Members' Forum: Nicholas Roerich: Artist of the Spiritual

Printed in the  Summer 2022 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Snow, Judith "Nicholas Roerich: Artist of the Spiritual" Quest 110:3, pg 12-13

By Judith Snow

JudithSnowNicholas Roerich (1874‒1947), artist, humanitarian, peacemaker, writer, educator, philosopher, explorer, and archaeologist, wrote, “In beauty we are united, through beauty we pray, with beauty we conquer.” He devoted his life to manifesting beauty in many fields of endeavor.

It was a spiritual experience for me to visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York City. As I studied the paintings, it became obvious to me that Roerich had been deeply influenced by the artistic vision of his art teacher Arkhip Kuindzhi at the Imperial Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg, Russia. Kuindzhi taught him that “there must be an inwardness in a painting. Composition and technique need to be subordinate to this inwardness. Nothing should distract the viewer from the main idea. And do not fill in empty spaces on a canvas with details that have no relation to the subject.”

It seems to me that Kuindzhi’s advice has application for each of us in how to live our lives successfully. In fact, Roerich said Kuindzhi was not only a teacher of painting but of life.

I found Roerich’s paintings to be moving and refreshing in their simplicity. The vivid colors vibrated with an underlying spirituality that spoke to my heart of the beauty and wisdom of this individual. 

Arkhip Kuindzhi 
 Arkhip Kuindzhi

Roerich often painted saints whom he considered symbols of love and goodness. He wrote, “They belong to the whole world as steps to the true evolution of humanity.” Hermitage of St. Sergius evokes a saint whom Roerich considered one of the spiritual teachers of humanity.

Roerich’s own spiritual philosophy was inclusive. He embraced elements from many traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Theosophy, Russian Orthodoxy, and pantheism.  He also followed the Agni Yoga teachings called Living Ethics, or the yoga of synthesis, which involves the conscious development of the intuitive faculty.

For Roerich, women are the guardians of universal beauty. He wrote, “Women, . . . fearless you will rise up to guard the improvement of life . . . You will say to children the first word about beauty.” He executed many paintings of women, including the famous Mother of the World and Madonna Oriflamma holding the Banner of Peace.

The symbols on the banner are three red circles within a circle. They represent religion, art, and science, and the past, present, and future achievements of humanity. The banner is a symbol of the Roerich Peace Pact, which he conceived to protect cultural treasures during times of war. It was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other world leaders.

These efforts, plus thirty years of promoting culture, beauty, and international brotherhood, earned Roerich a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. Support from his contemporaries included Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy was so impressed with one of his paintings that he wrote a parable based on it.

Hermitage of St Sergius  

St. Sergius Hermitage



As an educator, Roerich served as director of two schools of art. One was in Russia. The other, founded in New York, was called the Master Institute of United Arts. Both offered a wide range of art education based on his belief that a well-rounded knowledge of the arts would lead to universal beauty, spiritual enlightenment, and insight into the wisdom of the masters. He wrote, “Bring art to the people—where it belongs. We should have not only museums, theatres, universities, public libraries, railway stations, and hospitals, but even prisons decorated and beautified . . . Art will unify all humanity.”

Mother of the world       madonna oriflamma
 Mother of the World        Madonna Oriflamma

Roerich’s diversity of talents made him unique. He was trained not only as an artist but also as a lawyer. He wrote on legal matters, ethics, and the arts. He was renowned for his opera and ballet set designs, and worked with famed artists Vaslav Nijinsky, Konstantin Stanislavsky, and Igor Stravinsky, and producer Sergei Diaghilev.

Roerich’s archaeological pursuits included a three-year scientific expedition and spiritual quest through India, China, Mongolia, and Tibet. Throughout this journey, he collected soil samples, plants, myths, and legends of the native people, and produced hundreds of paintings. His book Heart of Asia chronicles this pioneering venture.

In all, Roerich produced some 7,000 paintings, drawings, sets, and costume designs. A beautiful book, illustrated in color, Nicholas Roerich: The Life and Art of a Russian Master by Jacqueline Decter, as well as color prints and postcards, are available through the Nicholas Roerich Museum, 319 West 107th St., New York, NY 10025-2799; (212) 864-7752.

 Judith Snow is president of the Bradenton-Sarasota Theosophical Study Center and the Theosophical Society in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is a former director of the Theosophical Society in America.