Art unconstrained by time
Exhibition of Three Icons opens at National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus
By Igor Nilov
The exhibition shows the 18th century Old Testament Trinity (The Hospitality of Abraham) icon, from the Polotsk National Historical and Cultural Reserve, alongside the 18th century Christ Pantocrator icon, from the National Museum of Art, and the mid-19th century Do Not Weep for Me, Mother icon, from the Grodno State Museum of Religious History.
The Museum, in preparing its celebration of the arrival of Christianity to Kievan Rus, decided to work with the Ministry for Communications and Information to create souvenir envelopes bearing three stamps depicting the best icons. They clearly reflect the skill of Belarusian painters. The envelope was issued on Monday, with a ceremony attended by the President of Belarus and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. “Today, our museum is home to original icons,” noted Vladimir Prokoptsov, Director General of the National Art Museum.
The Old Testament Trinity icon is well-known for depicting the Christian trinity, based on the first book of the Holy Bible; the Lord appeared in the form of three men to Abraham, who told his wife Sarah to entertain the guests. One of the visitors predicted that middle-aged Sarah would give birth to a son, Isaac. In the centre of the painting, there is a round table filled with symbolic food. Meanwhile, under the oak of Mamre, we see God the Father with a sceptre in his left hand; Christ with a staff topped with a cross stands to his right while to his left is the Holy Spirit. In the foreground to the right, Abraham is depicted kneeling at the table while Sarah emerges tentatively from behind a door near the top of the canvas. The work is typical of Belarusian icon painting in the 18th century, combining traditions of icon painting with fine academic painting. The icon has distinct composition, an artistic style of painting and unusual patterns, as well as a transparent colour palette.
“It doesn’t matter how many times we return to the well-known story, we always discover something new; each artist gives his own flavour to the iconography and canonical painting in a story. These icons show the canonical-artistic features of our Belarusian school,” notes Anatoly Butevich, a writer and translator, and former Minister of Culture of Belarus.
Christ Pantocrator follows Byzantine models, yet is connected with typical Belarusian icon painting of the 17-18th century in its interpretation of the Saviour’s image. Marked by soft features, which convince us of His willingness to hear prayers and grant forgiveness, the figure has spiritual depth and expressiveness. The harmony of colour and the use of carved decorative effects in the ornamental background place the icon among the best works of the Belarusian school from the 18th century.
Typical iconography from Russia and Belarus follows the Byzantine style and the Old Believers’ period, which served as an inexhaustible source of spiritual material. Do Not Weep for Me, Mother, like much Byzantine art from the 13th century, shows Christ in the tomb, His naked body half concealed in the coffin, His head lowered and eyes closed, with hands crossed over His chest. Behind, we see the cross. To the viewer’s left, His mother mourns for him.
Belarusian museums carefully preserve monuments of Orthodox culture, while allowing them to be seen by the wider public. Vladimir Prokoptsov notes, “The Exhibition of Three Icons starts a series of events dedicated to the anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Kievan Rus.” In September, the National Art Museum will open a major international exhibition of Orthodox icons from Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Moldova and other Orthodox countries.