Holy Black Square
A Comparative Religion inquiry into Modern Art

Every Orthodox Christian used to have an icon in his dwelling. It was always placed in a far right corner of the room, which was called an Icon corner.

An Icon Corner. Image taken from etnografiavko.kz

The first thing a devout Orthodox Chnristian did upon entering an apartment was to venerate the icon. Thus upon walking into the room he would look into the Icon corner and raise his hand, in a Pavlovian fashion, to do the sign of the cross. It is therefore natural that when Kazimir Malevich placed his Black Suprematic Square in the Icon corner of the exhibition hall the fanatics got mad.

The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10. Petrograd 1915-1916. Image taken from Wikipedia.

The artist Aleksandr Benua (also spelled Alexandre Benois) wrote the following in his newspaper article [1] (my translation utilizing the one by Jane Sharp [2]):

...in the corner, high above, right under the ceiling, in the holy place hangs the "work" of Mr. Malevich depicting a black square in a white frame. Without a doubt, this is the "icon" which the Futurists offer as a replacement for the Madonnas
this is not a mere joke, not a mere challenge, not a chance little episode ... it is one of the acts of self-assertion of the principle which has for its name the abomination of desolation, which boasts that through pride, through arrogance, through violation of all things lovable and gentle it will bring everyone to ruin.

However, Malevich himself in a 1920 letter [3] to the literary critic Mikhail Gershenzon gave a different interpretation of his artwork (translated by Evgenia Petrova [4]):

I had the idea that were humanity to draw an image of the Divinity after its own image, perhaps the Black square is the image of God as the essence of His perfection on a new path for today's fresh beginning.

The whole thing resembles an interchange between the adepts of different sects who are sure that they worship God the right way and accuse their competitors of satanism.

Suprematic funeral. Image taken from k-malevich.ru

When Malevich died his followers placed Black Suprematic Squre at the head of his funeral bed. Christians usually have an icon in that place.

Christian funeral.

Now let us give the word to Mircea Eliade, a scholar in Comparative religion. Note that he was not familiar with the writings of Malevich and Benois but arrived at his conclusions by comparing the behaviour of art lovers with that of the members of arhaic societies. In his article "Survival and camouflages of myths" [5] Eliade wrote:

We cannot, of course, here analyze the mythology of the modern elites in all its manifestations. We shall confine ourselves to a few remarks. First of all, we may note the redeeming function of “difficulty,” especially as found in works of modern art. If the elite revel in Finnegan’s Wake, or in atonal music, or in tachisme, it is also because such works represent closed worlds, hermetic universes that cannot be entered except by overcoming immense difficulties, like the initiatory ordeals of the archaic and traditional societies. On the one hand, one has the experience of an “initiation,” an experience that has almost vanished from the modern World; on the other hand, one proclaims to the “others” (i.e., the “mass”) that one belongs to a select minority – not, as once, to an aristocracy (for modern elites lean toward the left), but to a gnosis that has the advantage of being at once spiritual and secular in that it opposes both official values and the traditional churches.

One dreams of being “initiated” and thereby made able to understand the occult meaning of all these destructions of artistic languages, these “original” experiences that, at first sight, no longer seem to have anything in common with art. The torn posters, the empty, scorched, slashed canvases, the “art objects” that explode on opening day, the improvised plays in which the actors’ speeches are drawn by lot – all this must have a meaning

The hypothesis that the attitude of art lovers toward modern art is religious in nature now looks quite plausible. It can explain certain mysterious facts. Some time ago I conducted an experiment where people had to tell the difference between the masterpieces of abstract art and my doodles [6]. They could not. This raised the question of why the abstract masterpieces are so famous and expensive. The question turned out to be quite old since long before me the perpetrators of the Disumbrationist and Pierre Brassau hoaxes had already asked it. Now we have the answer. This is because the masterpieces of modern art are icons. We already know that the worshipers of the traditional icons attribute to them magical powers and persist in these believes despite all the evidence to the contrary. The worshipers of modern art icons attribute to them the properties that are not outright supernatural. Nonetheless, scientific inquiry demonstrates that these properties are just as real as the magical powers of traditional icons. The worshipers of modern art icons, however, are no more pesuaded by scientific evidence than traditional fanatics.

Let us add that the skeptics often ask the very same question about the creators of traditional icons that they ask about modern artists: could the guy paint? For example, Russian journalist Alexander Nevzorov described the famous Trinity by Rublev in the following words [7] (my translation):

...something with faded wings, with sausage-like fingers without joints, with hands with strange anatomical parameters, with puffy, very schematically painted womanly faces, and the deformed cup on the table.

Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Recently British artist Damien Hirst produced the sculpture, titled For the Love of God. It consists of a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds. The modern artist is copying the Roman Catholic Church which in 16th century had bejeweled a dozen skeletons of the alleged saints [8].

Decorated relics of St. Benedictus [8].

Finally let us note that the worship of outright degenerate masterpieces of modern art (rotten sharks in formaldehyde, artist's excrements) also has its counterpart within the creed whose founder had blessed those poor in spirit. It is the worship of the dried corpses and body parts of the saints. I am not including in the article the images (which I took from http://neupivaemaja.io.ua/) since they are disgusting. But you can view them here: the first and the second. The picture is now complete.

Mikhail Simkin
October 5, 2015
Updated: October, 27, 2015; February 10, 2016


  1. Aleksandr Benua (also spelled Alexandre Benois), Posledniaia futuristicheskaia vystavka, Riech, 1916-01-09, p.3. (in Russian).
  2. Jane A. Sharp, The critical reception of the 0.10 exhibition: Malevich and Benua, in The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-32. Exhibition Catalogue, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York, 1992), 38-52.
  3. Kazimir Malevich, "Chernyi kvadrat," Azbuka, Sankt-Peterburg, 2001 (in Russian).
  4. Evgenia Petrova, Malevich's Suprematism and Religion, 2003.
  5. Mircea Eliade, "Survival and camouflages of myths." First published in 1963 and reprinted several times including in Mircea Eliade, Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts, Crossroad, New York, 1985.
  6. Mikhail Simkin, My statistician could have painted that! A statistical inquiry into modern art, Significance, vol 4, no 2, pp 93-96 (2007)
  7. Alexander Nevzorov, Anthropogenesis. Rublev. A Lamp, 2014 (in Russian).
  8. Paul Koudounaris, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs (2013)

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