Ivan Aivazovsky: Sea Chapels, Shipwrecks & the Moonlit Night

Ivan Aivazovsky [1817 – 1900] was a Russian painter and one of the greatest masters of marine art who is predominately known for his masterpieces that depict seascapes: coastlines and seas. As a child growing up in Feodosia (Crimea), Aivazovsky fell in love with the sea (the Black Sea) and this passion for water and all things marine never left him. Below is just a tiny fraction of his paintings, where I focus on the themes of “sea chapels” and shipwrecks, and Aivazovsky is also known for depicting Armenian themes and battles. Some of my other favourite Aivazovsky’s paintings include his depictions of the Bay of Naples and Constantinople.

I. Clock-wise from the upper left-hand corner: Sea View with Chapel [1845], Misty Morning in Italy [1864] and Chapel by the Coast on a Moonlit Night [1851]

These paintings of chapels by the sea create an impression of an idyllic scenery, a harmonic fusion of the man’s spirituality/religion and nature’s wonder. It is no wonder Aivazovsky’s paintings are often compared to beautiful poetry. Chapels by the sea were not uncommon. Sailors have always been a religious and superstitious class of people, and for a good reason. Sea is one of the most unpredictable environments one may find themselves in, and, in past times, sea-travel was fraught with various difficulties, culminating in disasters and death with frequency which is staggering by today’s standards. Thus, the protection of sailors and safe journeying on sea were issues of paramount importance. Chapels near the sea must have served a welcoming sight, symbolising the man’s “illusionary” control over the uncontrollable, and they often contain statues of saints, which only leave chapels on special days and festivals. Both Charles Dickens (in American Notes [1842]) and Herman Melville (in Moby-Dick [1851]) were fascinated by “sea chapels”, and patron saints of sailors and marine travel include St Brendan, a celebrated traveller, whose worship promises safe passage, St. Christopher, the legendary patron saint of travel, and St Erasmus, an ex-Bishop, who suffered much for his faith. In past times, such chapels also worked similar to lighthouses, signalling the way to the bay.

II. Clock-wise from the upper left-hand corner: The Ninth Wave [1850], Shipwreck of Lefort [1858] and The Shipwreck [1884]

Aivazovsky created many paintings of shipwrecks and all of them are awe-inspiring: vivid, focusing on the beautiful, merciless sea. These paintings, like no other, capture the man’s struggle against the natural forces – his combat against water and storms. Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave is probably his most famous painting. In the sailing jargon, the “ninth wave” is considered to be the highest wave, which comes after a succession of large waves. The painting depicts a night storm during which a number of people are struggling to remain afloat on their makeshift vessel which takes the shape of a cross (standing for salvation). They look onto the sea and see the ninth wave coming their way. Although their predicament appears gloomy, the red and yellow colours (the sun) in the painting signal hope.

Shipwreck of Lefort is another curious painting. It shows the drowned crew of the Russian ship Lefort greeting Jesus Christ after their death. Lefort was a ship of the Russian Baltic Fleet, rated at eight-four guns and carrying the name of Admiral Franz Lefort, Captain of the Russian Navy. On 22 September 1857, it was on route from Reval (present day Tallinn, Estonia) to Kronstadt when it sank due to a squall (a sudden and rapid increase in wind). All on board perished (756 crew members, 53 women, and 17 children (families of the crew)). The ship’s weakening (as it carried heavy loads some time prior), as well as the incorrect handling of the cargo were said to be the contributing causes of the sinking. The painting is quite striking, with the figure of Jesus Christ welcoming the drowned to his kingdom, with the children being admitted first.

Finally, The Shipwreck shows people on a boat combatting sea waves. This painting may show people suffering great hardship, but it also brims with quiet and sober optimism. This is shown by the rosy horizon, as well as by the people quietly working together at their oars. The person at the front of the boat can also be seen waving a piece of white cloth. His actions mean that he undoubtedly spotted a ship in the distance, which may mean this crew’s salvation.

III. The Moonlit Night [c. 1850]

I thought I would finish this post with a painting that evokes certain cosiness and warmth. Ivan Aivazovsky’s night seascapes are exquisite and this one is no exception. In this painting, we view the curious play of light and shadow, and see the moon and its moonlight reflected in the sea. Some people, most likely, fishermen, have gathered near the fire to warm themselves and cook this day’s catch. They are portrayed in a certain makeshift wooden “house”, which is nothing more than than cut-down tree trunks and a leafy exterior “roof”. It is the night’s calmness which is the true “heroine” in this work of art. Aivazovsky wanted to convey the sheer beauty of a still, peaceful night on the shore and at sea, that kind of night that gives way to deep reflections and feelings of otherworldliness.


12 thoughts on “Ivan Aivazovsky: Sea Chapels, Shipwrecks & the Moonlit Night

  1. Those are stunning paintings Diana. They’re memorable for their beauty but also for the way they transport the viewer to another time and place. I love the first three paintings. The use of color in The Ninth Wave is spectacular. Thanks for the moment of time travel.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such beautiful paintings, the stories they tell, of suffering, courage and refuge. I live the sea chapels, it made me think of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, or la mère as she is referred to, very connected to the sea, and a beacon on the horizon.

    The night seascapes are lovely, such a contrast to the day battles with the waves and weather. Thank you for the introduction, beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by! I have never been to Marseille, but Notre Dame de la Garde looks absolutely stunning! There is something special about churches by the sea.


  3. Russia produced a host of incredible painters, especially in the mid to late nineteenth century. Bryullov. Repin and Vrubel are three Russians, I am most familiar with. I’m also familiar with Aivazovsky and his affinity for Constantinople but these examples here are also breathtaking. It seems we have something else in common – an appreciation for art.

    Liked by 1 person

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