Dmitry Merezhkovsky is frequently associated with the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. He believed art should be recognized as humanity’s highest metaphysical activity. Symbolism elevated idealism above materialism, aesthetics above science, imagination above reason, and subjectivity above objectivity. Drawing examples from ancient Greece, medieval Europe, Renaissance Italy, and Russia, Merezhkovsky argued that all great art is motivated by religious strivings. Greek tragedy was an attempt to place humanity in the cosmos. Gothic cathedrals indicate the desire for ascension. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were motivated by religious questions to develop a new theology. Likewise, Merezhkovsky considered Symbolist art theurgy, a means to higher truth, and the basis for spiritual revival in Russia. With the artist as spiritual guide, religion becomes a source of unity between artists and people.
The incompatibility of artists and the people became apparent as Symbolism grew as a cultural movement. Within the framework of Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, Merezhkovsky developed a new theology over the course of several decades. For Merezhkovsky, historical Christianity scorned the world and exalted selflessness, asceticism, and humility. Instead, he admired Christ as a superman who overcame death. He considered the next step in religious consciousness as the development of godmanhood, a process of spiritual evolution occurring in three distinct historical phases. The first humanity is the pre-Christian world of the flesh, depicted in the Old Testament. The second revelation, in the New Testament, revealed that spiritual love is truth. In the third revelation, the Holy Mother, who symbolizes the union of divine spirit and earthly flesh, ends human religious duality. The outcome is apocalyptic; a new humanity is created on earth, the world is transformed, and a new church is born.
Christ and Antichrist, the trilogy of novels in which The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci is the second, was Merezhkovsky’s attempt to recapitulate the stages of world history and to delineate the features of the godman who appears at the end. Each work in the trilogy focuses on a titanic figure who epitomizes humanity in his own time. Taken together, the three volumes demonstrate Merezhkovsky’s conviction that history is a dialectic between the two principles of paganism and Christianity, a...
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