Exhibition of Belarusian icons at Vatican museum

Belarusian icons are being exhibited close to the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescoes for the first time
Belarusian icons are being exhibited close to the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s frescoes for the first time. The exposition was attended by the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, during his visit to Vatican.

Vladimir Prokoptsov near exhibits

The event is truly historic. Belarusian icons have been showcased in many cities worldwide; now, they are being displayed at the centre of the Catholic world, allowing residents of Rome and tourists to see the traditions of Belarusian iconography. Experts are convinced that the works of Belarusian masters will arouse as much interest as the famous frescos of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Lyubov Sysoyeva, a leading researcher with the National Art Museum of Belarus: 17th-18th century icons were created during the time of our national art blossoming. Those on show represent all directions and styles in Belarusian icon-painting at that time.

The majority of icons being showcased at the Vatican come from the National Art Museum. Several modern works, painted by Andrey Zharov, are also on show, depicting saints Kuzma and Demyan.

Andrey Zharov, an icon painter: The icon is inspired by ancient Roman Christian mosaics and these saints are esteemed both in Belarus and Italy.

It’s taken ten years to prepare for the exhibition, which is acclaimed by Italian art experts. Symbolically, it opened on the International Day of Museums.

Antonio Paolucci, the Director of the Vatican Museums: These works of art have been carefully selected by Minsk, showing the continuous integration of the Slavonic and Western European cultures. I’m delighted and proud to see this exhibition open. It has huge cultural and political value for our countries.

Belarusian iconography is unique, since Belarus is situated at the crossroads of the eastern and western branches of Christianity. Masters studied European trends in art and creatively combined them with local traditions. Unsurprisingly, Belarusian icons grew organically, as the Rome exhibition demonstrates, while showing the differences and similarity of Orthodox and Catholic, and western and eastern iconographic traditions.

Vladimir Prokoptsov, the Director of the National Art Museum of Belarus: I agree with the head of the Vatican museum that this exhibition is unique. We’re delighted to unite efforts to demonstrate our national culture and national art.

Belarusian sacred art impresses

The last time that Belarusian icons were on show in Italian galleries was in Milan and Trieste, in 2004-2005. Those shows aroused much interest among Italians, who share the spiritual aspirations and art canons of European culture (succeeding Byzantine traditions).

Organisers and participants of the exhibition were congratulated by President Alexander Lukashenko, whose message reads: ‘This unique project, held in the Year of Culture (declared in Belarus) demonstrates the indissoluble spiritual and aesthetic bonds of European nations and their commitment to religious ideals and values’. The Head of State notes that the display of Belarus’ national iconography at the Vatican is a significant event and an important step on the path of acknowledgement of the value of Belarusian cultural heritage, of which Christian art is an integral part.

The exhibition features 33 icons — both Orthodox and Catholic. “It’s truly pleasant for us to show works which are, in our opinion, interesting not only to tourists but to experts. We’ve prepared corresponding newsletters in four languages: Belarusian, Russian, Italian and English. These will be distributed among our visitors free of charge,” Mr. Prokoptsov adds.

The Belarusian icons are placed in glass show-windows in the Vatican museum, and the cases had to be changed twice, as some icons didn’t fit. Mr. Prokoptsov has thanked diplomats, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for their help in arranging the project, which promotes not only the National Art Museum but Belarus in general. “It’s a true challenge to be exhibited at the Vatican museum. To join these prestigious halls is an honour for any country,” Mr. Prokoptsov emphasises.

Visitors to the show at the Vatican will, certainly, note that the Belarusian icons are shown within richly ornamented, carved frames, hugely decorated. Belarusian artists have designed the frames with rich narrative motifs, depicting national costumes, household objects, and urban and rural landscapes, to complement the icons’ elegance and detailing. The stamped metal frames are often gilded or silvered.

No doubt, the 17th-early 19th century icons of Belarus are a phenomenon, showing the complicated interaction between the cultures of West and East. Our national traditions are seen in the original compositions of the icons, and their colour solutions.

Spiritual values have always been important for Belarusians, helping preserve national unity, language and culture.

Belarusian lands — which were a kernel of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — joined the Rzecz Pospolita in the late 16th century, where the Catholic Church dominated. Its culture focused on the highest achievements of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque times. The Vatican show features Kiss of Joachim and Anne. The Annunciation to Anne icon, painted around 1640-1650, when the national school of icon-painting was in its infancy. The harmonious and balanced composition in the style of the Renaissance is supplemented by architectural constructions in Baroque style (a trend of modern times). The following two centuries saw the rise of national culture in all manifestations, with Belarusian artists mastering advanced Western European styles, complicated Baroque styles and patterns and, later, Rococo styles.

The exhibition features icons with a festive theme, from the village of Obrovo (in the Brest Region’s Ivatsevichi District). In unusual oval frame is decorated with stylised seashells and plants, and shows the influence of the religious traditions of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Many miraculous icons of the Mother of God — such as the famous Zhirovichi and Boruny from the Kobrin District (both presented at the exhibition) — are esteemed by both faiths.

Belarusian masters of the 18th and early 19th centuries created truly unique images of saints. Most are depicted with realism, as explained by the near parallel development of sacral and portrait painting on Belarusian lands. Among them are icons of the Mother of God Peskova and Minskaya, in addition to selected saints on a three-part icon from the village of Chernyakovo (in the Brest Region’s Bereza District).

Icon-Painting in Belarus in the 17th-21st Centuries is sure to enjoy great attention, from experts and fine art lovers. The exhibition will appear until July 25th at the Vatican, visited by around 300,000 people from around the world. On seeing Belarus’ sacral art, they may decide to next visit our country.

By Veniamin Mikheev
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