If Russian Orthodox Writer and Painter, Pavel Petrovich Svinin, Visited the Black Church in America Today, What Would he See?


An artist’s rendering offers a unique record of the African-American experience in the early days of the republic.

A large, tumultuous group of black congregants assembles before a modest clapboard church in Philadelphia. This watercolor rendering is one of 52 views of life along the Eastern Seaboard made by Pavel Petrovich Svinin and a fellow immigrant, the German painter John Lewis Krimmel. A classically trained artist, Svinin had arrived in Philadelphia as assistant to the Russian consul to the U.S. government. During a short residence of only two years, Svinin left a unique record of the African-American experience in the early republic.

This lively demonstration of faith may remind the viewer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1793 by distinguished activist and preacher the Rev. Richard Allen. But the spirited, spontaneous tone of the preacher in the doorway; the humble nature of the wooden structure behind the tumbling congregants; and the lack of resemblance of the preacher to Allen all distance the association of the group from Allen’s more conventionally ordered church.

In fact, it represents the antithesis of the more elevated spirit of worship of African Americans in the city. Svinin’s text makes special mention of the spiritual call-and-response between preacher and congregation assembled before him within the sanctuary, their voices eventually reaching a “high, monotonous” crescendo. Standing under the choir in the rear of the church, he feared that the whole building might come down around him.

Svinin strolled the streets of Philadelphia seeking characteristic views of its daily life. He often depicted the activities of poor blacks shown in various kinds of service to well-off whites. This scene takes place in what the artist described as an alley. The participants in these acts of individual witness have spilled out from the simple interior of the church, the better to accommodate their own unrestrained form of worship.

Svinin painted the scene in fresh, vibrant tones that accentuate the frenzied activity of the congregants. He recorded an aspect of African-American religion during the period when religious sentiment in the country was transformed by the popular movement known as the Great Enlightenment. For some, the view has been regarded as a satire of black worship, showing as it does an unrestrained group of men and women, many writhing on the ground as though transported by a state of spiritual revelation.

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SOURCE: The Root

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