Photo: Skomorokhs in a Russian Village (1857), painting by Franz Nikolaevich Riss
The painting by Francois Nicholas Riss (1804-1886), often referred to as Franz Nikolaevich Riss, depicts Skomorokhs performing in a Russian village street. It is a typical Russian village setting of the times with wooden and thatched roof houses, and the village folks of all age groups, from very young children to old men and women gathering to enjoy the show.
Born in Russia, Franz Nikolaevich Riss studied painting in Paris at Baron Antoine-Jean Gros and mainly painted portraits, including the famous portrait of Jacques Cartier, the discoverer of Canada. In 1930s he returned to Russia and settled in Saint Petersburg.
The Skomorokhs were East Slavic street performers who were active in medieval times in Russia and many other Slavic nations. Their origin is documented to the 11th century, becoming very popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. They had to face severe persecution from the orthodoxy, especially from the Russian Orthodox Church, and they had to disappear from the scene by the 18th century.
In fact, many of the folk traditions of many eastern regions from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent have influences of these folk performers. For instance, the evolution of the Russian puppet theatre drew directly the Skomorokhs.
As their repertoire included singing, dancing, playing musical instruments and composing and choreographing for their performances, they could draw crowds of hundreds that is remarkable for the era that had no advertising and marketing for such shows. Neither was there the electronic media of today’s times nor the elaborate stage settings to attract people.
The Skomorokhs were feared as the devil’s servants by the Orthodox Church that also discouraged folk art and popular culture which were considered irreverent and repelling people from God. As the rulers were either strongly influenced by the church or rather the rulers were ruled by the church, banning their shows was easy. A case in point is the ban order issued by Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1657, which was influenced by the church.
The feudalists and the clergy were dead against Skomorokhi as their art occasionally included satire, masks and mock songs that were popular among the common people. These could be used against the elite that seem to be the refrain of the church that wanted to propagate ascetic living.