DEPICTIONS OF THE BANYA IN ART

Nobody knows when the first banya was lit but people have been gathering and washing in banyas for more than a millenium. 

The banya existed before the emergence of the early Slavic state in Kiev, survived the Mongol invasion, persisted as Moscow united the Russian lands, prospered under Peter the Great’s campaign of Westernisation and gained renewed importance in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. It is one constant through centuries of change.  

Banyas were originally used by Slavic tribes for both hygiene and religious purposes. In ancient times, people believed that bathing in hot water had healing and purifying properties, and banyas were often seen as a sacred space.

As Christianity spread north from Constantinople and replaced the prevailing pagan beliefs, bathing traditions and Christian rituals became intertwined. People would often visit the banya before important religious events, such as weddings or baptisms, to cleanse both their bodies and minds.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, urban banyas became more luxurious and sophisticated, with features such as hot and cold water pools, steam rooms, and massage tables. People would often build private banyas in their homes, and they would invite friends and business associates to visit.

Today, banyas remain an important part of Eastern European culture, and they are enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds.

It’s no surprise that the banya has been depicted by numerous artists over the years. Here are some of our favourite examples.  

The Banya – Zinaida Serebryakova

If you have already visited The Bath House, you will have seen our mosaics inspired by the works of Zinaida Serebryakova.   

Serebryakova was born in 1884 into a prominent artistic family and grew up near Kharkiv in present day Ukraine. Her early works included self-portraits like the famous “At the Dressing Table” and paintings of rural life. Her picture “The Banya,” depicts a group of women enjoying the pleasures of a traditional bath house and was groundbreaking as it was painted by a woman.

In this painting Serebryakova masterfully captures the relaxed and intimate atmosphere of a banya. The women are depicted undressed, but there is no sense of immodesty or vulgarity. Paintings of women at the banya by men inevitably carry sexual undertones that are absent in Serebryakova’s image. Instead, there is a sense of camaraderie among the women as they bathe together. They are powerful, strong and their eleven carefully arranged bodies crowd the frame. 

The Bath House - Banya London blog post
The Bath House - Banya Londn Blog post

Russian Venus – Boris Kustodiev

“Russian Venus” is one of the most famous paintings of the banya, portraying as it does an idealised vision of Russian femininity, fertility and desire.  

Painted by Boris Kustodiev in 1926, Russian Venus depicts a woman washing at the banya. Her hair cascades over her left shoulder and in her right hand she holds a birch venik that has just been soaked in the wooden bucket beside her. Steam billows in the foreground and soap suds spill onto the steps that she is standing on, as if she has just enjoyed a soap massage at The Bath House. In the background a traditional shawl is visible and the window looks out onto a wintry street.  

Kustodiev’s career straddled the Russian Revolution and many of his paintings depict classic Russian landscapes and scenes from day to day life.  He was also a prolific portrait painter who painted many of the most famous people of his day including Tsar Nikcholas II and the opera singer Feodor Chaliapin.

Russian Banya – Inna Shirokova

This picture is called simply “Russian Banya” and was painted by the contemporary Russian artist Inna Shirokova. The young woman depicted has a venik at her feet and a leaf stuck to her thigh, so perhaps she has just enjoyed parenie. 

The picture captures some of the atmosphere of the banya but for the real thing, book a visit to The Bath House. 

Which of these three do you prefer or do you have another favourite picture of the banya?

Aunt Sara then appears with some veniks and “in that steam heat began to birch me, very lightly at first…and then harder and harder…until I began to yelp. More steam came belching up, and she turned me over and began to work on my chest and stomach. I was fairly interested by now, for mildly painful though it was, it was distinctly stimulating”.

I will leave the rest to your imagination or you can search out the book. Flashman concludes that “the Russians have some excellent institutions” and that Sara was “undoubtedly my favourite aunt”.

There is no bad time to visit the banya – you can go alone or with friends, you can celebrate, commiserate or meditate there. I moved to Moscow in 1999 and by this time I was generally using the banya to recover from the night before. I usually visited Kransopresnenskaya banya which was most famous for an incident in 1994 when a notorious Georgian gangster was shot by a sniper as he walked out onto the street. S Legkym Parom indeed!

Wherever I travelled for work in Russia or nearby, I would sample the local banya, from small shacks in the countryside to grand urban complexes like Sanduny in Moscow or Arasan in Almaty. I also began to think about opening somewhere back in the UK and, when I moved to London in my 30’s, I researched the contemporary bathhouse scene. There wasn’t much to get excited about. My favourite was probably the Porchester in Queensway had a glorious kidney shaped pool and beautiful tiled rooms with a range of temperatures ranging from the coolest (Frigidarium) to the hottest (Laconicum), but none of them offered the same rejuvenating experience as banyas in Russia.

 

The Bath Houses of London

At the same time, I learned that London had a rich history of bath houses. These included an opulent Oriental bathhouse opened in 1862 on Jermyn Street by a former British diplomat in Constantinople and a Russian banya on Brick Lane called Russian Vapour Baths, set up by emigree jews who had fled the pogroms of the Tsarist empire for East London.  There were also numerous “bath houses” or laundries where people could go to literally take a bath and do some washing. Look carefully around the city and you will see examples like this one in Kentish Town.

The Bath House – Banya London opened in 2019 and we hope it is a worthy addition to that history.