Volhynian icon-painting discoveries

10.11.2011, 11:53
They were made by Enhelina Smirnova, worldwide re­co­g­nized icon-painting history specialist, at the 13th In­ter­na­tional Academic Conference “Vo­­lhynian Icon: Research and Restoration.”

They were made by Enhelina Smirnova, worldwide re­co­g­nized icon-painting history specialist, at the 13th In­ter­na­tional Academic Conference “Vo­­lhynian Icon: Research and Restoration.”

It happened that I got to sit next to Enhelina Smirnova on the bus that took the conference participants to Volhynian mo­na­ste­ries and museums. And though she expressed her point of view from the platform, it is always better to get to know someone through a private conversation. It seemed that there is nothing that could surprise Smirnova, who was born in Leningrad in 1932, studied at the Leningrad State University and wrote her graduation work under the direction of the world-famous academician Likhachev. She worked for the Russian Museum and was part of the expedition to save icons in Karelia and Arkhangelsk oblast. And now she is a professor at the Moscow State University, she has lectured at the universities of Milan, Crete, and many more in the US.

But when the domes of the ancient Sviato-Uspensky church in Volodymyr-Volynsky gleamed under the unusually warm (for the season) sun, she cried out “Oh, the 12th century!”, thus infallibly identifying the age of the shrine by the shape of its domes.

It is Smirnova’s second vi­sit to Volhynia. Two years ago she came to Lutsk to see the miracle-working image of Our Lady of Kholm that was restored at the Museum of Volhynian Icon. She says that there is still a discussion going on among scholars on which century this icon should be dated, the 11th or the beginning of the 12th. But in her opinion, this does not belittle its beauty or significance at all. These days, as well as two years ago, Smirnova noted the high level of icon restoration in our museum, and the fact that their authenticity is preserved. This time she was interested in Uspensky Sobor (Prince Msty­slav’s Church, 1156-60) in Volodymyr-Volynsky, because there are only three buildings of those times left. But how astonished she was when she saw the size of the temp­le! Smirnova even mea-sured its dimensions with her steps by walking all the way around. She scrutinized the parts of the wall with the original plynthos that served as a building material for the church for quite a while. And then she corrected the local guide when he said that it is a monument of national importance. Not national, she said, but worldwide!

Both Mstyslav’s Church and the other Volodymyr-Volynsky’s rarity, St. Basil’s rotunda church (dating back to the end of the 12th – the beginning of the 13th century) have amazing exteriors. But the interior decoration of the rotunda impressed the participants of the confe­rence (experts in the history of culture, icon painting, and art from Belarus, Poland, Russia, museums and restoration centers of Ukraine) too. It is not just the discord of styles, many icons just beg for restoration! There is an obviously ancient icon painted on board on the right of the iconostasis in which you can barely see the images. The dating of Our Lady Hodegetria requires a whole research. But the fact that time and people are treating the icons roughly is clear to common visitors as well. Volodymyr Aleksandro­vych, Ph.D. in history, head of Medieval History Department at the Ivan Krypiakevych Institute of Ukrainian Studies under the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, says that he has a photo of this icon that was taken five years ago. In it you can see how people have worked on it.

“There are truly beautiful things at the rotunda church,” says Tetiana Yelyseieva, head of the Museum of Volhynian Icon. “For example, Our Lady of Po­chaiv, the iconostasis itself, beau­tiful, with the marvellous Royal Door, two icons painted on canvas at the entrance, that also have to be restored. We have been here, specialists from cul­ture heritage preservation department came here, and the head of our restoration workshop, Anatolii Kvasiuk was here too. We have reached an agreement with the priest. But it all depends on the will of the community. We could have found restorers who would work for the love of art.

There are two images in this rotunda that were able to puzzle even such maitres as Smirnova and Aleksandrovych. The stories portrayed in them are unknown to both experts. Nobody knows how these things appeared in the church. While showing the restored icons to colleagues, head of the Vo­lo­dymyr-Volynsky Historical Museum Volodymyr Stem­kov­sky said that he did not know a priest that would be able to keep the rarity properly in the church. Nevertheless, when old icons are returned from the abyss, they are claimed right away. They say at the museum that restored icons are taken from private collections. By the way, Smirnova herself opposed giving the ancient icon Trinity by Andrei Rublev from the Tretiakov Gallery to one of the churches.

And the Museum of Volhy-nian Icon, states Yelyseieva, has not had any problems with religious communities ever since 1993. This is because the base of its collection is made of icons that were taken from churches closed by the Soviet regime and thus saved from destruction. Every icon has an insciption on the bottom that says which church the painting is from. But this kind of understanding exists thanks to Nifont, Metropolitan of Lutsk and Volhynia, who presented a facsimile edition of Lutsk Gospels that is 200 years older than Peresopnytsia Gos­pels. The original is in Mos­cow, unfortunately, and to publish this copy that was highly valued by the scholars at the conference, contributions of almost 200 sponsors were accepted.

Doctor Volodymyr Aleksandrovych got to see many diffe­rent icons in his lifetime. He says that he was impressed the most by two: Our Lady of Doroho­buzh at the Rivne Oblast Mu­seum: once you see the eyes in the image, you never forget them... And he remembers the day of September 17, 2000, when he saw Our Lady of Kholm for the very first time... The Museum of Volhynian Icon is one of a kind if not worldwide, then in Ukrai­ne for sure. Yelyseieva thinks this is because Great Volhynia, due to its historical influence and geographical location, contri­but­ed to Volhynian school of icon preservation more than in other regions. Besides, the ar­tists who made up the Volhynian school, were highly skilled, religious, and kept their Orthodox faith intact by the influence of West European art for a longer time.

The Volhynian icon posses­ses its own palette of colors: eme-rald green, brick red, and a rather specific rose. And Smir­nova happened to watch how Our Lady of Volhynia was restored piece by piece by the Russian Museum. This icon opens the exhibit of the National Museum of Art in Kyiv. At the conference in Lutsk Smirnova spoke about her research on the age of this icon. She thinks it is newer than it was consi­dered to be before. A very respected expert on Volhynian icon-painting, Vasilii Putsko, deputy director of the Kaluga Regional Museum of Art (Russia), got to speak at the confe­rence too. The compilation of materials from the 13th International Academic Conference, which is already published, contains a lot of materials that are interesting not only for scholars and include such topics as the icon of Our Lady of Kholm in Belarus, Our Lady of Kholm as the icon of the Ukrainian-Polish fron­tier, the iconostasis from Zahoriv monastery made by Iov Kondzelevych, the image of Our Savior in thorns in the religious art of Volhynia, and even about how churches in Shatsk raion, Volyn oblast, were closed down.

But the lecture by Oksana Remeniaka, Candidate of Art History, head of Institute of Modern Art Problems under the Academy of Arts of Ukraine newest art technologies laboratory, stands out separately. She spoke about the keepers of Our Lady of Kholm. For an average person the story of this icon is reduced to the family of a Kholm priest Koropchuk. In due time this much-beleaguered icon was given to restorer Anatolii Kvasiuk. This fact was mentioned by The Day many times. And the story has other characters that worked from 1915 to 1943. The 1940s are the most tragic years for the Ukrainian population of Chelm Land and Podlachia and are tightly connected to forced resettlement of residents of those areas. Among them was Mykhailo Korny­lo­vych from the Ukrainian Academy of Arts, as well as courageous scholars and priests who risked their lives to save the miracle-working icon. Remeniaka says that she understood the role of an individual in history perfectly, because each of us at a certain point of time has to take a step that will reflect not only upon the fate of a country or nation, but the whole world.


10 November 2011 The Day