Unique church relics found in National Art Museum
Icon wonders from the 18th — early 19th century have been hidden for a quarter of a century in the archives of the museum but are now on view to thousands of visitors. Art historians are discovering many works anew, including those by great masters.
“Almost 250 icons never placed on public view are stored in the vault,” notes Arkady Shpunt, head of restoration at the National Art Museum. Eleven icons from the wonderful collection have been restored and are now on display at a special exhibition, which opened in late February.
Clearly, it will take many years for all the icons to be restored to their former glory, ready for exhibition; each painting takes around a year to return to its original appearance.
In fact, many masterpieces found their way into the museum in the 1970s, from churches which closed at the time. “It may seem improbable, but our scientists procured valuable icons from under heaps of rubbish and ruins,” explains Alena Karpenko, Director of the Department for Ancient Belarusian Art at the National Art Museum. “Images of Christ and Madonna were covered with dirt and many are in the same state they were in when we acquired them.” Few restoration masters exist able to work with such delicate ancient icons, which may explain the situation.
The icons are sure to bring greater enlightenment regarding the history of European Christian art. The two great art schools were the Western European and the Byzantine but Belarusian icon painting has its own characteristics, influenced by Italian Renaissance and Old Rus. Its icons wear simpler clothes and New Jerusalem is often depicted as Vitebsk or Polotsk. Simultaneously, those painted near Minsk or Pinsk follow the classical church canon.
Russian icons strictly followed 17th and 18th century canons, concentrating on the realism of historical Bible stories rather than saints’ faces. Belarusian icons harmonise Orthodox and Catholic traditions, with Greek-Catholic churches — such as that of Novogrudok — often depicted. The icon of St. Anthony of Padua has recently been brought to the National Art Museum and has been restored.
Through the centuries, Christians of all confessions in Belarus have respected the ‘catholic’ icon of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Its copies decorate many churches and now form a great museum collection.
Alexander Yaroshevich, a leading researcher at the Department for Ancient Belarusian Art at the National Art Museum, tells us that examining restored icons has helped expand understanding of how icon painting skills travelled across the continent. Slutsk and Kiev, Mogilev and Moscow exchanged masters in the creation of icons. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were part of Lithuanian, Polish and Muscovy states — yet their cultural liaisons developed well. Belarusian masters reached Western Europe, earning money and gaining knowledge. On returning home, they created masterpieces which were local in form, but showed foreign influences. Belarus ‘united’ different parts of Europe in its sacred paintings.