Andrei Rublev: What it Teaches Me About Beauty

Ascertaining a universal meaning of life has proved to be a historic struggle. Likewise, defining “beauty” has proven as formidable a challenge, but hints of an answer were revealed in 1966 with the debut of Andrei Rublev

I must be frank with you. The first time I watched Andrei Rublev, I had little idea what my eyes were actually witnessing. I was in college, so perhaps there’s some leniency for this (let the record show I watched the film under my own volition, and not for any particular course). Making my way through Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, I became lost in a sea of soliloquies and queries concerning the supernatural, overwhelmed by a revolving door of pale faces, and if we’re being as genuine as Kirill’s envy towards the titular virtuoso, forgot the names of certain characters from time to time…

But I still cared for them, these negligible names and pale faces. I was invested in this band of monks traversing the Russian terrain from one job to the next, helplessly watching as citizens, and eventually themselves, experienced famine, war, crises of faith, and personal hardship. Their journey is the people’s journey, thus making it our own. While the narrative’s episodic structure can contribute to a feeling of confusion come Rublev’s colorful close, it’s not until I reflected upon these mesmerizing beats that the work’s coherence finally became so apparent.

As mentioned, Andrei Rublev is an episodic feature. So, for the sake of understanding, let us briefly delve into what each section of the film chronicles. Tedious, I know, and if you’ve already seen the film, perhaps unnecessary. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to do this, if only to justify the unnerving suspicion that I’ll overlook some laconic, consequential moment. If you prefer to skip this, please do. If not, here we go:

Prologue: The Hot Air Balloon

This section of Rublev is loosely tied to what proceeds it. A man, perhaps a scientist, though likely just a man, prepares to take flight in a hot air balloon his assistant has tethered to a church. Suddenly, a sizeable mob appears on a hill and trudges through a pond, making their way towards the church. They assault the assistant as the balloon is released with the man aboard. The breathtaking flight swipes away any words of astonishment, but delight suddenly morphs to dread as the balloon, through no fault of the man’s, crashes into the ground. The last image we see is of a horse, adjacent to the pond and nearby the crash, rolling on its back.

Episode I: The Joyous Jester

Rublev’s introduction, per the rest of the film, is rather unceremonious. He wanders an empty terrain with his colleagues, Daniil and Kirill, in search of work. A rainstorm subsumes them, forcing the trio to seek refuge in a barn they believe to be abandoned, though it’s actually stuffed with laughing faces enjoying a show put on by a jester. Jovial and colorful, the jester makes fun of the monks as they enter, then continues his act that revolves around rebuking the state, church, and Boyar’s (Russia’s ruling class). Daniil sleeps through this, but an agitated Kirill discretely leaves the barn for but a handful of minutes. Thereafter, soldiers arrive, escorting the jester outside, where they knock him unconscious, destroy his loon, and arrest him. As he’s taken away, Kirill wakes Daniil and, alongside Andrei, the trio depart the barn, where the rain once again meets them.

Episode II: The Cynical Greek

Kirill arrives at the workshop of Theophanes. The pessimistic, god-fearing Greek has mastered his craft of painting, though has come to view his profession as more of a chore than a passion. He’s working on a new icon of Jesus Christ, though the artist admits it’s not his most captivating work. Commotion echoes from outside, where a wrongly convicted man is about to be executed. Theophanes is impressed by his discussion with Kirill and invites the monk to serve as his apprentice on his next project. Kirill accepts, under the condition that Theophanes travels to his monastery and makes such an offer in front of his entire fraternity, including Andrei Rublev. Theophanes admits to being a fan of Andrei’s, as is Kirill, despite the latter’s palpable envy.

At the monastery, a messenger arrives; Kirill is pleased that Theophanes has kept good to his word. Only he hasn’t, as the messenger announces that the Greek desires Andrei to assist him. Both Daniil and Kirill are revolted by the news, but where the former’s reproach is temporary, Kirill’s displeasure overflows. He emotionally leaves the monastery, accusing his fraternity of sins of greed on his way out. Outside, and alone in the snow, Kirill trudges onward as his dog runs up from behind, the (only) faithful companion he has left. Fittingly, he beats his furry servant and leaves it for dead.

Episode III: The Passion Play

Alongside Foma, his apprentice, Andrei makes his way towards Moscow, placid of the opportunity to work with Theophanes. Foma is a habitual liar who is less concerned about the meaning of art and instead focuses on the trade’s practical elements, such as coloration. Surprisingly, the pair run into Theophanes in the forest outside Moscow; Theophanes is quick to dismiss Foma, who he considers unimpressive. Foma comes across a dead swan and, suddenly distracted, dreams of traversing the clouds.

Foma cleans his brushes as Andrei and Theophanes argue about religion. The latter believes people are ignorant because of their stupidity, whereas Andrei can’t comprehend how a successful painter could be so cynical. The argument is played over a scene of the Passion Play, a reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, on a snowy plane we can assume to be in Russia. Andrei, thinking back on this moment in history, believes those that hoisted Christ onto the cross loved him and were simply obeying God’s will.

Episode IV: The Pagan Holiday

Two years later. Andrei and Foma camp near a river as sounds of celebration erupt nearby. Curious, Andrei investigates the source of these misplaced noises, coming across a cohort of naked pagans taking part in some kind of ritual. Andrei’s intrigue only grows as he watches, and his eyes eventually turn towards a couple making love. Ultimately, he’s captured by some of the participants, who immediately identify his robes as being associated with the church. The pagans tie Andrei to a crossbeam, mocking Christ’s crucifixion, and as they leave, promise to drown the monk come morning.

A woman appears and, unlike the other pagans, treats Andrei with a surprising amount of kindness. Andrei remains volatile, reprimanding the woman, though her compassion persists, leading her to kiss the monk as she unties him. Andrei is quick to return to the camp. The next morning, Andrei, Foma, Daniil, and others from the fraternity depart downriver in their boats; Andrei dare not utter a word about the prior night. As they follow the current, soldiers appear on one side of the bank chasing after several pagans, one of whom is the kind woman. All the pagans are captured except for her; she rushes into the river and swims to the other side, passing Andrei’s boat along her way. Rublev doesn’t even glance in her direction.

Episode V: The Last Judgement

Andrei and Daniil have spent two months on their latest project: crafting artwork in a grand mansion. Despite this time commitment, the walls of the palace remain barren, white fields. Their employer, a bishop, furiously declares they have but one more season to complete their work. Meandering through a grove of flowers, Andrei admits to Daniil that he has no interest in finishing their assigned project, revealed to be The Last Judgement, out of worry that people will be terrified by it. In a moment of true vulnerability, Andrei reveals to have lost the serenity that artists require to effectively work. As a result, Foma resigns and seeks employment elsewhere.

Nearby, Andrei has workers contracted by a Grand Prince to complete stonework on his mansion. The Prince is dissatisfied with their progress and asks for the work to be redone, but the workers claim to have another job at the palace of the Prince’s brother; on their way out, they gleefully tease the Prince that his brother will have a nicer palace then he does. On the path to their next client, the artisans are attacked by a band of soldiers. Their tools are destroyed and their eyes are gouged out so that they may never be able to conduct their craft again.

News of the attack sends Andrei into a hole of despair; he angrily throws paint against the white mansion walls. As this happens, a young woman, Durochka, wanders into the mansion, seeking shelter from a coming rainstorm. Innocent, she cries at the sight of the smeared paint. Andrei finds inspiration in the girl’s humanity and elects to illustrate a feast on the white fields instead of The Last Judgement.

Episode VI: The Tatar Raid

With the Grand Prince away on vacation, his power-hungry brother brokers an alliance with Tatar raiders and invades Vladimir, where Andrei and his team are currently working. Scenes of the assault are juxtaposed with images of a religious ceremony involving the brothers; the animosity between the two is ancient and obvious. The invasion leads to carnage and chaos: men are killed, women are raped, and horses are beaten down stairwells. Foma, attempting to escape, is shot in the back with an arrow.

The Tatars inevitably reach the church, where they meet the remaining town citizenry, Andrei, and his glorious paintings that decorate the cathedral’s interior. No mercy is demonstrated, leading to a massacre of citizens; Andrei’s art isn’t spared. Durochka is nearly kidnapped by a raider, but Andrei rescues her by killing her captor. The church’s leader is tortured, tied to a horse, and dragged to his death. The cathedral is left nearly barren, filled with nothing but dead bodies, an alive Andrei & Dorushka, and paintings; some preserved, others tarnished.

In the aftermath of annihilation, Andrei envisions a conversation with the now-deceased Theophanes. Andrei bemoans the loss of his work and reprimands man before swearing a vow of silence for taking a life. Meanwhile, Durochka plays with the hair of a deceased maiden.

Episode VII: The Silence Sworn

Andrei’s home monastery has become ravaged by famine, war, and winter. The monk has maintained his silent vow, still refusing to paint, and is accompanied only by Durochka. Deeper in the monastery, refugees discuss their escape from Vladimir, and one of these poor souls is revealed to be Kirill. His voice broken and spirit disheartened, the man accepts penance and is ultimately welcomed back to the monastery.

Suddenly, a group of Tatars arrives and one of the riders takes an interest in Durochka, who is enamored with the mounted man’s shiny armor. Despite Andrei’s attempts to hold her back, Durochka is taken by the Tatar, who promises to make the girl his eighth wife. Kirill confronts Andrei for the first time since he left the monastery, attempting to soothe Andrei by explaining that harming Durochka would be sinful and that, ultimately, she’ll be released for being a holy fool. Despite Kirill’s pleading, Andrei doesn’t utter a word and, instead of painting, spends his days tending to the monastery.

Episode VIII: The Salubrious Bell

The penultimate episode first appears, much like the prologue, to be detached from the narrative of Andrei Rublev. Boriska, the young son of a master bellmaker, is contacted by men hailing from the Grand Prince. They desire a bronze bell to be cast for the church in Vladimir; only trouble is that Boriska’s father, along with much of his village, has died. That said, Boriska claims to know his father’s knowledge of how to craft the perfect bell. At first dismissive, the men agree to put the boy in charge of the project. It’s also revealed that the Grand Prince has had his brother, the one who raided Vladimir, beheaded.

Boriska treats his workers with cruelty, the pressures of the job poking at his soul; those that defy the boy’s orders are flogged. The project morphs into an expansive, and expensive, endeavor. Andrei arrives as the work continues and watches from afar as the boy second-guess himself to the point Boriska doubts his prospects for success.

Crowds begin to gather in anticipation of the bell being raised; among the clusters of people is the formerly arrested jester. He identifies Andrei and mistakingly thinks that it was he, and not Kirill, that called the soldiers upon him. Kirill arrives to aid the still silent Andrei, diffuses the situation, and admits to being envious of Andrei in the painter’s prime years. Such envy has dissipated since Andrei’s silent vow, but this doesn’t stop Kirill from verbally lambasting Andrei for allowing his God-given talent to go to waste.

As the bell is cast, Boriska asks God for success in it working, but disbelief overwhelms him. He makes a concerted effort to take a backseat as the project nears completion, blending in among the workers. Following completion, the bronze bell is blessed by a priest as it is raised into the tower. The Grand Prince arrives with an entourage for the inaugural ceremony, though some of the other royals doubt the bell will ring. Boriska and the crew receive word that if the bell fails to ring, they will all be beheaded. Tension rises, anticipation builds, the assembly feeling only eagerness. Among them is the white-robbed Durochka, accompanied by a child. A smile etches itself on her face as the bell rings… perfectly.

After the ceremony, Boriska collapse onto the muddy ground, and Andrei comes to the boy's side. Boriska reveals to never knowing his father’s bell secret and that his success was a miracle. Nevertheless, the bell has injected energy into the suddenly jovial crowd; Andrei has taken note of this. The mute painter breaks his vow of silence, a miracle within itself, and proposes that he and Boriska work alongside each other. Andrei looks up to see Durochka and her child, atop a horse, riding in the distance.

Epilogue: The Union of Color

What follows are the only colored scenes within the film: vibrant, aged images of some of Rublev’s famed icons. The film’s conclusion comes with a dissolve into an image of four horses standing by a river as rain pelts down and thunder roars above.

If you made it this far, you have my utmost appreciation. And yes, I’m well aware that while you were progressing from episode to episode, your mind, per this rudimentary summary structure I’ve adopted, inevitably jumped to thoughts of Star Wars, Mark Hamill, R2, and (as it happened to me) The Mandalorian. Maybe it was only for an instant, or maybe you actually set aside this terse opinion piece on a Russian film from 1966 and returned to binge-watching what is a genuinely entertaining TV show. Nevertheless, you have my thanks for sticking with this. Now, on to our discussion:

Hardships and Miracles. Hope and Fear. Existence and Death. As some of the most revered artists and icon painters have illustrated, beauty’s origins can be rooted in each of these elements

It’s fair to argue that Andrei Rublev is less a narrative about the artist’s “life” and more an investigation, a poem, revolving around what inspired the Russian’s art. What experiences led to the creation of the timeless works we see come the film’s close?

With the exception of the prologue, existing for the sake of theme building by illustrating a man’s aspirations being squelched by the anger, and fear, of humanity, each episode of Rublev resides as an explanation to this overarching query. At face value, a viewer is likely most captivated by Episode VI, which chronicles the (in)famous Tatar raid of Vladimir; the sequence is revered for its cinematic wonder, horrifying action, and for harming actual animals. Of course, it’s a riveting piece of the epoch, though it’s fair to argue that the scene wouldn’t be nearly as pivotal thematically if not for the conversation between a depressed Andrei & a deceased Theophanes in the fallout of battle.

The dialogue parallels what was discussed in Episode III, which took place years earlier, and where the storied Greek painter claims human ignorance is rooted in stupidity. Back then, Andrei’s innocence was obvious; he can’t comprehend how an artist can have such dissatisfied views of a world that treats his art as a common good. Now, kneeling in a war-torn church, surrounded by a plethora of corpses as fires ravage the paintings and icons he’s spent numerous hours crafting, one can certainly understand how a fundamentally optimistic perspective of humanity can mutate. It is humanity that has taken his work, and for this, Andrei denounces them. Thus, we must ask: when Andrei killed a man to rescue Durochka, was he doing it to save the girl from being the victim of sin, or was he unleashing his emotion upon man for turning him into a cynic?

Nevertheless, this is the consequential moment where the Russian legend morphs from a curious, wide-eyed artiste into a reticent, close-minded dissenter. Would Andrei have investigated the Pagan Holiday if it had come after the Tatar Raid? Would he have accepted Theophanes' proposition in Episode II? Rhetorical points. Brutality created Andrei’s cynicism, but hints of animosity can be found as early as Episode V, where Andrei refuses to paint The Last Judgment out of fear that such an image will result in human suffering. He paints come the end of the episode, but it’s obvious that Theophanes’ question of ignorance has resonated with him for some time.

Horses pop up throughout Rublev, and sometimes in the briefest of moments. Tarkovsky viewed the creature as a symbol of life. Life serves as the inspiration for the work of all artists, including Andrei Rublev

All this analysis does good in explaining why Andrei swore silence and gave up his trade. How can art exist in such a dark world? Rublev, despite the monastery being his home, experiences this dark world throughout much of the story. His decisions in these consequential moments illustrate his many shortcomings, and it’s not until the painter submits to his weaknesses in that war-torn church that doubt and paralysis become his reality. Darkness overshadows the common good…

…Until it doesn’t. Until Andrei witnesses a boy attempting to establish his own place in a world that has every reason to throw him aside. Boriska’s endurance in crafting the bronze bell illustrates the human desire to produce beauty in an otherwise ugly world. Andrei watches the boy as he experiences everything that Andrei has endured in every preceding episode: optimism, arrogance, curiosity, ambiguity, dread, pain. Then the bell rings, and it is the boy who experiences what Andrei encountered in the church: sorrow. Whereas Andrei’s sorrow arose as a reaction to destruction, Boriska’s emerges due to the miraculous nature of beauty. Hearing the bell was a religious experience that provoked the innocence of a weary boy who almost fell into the same crevice of despair as Andrei.

Fortunately, Andrei also heard that bell, presenting him with his very own religious experience. When the Russian painter confronts Boriska, this boy that he has never met before, Andrei knows exactly what he has endured. Andrei and Boriska are both artists. Both humans. Both escapists. Both pioneers of a dark world. Both influenced by this world, the hardship and miracles that it constantly presents.

There is no logical answer to Theophanes' question about human ignorance, nor is there a solution to the mindless barbarism of the Tartars. The film, and its story, exists not as a statement, but as a poem. Because of this, Andrei Rublev is introspective within its very nature. Viewing the film is akin to gazing at Da Vinci’s Mundi or peering through a window into the sky. Andrei’s religious experience illustrates life’s impact on his art. Our religious experience of watching this cinematic masterpiece reminds us of the opportunity we have to create our own beauty.

On a side: I don’t associate myself with any particular religious denomination, perhaps due to the fact that neither of my parents does themselves. Yet, that doesn’t mean I don’t engage in religious experiences, which are subjective within their vary nature, nor do I not appreciate the beauty of religion: its history, culture, music, artwork. You too engage in these experiences through a wide array of mediums, spanning from nature to literature to what have you. Perhaps we do reside in a dark world, but it’s a world that leaves open the opportunity for beauty to exist or, as Andrei Rublev demonstrates, to be created.