Unique ancient artefacts shall rise from ashes

Restorers to unveil all of the 12th century frescoes at Polotsk’s Holy Transfiguration Church by 2015

By Viktar Korbut

The restoration process requires much effort, with no more than 10 square centimetres of a painting revealed each day. So far, 300 square metres of frescoes have been revived, with another five hundred yet to be tackled. The restoration of these unique pictorial pieces is guided by the 2011-2015 Culture of Belarus programme, with state funds annually allocated to ensure the process is complete by 2015.

The Holy Transfiguration Church was founded in the 12th century by architect Johann, under the blessing of Saint Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya, the Mother Superior of Polotsk’s monastery. Inside, the church was painted by Byzantine and Belarusian masters, making it the only 12th century church in Belarus to have kept its wall paintings. Another two buildings from that era are partially preserved in Vitebsk and Grodno, having been seriously damaged in the 19th-20th century.

Specialists from Minsk and Moscow are now uncovering frescoes from under older oil paintings and plaster work, headed by Vladimir Sarabianov — one of Russia’s top restorers and a specialist in Old Russian painting. He explains, “The degree of church preservation is unique. Moreover, we know for sure that almost all the 12th century frescoes have been hidden under several layers of other paintings, from the ceiling to the floor. In all, over 600 square metres of ancient paintings remain in almost perfect condition, having been protected by these covering layers.” He reminds us that, back in 1929, a famous Russian painter and art expert, academician Grabar, visited Polotsk and, on seeing its frescoes, wrote: ‘The material is unique, interesting and significant’. Restorers then began initial exploration but it was only in the 1990s that true work was launched, when Belarusian master Vladimir Rakitsky took on the job of restoring the Holy Transfiguration Church’s frescoes. The Head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Filaret, blessed the project and finances were allocated.

Mr. Sarabianov is continuing Mr. Rakitsky’s work, noting, “A more detailed and thorough study has enabled us to detect paintings from the 18th and, even, 16th century.” Not long ago, masters uncovered the last fresco over the church’s altar; they’re now busy restoring the southern and northern parts of the church.

Holy Transfiguration Church is unique not only for its frescoes but for its inscriptions. About a hundred written phrases have been discovered on the altar and in St. Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya’s cell. Some are devoted to European historical events. One inscription states that, in 1492, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Kazimir, died, leaving his son, Alexander, to take the throne. The latter visited Polotsk in 1497. Recently, another record was uncovered, stating that, in 1492, three representatives of the Vasilievich boyar family died (the oldest branch of Polotsk’s most ancient families — the Korsaks).

Polotsk is unique not only for its 12th century church but for being the oldest city in Belarus and Eastern Europe; it celebrates its 1150th anniversary of being first mentioned in historical manuscripts next year. Polotsk’s oldest monuments are commonly connected with the name of St. Yevfrosiniya. Among them is 11th-18th century Sophia Cathedral, Holy Transfiguration Church and neighbouring territories. Back in 2003, these sites were proposed for inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, under the common title: ‘Material Incarnation of the Spiritual Heritage of Saint Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya’. Experts are now considering the application.

Polotsk is preparing for major festivities, as the city is soon to celebrate the 850th anniversary of the creation of the original Cross of Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya. On September 27th, the modern reproduction will be paraded as part of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross celebrations. The saint ordered master Lazar Bogsha to make a cross in 1161, using a host of miraculous relics: a fragment of Christ’s cross, with drops of his blood, a stone from Our Lady’s tomb, relics of the bodies of St. Stephan and St. Panteleimon and the blood of St. Dimitry. The Cross disappeared during WWII but Brest jeweller Nikolay Kuzmich reconstructed a modern day version of the priceless relic.

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