Through painstaking precision, Lviv’s icon restorers revive Ukraine’s precious gems
It will take months of delicate restoration for the Madonna’s face on the 14th-century icon to be seen again.
The process will include a chemical analysis of the work, gluing the icon’s cloth foundation back to the wood and then a painstaking effort to lift centuries of grime.
Helping icons live again is all in a day’s work for restorers at The Andrey Sheptytsky Lviv National Museum. Considered some of the best icon restorers in the world, this group of 40 dedicated individuals has tackled difficult projects. Overall, the museum has some 4,000 icons, which have been collected over several decades. Some of them are currently on tour in the United States.
The first icons were purchased by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky of the Greek Catholic church, who established the museum in 1905, while others were obtained over the years. Although some date back to the 14th century, the majority of icons in the restorer’s coffers are from the 16th century. Their sheer mass and the process involved in refurbishment means that restorers work on several projects at a time.
Volodymyr Mokriy, who heads the museum’s restoration branch, said all of the icons that have come to the museum need restoration. “We look after them daily,” he said.
The Andrey Sheptytsky Lviv National Museum has some 4,000 icons, which have been collected over several decades.(UNIAN)
Some icons need just minor work, like ridding air pockets that have developed where the canvas on which the icon’s image is painted has separated from the wood by carefully gluing them back using a syringe. This process usually takes several days.
Others require large amounts of time, sometimes years before the restoration is complete. With Madonna’s face, the restorer will fill in spaces of chipped paint with acrylic, matching colors as close to the original as possible. At the end of a process that requires both science and heart, the icon, “Mother of God Hodigitria,” will relive its previous glory.
Liubomyr Mahinsky, the department’s assistant head, has been restoring one icon for a year-and-a-half now and only small portions of it are complete.
The icon had been x-rayed, and an older more professionally painted image had been discovered underneath the current impression. After a museum council approved the measure, he was tasked with expunging the new image while restoring the older one and repairing defects.
Mahinsky said the restorers are struggling with the renovation. The problem is in the gluing process; no matter how much they try, the procedure fails and restorers aren’t able to obtain the desired result. “It has eluded us for five years,” he said of the icon.
Still, the restorers contend there is no icon that can’t be renewed. “No matter how old, they are restorable,” said Mokriy.
One of the misconceptions people have when they see icons that have darkened with age is that the paint is at fault. In reality, however, it is the varnish. Mokriy said iconographers used a component based on egg-yokes. Once it is cleaned by their contemporary colleagues, vibrant colors often shine through.
Iconographers “used natural products. The environment plays a role,” he said.
The restorers’ work often puts them into intimate contact with their predecessors. On a recent visit to one of the restoration labs in Lviv, restorer Iryna Melnyk said they sometimes get angry with their professional forbearers, who sometimes painted over well-executed icons either because they were short on supplies or felt an icon was just too old for that era’s taste.
Mokriy said today’s restorers can tell when iconographers had a slight of hand, or even too much to drink, as they worked. For instance, some figures were painted with six fingers. It appears, however, iconographers sometimes painted scenes just for themselves.
One of the icons in the restorers’ studio boasts a hunting scene with a rider on a horse that would never be seen by the public. The dome of a church in the village of Stary Vitkiv hosts the drawing of a woman’s figure – breast, lips and other intimate parts – painted into a leaf.
Despite these discrepancies, the icons are a constant reminder of the richness and depth of Ukrainian culture. “We are identified in these icons,” said Olena Sychaha, a restorer. “The Ukrainian nation isn’t lost. It remains.”
12 January 2011 KyivPost