At the National Art Museum of Belarus
Lived and created in Belarus but became famous in Russia
Everyone should see the beauty and power, the heroism and lyricism of these works of art. They rival any modern work in their emotional impact.
On what is the heroism of the past century built? The National Art Museum of Belarus attempts to answer, via a show of Russian canvases from its own collection, many displayed for the first time since Soviet days.
Centuries change and the routines of the past are perceived differently — as a pure game of light and colour and a classical artistic form lacking any imposed interpretation. Despite the usual approach of seeking out Soviet or social-realistic aspects in Soviet art, it’s clear that the works on show are not primarily dictated by ideology (despite some of the plots). Rather, they reflect the artists’ own expressions.
It seems that it was not Maxim Gorky who inspired 20th century Russian painters. Rather, the French impressionists of the late 19th century, and the early 20th century Russian impressionists seem to have inspired Russian ‘socialistic realism’, with their form, colour, and use of light.
In the same manner, the language of academic art (originating from classicism) lies with the Itinerants, who intentionally stepped aside from excessive detail. By the late 19th-early 20th century, Igor Grabar, Ilya Mashkov, Piotr Konchalovsky and Isaak Brodsky had taken the lead, followed by Alexander Gerasimov, Sergey Gerasimov, Georgy Pimenov, Alexey and Sergey Tkachev, Grigory Nissky and Arkady Plastov. We see their inner worlds on the canvas, while social aspects take a minor role (perhaps due to the Soviet ideal of erasing obvious social differences).
It should be obligatory mentioned that the National Art Museum of Belarus is actively developing cooperation with central and regional museums of Russia. According to its Director Vladimir Prokoptsov, the museum has long established partnership relations with Russian colleagues who represent leading museums (the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Russian Museum and State Hermitage), as well as those located in the country’s regions, e.g., in Smolensk, Yaroslavl and Bryansk. The National Art Museum is implementing joint projects with its colleagues when its exhibits go on show in Russia and those from the collections of the Russian museums are displayed in Belarus. “Our opportunities are endless in co-operation with our colleagues. The most important is that this isn’t a one-sided process,” believes Mr. Prokoptsov. As an example he brought the fact that the National Art Museum was donated eight Slutsk sashes from the collection of the State Historical Museum of Russia.
Mr. Prokoptsov especially noted the importance to return cultural values which rightfully belong to the Belarusian nation. These were taken away during the Great Patriotic War to the West or given to Russia. “We’ll try to purchase such exhibits at auctions or to exchange them for other works of art. Our museum hasn’t practiced this so far but western museums do have such experience. If corresponding norms are introduced at the legislative level such variant is possible. Now, it’s possible only from theoretical point of view,” explains the Director of the National Art Museum of Belarus.
He also added that a special commission is working at the Council of Ministers of Belarus, to locate and return national cultural treasures to Belarus from abroad.
Asked towards which school — Russian or European — Belarusian art is most inclined, the Director of the National Art Museum, Mr. Prokoptsov, is convinced ‘European’. He notes, “This is evident especially with Belarusian icon painting, although there is great influence from the Russian artistic school. Belarus has always been located at the crossroads of various states` cultures, and has absorbed their achievements. It`s a characteristic of national culture, not only for pictorial art. Nevertheless, we should maintain our own national cultural identity, as we have been doing for the past decade.”
Talented interpretation of one’s own time
Let’s have a look on rich practice of Russian-Belarusian exchange exhibitions. One of these — a joint exposition from the collections of the Yaroslavl Art Museum and the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus — was dedicated to 75th anniversary of Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, Filaret, and his 32-year service on the Belarusian lands. The family roots of His Grace go to Yaroslavl and this city on the Volga River preserves memory about Metropolitan Filaret’s great grandfather — Ivan Vakhromeev (1843-1908). Being the head of the city, Ivan Vakhromeev has done much to save the richest spiritual, artistic and cultural legacy of Yaroslavl. In early 20th century, he raised funds to conduct the first scientific restoration of the 17th century Prophet Elijah Church and the church was saved from destruction. Being a collector of ancient books and manuscripts, Ivan Vakhromeev promoted the release of first scientific works on the history and study of mo-numents of Yaroslavl icon painting and architecture. He also facilitated the replenishment of Yaroslavl’s first museum with new exhibits.
Thirty three icons of the 16th-19th century from the collections of the Yaroslavl Art Museum — on show in Minsk last year — were dedicated to iconography of the two most respected Orthodox saints — archbishops Nicholas of Myra and St. John Chrysostom. A part of these icons comes from Yaroslavl’s churches and was known to Ivan Vakhromeev.
Remarkably, but the Yaroslavl Art Museum preserves around 2,000 icons from the 13th-early 20th century. Alongside ancient monuments, a true pride of the collection is icons of the 17th century — a period of bright flourish of Yaroslavl. At that time, Yaroslavl was se-cond (after Moscow) city of the Russian State in terms of population and third in terms of richness. Lots of stone parish churches were constructed in the city using the merchants’ funds and grandiose icon ensembles were created to decorate them. At that time, major peculiar features of Yaroslavl’s icons appeared: monumentality of images, delicacy of drawing and ornaments, a bright palette based on contrast colour combinations, love towards detailed narrative story and lots of icons with numerous scenes.
The choice of works for the Minsk exhibition was predetermined by its topic. Since the first centuries of Christianization Eastern Slavs have specially honoured St. Nicholas and more chur-ches are devoted to him than to any other saint. People of various social classes and occupations appealed to him, far-famed for numerous performing miracles, in their prayers during difficult circumstances of their life.
One of the exposition’s ancient exhibits was an icon of St. Nicholas with 14 hagiographical border scenes, dating back to mid-16th century. A similar depiction of the saint, at full length, with a Gospel in his right hand, dates back to the miraculous image of St. Nicholas of Zaraysk, brought to Ryazan (according to the legend) in 1225 from Korsun and connected with tragic events of the Mongol-Tatar invasion.
Waist-high depictions of St. Nicholas were also widely spread with symbols of the ‘Nicaean Miracle’ (in 325 AD): the Mother of God holding out pallium to St. Nicholas, and the Christ, returning the Gospel to him. An icon from the mid-16th century from St. Boris and Gleb Monastery, near Rostov Veliky, refers to such type.
The image of St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk from the late 16th century became famous in Mozhaisk as miraculous. The carved icon depicts the saint in full height with a raised sword in his right hand and a fortress with a church in his left hand.
16th-19th century St. Nicholas icons with hagiographical border scenes represent a special interest. Their choice testifies to the spread of this or that aspect of St. Nicholas veneration in various times. The earliest of them contains 14 expressive scenes which surround a large centrepiece with a magnificent figure of St. Nicholas in full height — the ‘St. Nicholas of Zaraysk’ type. Icons of St. Nicholas from the early 17th century especially underline the importance of hagiographical border scenes: in their size they are equal to the central field with a waist-high figure of the saint and each of eight plots, representing a complete picture with a developed composition and wonderful writing technique, is clearly distinguished against the green background.
Evolution of picturesqueness and delicacy of the style of Yaroslavl icon painting illustrates the plot from the mid-17th century, close to the works from the Stroganovs’ icon workshop. St. Nicholas icon with 14 hagiographical border scenes stands out by its light transparent colour scheme and miniature delicacy of the scenes. Remarkably, but a wonderful scene of child saving from death by drowning in Kiev is present; it’s rarely seen on Russian icons but, as a rule, is present on Ukrainian and Belarusian icons.
St. Nicholas, the Wonder-Maker icon from the late 18th century testifies to traditionalism in iconography and style of the ‘golden century’ of Yaroslavl icon painting. Solemn and static St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk from the second part of the 18th century is peculiar for its bright colours, thoroughly selected details and baroque contrast colour scheme.
St. John Chrysostom — the greatest prophet and the creator of the liturgy which is still served in churches — is highly venerated in Orthodox tradition. His depiction on the icon of the first half of the 16th century in full height, with a Gospel in his hand, is close to iconography of St. Nicholas of Zaraysk. A magnificent image, created on the turn of the 17th-18th centuries, reveals the influence of the engraving and icon of the famous master Simeon Spiridonov Kholmogorets, and hagiographical border scenes of John’s birth and translation of the saint’s relics appear below. The icon from the early 17th century, containing 52 hagiographical border scenes, is truly unique. Miniature painting of these scenes, supplemented with ornate cursive writing, is close to the manner of the Stroganovs’ icons.
The royal gates from a rural church is a rarity for the 17th century icon pain-ting; in line with ancient tradition, Basil the Great and St. John Chrysostom — the creators of the liturgy — are depicted on the gates’ leaves rather than the Gospel writers, as it was accustomed at that time. According to the ancient Byzantine tradition of common veneration of Three Great Ecumenical Saints, St. John Chrysostom was often depicted toge-ther with Basil the Great (329-379) and St. Gregory the Theologian (329-389), being often joined by St. Nicholas in Yaroslavl icon painting. This is the way they are depicted on the icon from the early 18th century — inspired, in flamboyant and golden vestment, praying to the Holy Trinity. The icon painter managed to give live individuality towards traditional features of saints’ images. The 17th century icon, on show in Minsk, depicted the saints in praying, alongside the martyr Yekaterina and Metropolitan of Moscow, Philip, who suffered during the times of Ivan the Terrible.
Dukes of the first dynasty — Va-sily and Konstantin — as well as the founding father of the second dynasty — Fiodor Cherny with his sons David and Konstantin — were considered to be patrons and protectors of Yaroslavl. Together with the Prophet Elijah and St. Nicholas they were presented in Minsk on the 17th century icon from the Church of St. Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, built on the place where Konstantin Vsevolodovich and many residents of the city died during the battle against Tatars in 1257. The icon of the mid-18th century, depicting St. Nicholas and holy Yaroslavl dukes praying to the Virgin Mary of Tolg icon of the Mother of God, contains a particle of relic of the blessed dukes, kept at the Assumption Cathedral of the Monastery of Our Saviour.
Moreover, that Yaroslavl exhibition was supplemented with Belarusian icons, one of which — The Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah from the 1730s from the Assumption Cathedral of the Zhirovichi Monastery — was donated to the collection of the National Art Museum of Belarus in 2009 alongside six other icons, with active assistance of Metropolitan Filaret. The icon was in the prophetic range of three-level iconostasis from the early 18th century. The prophets don’t have direct analogues among the preserved Belarusian icons of the 17th-18th century. They are characterised by thoroughness and grandeur of images of the church art, alongside wonderful style technique of realistic European painting of the baroque epoch. The absence of carved ornamental background should be also mentioned. The church-Slavonic texts on scrolls with predictions testify to preservation of the ancient tradition in the Basilian period of the history of Belarusian church.
The 18th century icon, Selected Saints Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, from the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Brest Region’s Shereshevo village, boasts peculiar features of the Belarusian school. The saints are depicted in full height against the background of high colonnade and gilded graphical ornament. The master gave expressive portrait characteristics to plastic images of the sainthood. Moreover, folk features are seen in the depiction of magnificent figures in solemn vestments. The names of saints on the areolas are also written unusual.
In his turn, the 18th century icon of St. Nicholas from the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross from Brest Region’s Obrovo represents an example of local late baroque. The saint is presented standing on the hill, in pontificals, embroidered with gold and silver. The image of the kind and wise saint is peculiar for Belarusian icon painting. The Saviour is depicted with the Gospel while churches with domes are located beneath, in the distance — peculiar for late icon painting.
At the same time, the St. Nicholas icon from the late 18th century illustrates the shift from traditional icon painting towards professional academic painting with correct drawing and light-and-dark modelling of the space. Pallium, painted in large bright colours, reflects peculiar samples of the baroque style weaving.
‘The Saint Patrons in Orthodox Icon Painting’ exhibition became the third in a row of joint projects of Minsk and Yaroslavl. The richest museum collections of Yaroslavl and funds of the National Art Museum of Belarus give an opportunity to further continue such fruitful collaboration.
Local tastes shaped the direction of the Yaroslavl icon painting school since merchants often paid for artworks, for donation to their church, and the best artists from across the Russian empire were attracted for such work: from Veliky Ustyug, Novgorod, Moscow and Kostroma. Such masters as Fiodor Zubov, Guriy Nikitin and Semen Spiridonov created icons for the city. Meanwhile, the local artistic environment also thrived; secular icon painting, portraying a more ‘realistic’ and original view of the world, became popular.
The 17th-18th century Yaroslavl icons are peculiar for bright visual appeal, festive atmosphere, the masters’ fancy towards live reflection of the depicted events, rich colour palette of the works, graphical contours, love towards ornamentation of costumes, classical delicacy of writing (often miniature) and use of gold and silver.
Russian art is one of the most signi-ficant among the collections of the National Art Museum of Belarus, with the religious theme well represented. The exposition, entitled ‘Christianity and Christians in Creative Activity of Russian and Belarusian Artists of the Middle of the 19th-Early 20th Century’, held in the museum, showcased three dozen works of painting, sculpture and icon painting, exploring the religious topic.
Portraiture was a key element of contemporary Christian art, representing those who played a special role. For the first time, the portrait of Metropolitan Iosif Semashko is on display. An active figure in the reunification of the Uniats with the Orthodox Church, he was painted in 1849 by Belarusian artist Ivan Khrutsky. Other portraits include those of Goravsky and Kramskoy, Losev, Polenov, Sukhodolsky and Nesterov. The wooden sculptures of saints, restored by domestic masters, are also sure to delight visitors.
Unlike traditional, academic masters, the artists of democratic direction, with their ‘everyday’ connections, captured an element of realism that withstood the passing of time. Vasily Polenov’s ‘From the Life of Christ’ series presents a strikingly realistic portrayal of the Palestinian landscape (he visited more than once), and some simple, composite solutions: ‘Christ Seated’. Some works showed the common life of Christians: ‘Sacred Procession to the Consecration of Water in the Village’ by Ivan Trutnev; Nikolay Nevrev’s ‘Confession’; and ‘Reception of Icon’ by Piotr Sukhodolsky. Mikhail Nesterov’s creativity has an eternal feel, encapsulated in modern form.
Spirituality of Vetka
Later, the National Art Museum hosted ‘Husband, Man, Warrior’ collection of late 18th-early 19th century icon paintings from Vetka Museum of Old Believer Faith and Belarusian Traditions.
The exhibition presents 83 beautiful icons which would have once adorned the simple homes of Old Believers and those of Belarusian Orthodox faith. All from Vetka area, the icons provide evidence of rural culture which no longer exists.
The icons were thought to offer protection, not only of the individual family but, patriotically, the wider settlement and country. For more than a millennium, from the Christianisation of Kievan Rus, icons embodied the accumulation of experience and Slavic spirituality.
Soldiers going into battle would take a miniature icon with them, to act as protection. St. George was a popular choice, as was Nikita (a 14th century warrior) and Russian duke-brothers Boris and Gleb. Archangel Michael was perhaps the most popular of all. Each soldier would feel a personal bond with their own miraculous protector, who accompanied him in his ‘holy deeds’, overcoming malign forces. In the 12th-14th centuries, holy warriors helped forge the idea of national independence.
The icons on show are imbued deeply with the energy of rural culture. As well as helping achieve victory, each holy image carried a connection with the agricultural calendar, or protection from illness, robbers, wild animals, ‘evil spirits’ or ‘malicious curses’. St. George was connected with spring fertility land, eternally thrusting his sword into his dragon (as we see on various military medals. He watched over the spring pasture of cattle and the welfare of peasant boys. Of course, we all know the award of the Cross of Saint George. Meanwhile, dukes Boris and Gleb were connected with baking, absorbing negative energy and encouraging the bravery of sacrifice, while warning against the horror of fratricidal war.
To which such icons did people pray in those simple rural homes? How did the force of a mother’s prayer, passio-nate to protect her son, husband or father, aid in returning them safely. How did this accumulate and transfer to the souls of those fighting: boys and young men? How did the image of the ideal soldier influence their behaviour? The military theme is universal, continuing to arouse interest. In 1995, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Victory over fascist Germany, saw much research published but work proceeds. The unique data collected from Vetka residents (a small city in Gomel Region) adds to our understanding of the faith of Orthodox Believers and Old Believers.
Yelena Karpenko, who heads Ancient Belarusian Art at the National Art Museum and is the exhibition curator, tells us, “Folklore texts have clarified and revived the situation, bringing together voices from separate traditions. Our collections of Old Believer and Belarusian Orthodox icons demonstrate the local features of our culture.”
Many of the exhibited works have been restored by museum experts. However, some still bear the ‘wounds’ of war: tears from shell splinters, for instance, purposefully left. The project is accompanied by albums entitled ‘Vetka Icons’, ‘Voices of Lost Villages’, and ‘Living Belief — Vetka’. Joint exhibitions have been organized in the cities of Mogilev, Minsk and Vitebsk, with the first entitled ‘Saint George’, launched with the Gomel Regional Museum of Local History. Each has highlighted new aspects of military culture and of our spiritual heritage, attracting differing materials in each district: ‘heavenly rows’ of military images, ‘terrestrial’ exhibits and military equipment.
The exhibition also explored various dimensions of the theme, heavenly and terrestrial, and the opposition of war and peace. Military conflict has the power to plunge us into contemplation of the spi-ritual, resounding in space and time and revealing the eternal. The stability of our culture relies upon our faith: in God and in humanity.
A simple soldier, called Ivan, sent letters home from the Front, to his wife and mother. There, in their old house, they prayed to John the Warrior ‘for Ivan to return home alive’.
By Veniamin Mikheev