firm outline of arched format in order to adjust it to the imagined semicircular niche in which it was to have been housed. The saint is strong and grandiose in his important role as mediator between the believer and the Word of God, and at the same time is tragically thoughtful, enclosed in melancholic contemplation of the great sacrifice of Christ. But still, Meštrović gave up on the idea to place figures of the evangelists designed in this way in the space of the mausoleum. Because of his exposure to ancient cultures and his immediate contacts with the different visual language during his visit to Egypt, Palestine and Greece, in the ultimate rendering of the four evangelists, the sculptor went in for a very different formal handling. The heaviness of the human figures gave ground before the lightness of the stylistic winged beings with their pertaining symbols, and the compositional pattern for their design, Meštrović took from the Egyptian canon.
(Z. J. Š.)

The Eternally Crucified

Zagreb, 1931
plaster, 317 x 225 x 52 cm
owned by the heirs of Ivan Meštrović
safekeeping in the Meštrović Gallery in Split, safekeeping inv. no. 16/31

We can see quotations of a kind of Meštrović’s individual approach to religion in the sculptural programme of the family mausoleum. Along with the already mentioned gospel writers that indubitably show Meštrović’s draughts for sources in Ancient Egyptian sculpture, the relief The Eternally Crucified is a unique creation on which the influence of eastern cultures can be read. Subtly lit with natural light, Meštrović’s figure of Christ symbolically entitled The Eternally Crucified dominates the altar niche. Completely at odds with the title, this Christ is not crucified. His body is full and youthful, with no trace of suffering and pain, the expression on his face is calm and peaceful. Christ is borne by a six winged seraph, on the face of which an archaic smile can be perceived. It can be compared with the sculpture of the Great Buddha from the Angkor Wat temple complex, photographs of which Meštrović kept in his photographic albums. The mild expression on his face with the characteristic smile is similar to Meštrović’s seraph on which the sculptor even applies a similar principle of a conically composed hairstyle.
(Z. J. Š.)

After Childbirth

Zagreb, 1931
bronze, 106 x 165 x 33 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-90

In the side niches of the church of the Most Holy Redeemer, north and south of the altar, in the central right-angled reliefs in local soft siltstone, Meštrović shows an extremely reduced Christ-cycle, brought down to two scenes: Nativity (Zagreb, 1931) and Lamentation (Zagreb, 1931).

In line with the iconographic topography they are placed at the level of the human view, which makes the simile of Christ’s life on earth close at the physical and symbolic level. Derivatives of the two scenes, independent works of sculpture in bronze, can be experienced as a diptych devoted to the life cycle: After Childbirth and Lamentation of Christ. In these versions Meštrović reduces the number of participants and reduces the scene to the essential. The sacred has made way for an everyday scene – the birth of the child, whom his mother and two assistants receive with great joy and tenderness. It seems that the artist has been prompted by an event from his own life – the birth of his fourth child, his son Mate.
(Z. J. Š.)

The Lamentation of Christ

Zagreb, 1931
bronze, 116 x 198.5 x 40 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-89

The associated relief Lamentation of Christ is in terms of theme and composition in tune with the first (After Childbirth) and gives off a powerful emotion.

Christ’s limp body in the first plane comes to the fore and is particularly expressive with its unnaturally elongated proportions and the soft modelling of the naked body, in contrast with the roughly worked texture of the drapery and the headscarves of the female figures. The Virgin and Mary Magdalene, who are bending over Christ, share the same feelings of unutterable grief caught in their faces. The smoothly horizontally flowing composition is animated with movements and touches of hands, which seem as if to catch the last beats of Christ’s moribund body. With this sculptural diptych Meštrović closed the life circle from birth to death, not forgetting the symbolic place of his own beginning and ending – his home ground, Otavice, from which he sprang and had chosen for his last resting place.
(Z. J. Š.)

STUDIES FOR THE DECORATION OF THE DOME OF THE CHURCH OF THE MOST HOLY REDEEMER

“[…] no single true religion lacks for anything as compared with any other religion and each of them is just a different word for one and the same faith, with the same goal, the same aspiration towards God, the highest wisdom and the highest harmony.”
(Ivan Meštrović, 1926)

Meštrović’s family mausoleum, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer was never completed: the vault of the dome was left undecorated. But the artist did leave behind him a large number of drawing studies, which tell of the profound thinking about and occupation with the production of this ambitious thematic cycle. Through the decoration of the dome he wanted to depict the founders of the great world religions, and link them, both profanely and sacredly, in the wish to pay honour to the greatest spiritual reaches of humanity – art and religion. Meštrović’s thinking about art as a reflection of the divine inspiration, and of the artist as prophet, inclined him to place his own self-portrait on the vault of the family mausoleum in Otavice among the figures representing some of the most important leaders of world cultures and religions.
(Z. J. Š.)

MOHAMMED

Zagreb, about 1938
charcoal on paper, 90 x 126 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-262

CONFUCIUS

Zagreb, about 1938
charcoal on paper, 90 x 126 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-268

MICHELANGELO

Zagreb, about 1938
charcoal on paper, 90 x 126 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-269

SELF-PORTRAIT

Zagreb, about 1938
charcoal on paper, 90 x 126 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-270