Entered the collection of Roerich Museum, New York, November 1931
Possibly in the collection of Louis and Nettie Horch, New York, c. 1932
Acquired from the above by a private collector from the Mid-West
Gift from a private collector to the grandmother of the present owner, c. 1974
Thence by descent
Moscow, The International Centre of the Roerichs, The Nicholas Roerich Museum, Bonhams Pre-sale Exhibition, 16-17 May 2013
Roerich Museum Bulletin, February 1932, issue 2, vol.2, illustrated on the cover
Throughout his artistic career Nicholas Roerich was drawn repeatedly to depict female imagery, the theme he termed The Mother of the World. During his numerous trips to India, China, Tibet and Mongolia, Roerich completed a series of works in which he created a 'synthesis of the iconographic representations' of the Virgin, in particular such paintings as Queen of Heaven (1931), Madonna Laboris (1931, 1934, 1936), Madonna Oriflamma (1932), a triptych dedicated to Joan of Arc (1931), Madonna the Protector (1933), and She who Holds the World (1937). These symbolic images of the Mother figure combine representations of the Virgin from ancient Russian and Byzantine art, Western European Madonnas, and Eastern Goddesses and Bodhisattvas.
Nicholas and Helena Roerich, brought up in the Russian Orthodox Christian tradition, expanded their horizons by studying both the contemporary Hindu teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda as well as Buddhism and Helena Blavatsky's Theosophy. This knowledge provided the foundation for Helena Roerich's writing on Agni Yoga, which emphasized the feminine principle in modern spirituality and informed Nicholas's depiction of prototypes. (Kenneth Archer, Roerich: East and West, Parkstone Press, England, 1999, p.157). Helena Roerich describes the Mother of the World as 'the Great Spirit of the Feminine Principle'. For Nicholas Roerich, the Mother of the World was the highest symbol of world unity, the most universal of all the great teachers (Mark L. Prophet, The Masters and Their Retreats, Summit University Press, 2003, p.236). The obvious need for a unifying symbol for the new Theosophical system led Roerich to paint the 'Mother of the World'.
As early as 1911, Nicholas Roerich universalized the Orthodox Madonna in the monumental fresco Queen of Heaven made for Princess Maria Tenisheva's Church of the Holy Spirit at Talashkino. Using his exceptional knowledge of Western European, Indian and Orthodox art, Roerich managed to create a collective image of every woman and mother, 'while at the same time it was important for him to highlight this image without it belonging to a particular religion or ethnic group, to portray the imagery of a mother close to every person and all nations. That is why these images are not canonical, not traditional ... they synthesize the religious and artistic traditions of different peoples. Thus, the artist tried to express the idea of collective viewpoint of all people on the Supreme Principle of the Universe.' (N. Kochergina, Rise Magazine No. 2 (166), February, 2008). His Mothers of God, inspired by Theosophy and Buddhism, reveal the image of a woman-mother in a completely new way and convey the great depth of the spiritual world. Always symbolic, they represent important ideas for the values of humanity and this understanding of the female divine image as the defender and saviour derives from ancient roots. Roerich fought for the rights of women all his life and saw womankind as a defender of the world from chaos, one who brings harmony and beauty. 'Yes, the salvation of humanity and the planet is now in the hands of women. A woman must understand her meaning, her great mission as the Mother of the World and bear the full responsibility of preparing to become not only a colleague of a man, but his inspiration and the true mother.' (H. Roerich, on women, Letters, 3 March 1930)
The story of the Madonna Laboris is taken from the apocryphal gospel, which Roerich cites as an example in one of his essays: In an impressive and stirring way Christianity has consecrated the legend to the Mother of God: In the transcendental heights of the above-ground world is Heaven, at the gate of which is standing sacristan Apostle Peter. Peter was disturbed and said to the Lord God: 'All day long I watch the gates of Paradise; I do not let anyone in, yet in the morning there are newcomers in Paradise.' And the Lord said: 'Let us make the rounds at night, Peter.' So they went in the night and they saw the Holy Virgin lowering along the wall Her snow-white scarf, up which souls were climbing. Peter took this to heart and wanted to interfere, but the Lord whispered: 'Sh... let be...' (Nicholas Roerich, To Womanhood, 1931)
Nicholas Roerich was undoubtedly influenced by Christian Mediæval iconography and its representations of heaven and hell, angels and demons. Madonna Laboris is divided into two parts both in its composition and palette. In Hell, at the bottom of the picture, the sinners are punished for their sins and misdeeds by burning in fire in the dark rocks in the foreground which exude fiery flames. To the left, there is the clearly defined figure of a demon, reminiscent of those painted in Mediæval icons (see the icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Sinai, 12th century). The wall of the heavenly city, behind which the Madonna is standing, dominates the picture, protruding towards the viewer. Its importance is further highlighted by the precipice between the rocks of hell and the wall of heaven, which disappears from view through a light haze, thus dividing heaven and hell. The Madonna stretches a silver thread all the way to the rocks, providing salvation to two lost souls. 'This is the thread, which from ancient times takes the Mother to the lowers layers of the world, in order to help the souls of the men, if only they could take the advantage of this help and reach the Sphere of Light.' (N. Kochergina, Rise Magazine, No. 2 (166), February, 2008). The depiction of the thread reflects the importance of angels and demons in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, a motif from the very earliest Christian images. The offered lot is indicative not only of Roerich's thoughts on salvation, but also his skill as an artist. He manages to convey the divine silver glow of the heavenly temple and the shimmer of the halo of the Madonna, contrasting with the reds and the dark hopeless colours of Hell. Roerich's maxim infuses the painting: the path to Heaven is difficult but possible through culture and inner growth.
Painted by Nicholas Roerich in Kulu, India, Madonna Laboris arrived in New York in November 1931, accompanied by Ester Lichtmann. The significance of the work was immediately recognized by the artist's patrons and museum curators and it was illustrated on the cover of the Roerich Museum Bulletin in February 1932. It would appear that by the mid-1930s the painting became part of the Louis Horch art collection and later was acquired by an anonymous private collector, a member of the Rosicrucian Order, a worldwide philosophical and humanistic organization devoted to 'the study of the elusive mysteries of life and the universe'. Nicholas Roerich and Dr. Harvey Spencer Lewis, founder of the American chapter of the Society, were acquainted and Roerich occasionally contributed to the American publications of the Order.
Madonna Laboris was received with great enthusiasm by members of the Roerich museum and collectors. Although its presence in the museum was brief and its disappearance into a private collection was swift, many of Roerich's friends were deeply moved by its beauty and its message. Katherine Campbell Stibbe, one of Roerich's closest friends, recalls that she pleaded with him to paint a smaller version for her personally. Roerich finally agreed and in 1934 presented her with a smaller version, changed only slightly, but which reminded her of the original masterpiece which she so fondly remembered. Roerich instructed her to hang it above her bed, thereby keeping it nearby at all times and Ms Campbell Stibbe was happy to comply, keeping the smaller version until her death. The painting is now in the collection of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York.
We would like to thank our colleagues at the International Centre-Museum of the Roerichs, Moscow, and Gvido Trepsa, Senior Researcher and Daniel Entin, Director, at the Nicholas Roerich Musuem, New York, for their assistance in cataloguing the present lot.
Tempera on canvas
Signed with monogram and dated '1931' (lower left)
Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich
84 x 124cm (33 1/16 x 48 13/16in).