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Ukraine's sacred art: The struggle to save a national icon

Ukraine's sacred art: The struggle to save a national icon

The Bohorodchany Iconostasis has eluded capture and ruin for centuries, but now art curators must save it from a new threat—Putin's war on Ukrainian culture

I arrived in Lviv on a cold, clear morning in March, four weeks after the Russian invasion. A jewel of cobblestone alleys, Hapsburg-era palaces and squares, and churches dating to the Middle Ages, western Ukraine’s largest city possessed a veneer of calm.

But as I strolled in Rynok Square, an air-raid siren shattered the hubbub of street musicians and café-goers, sending many pedestrians scurrying into shelters. On this day no attack came.

The Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv had been closed since the first day of the war. By a side entrance of the opulent former villa, I met Ihor Kozhan, its director.

A short, burly man in his late sixties with a kindly visage, Kozhan led me through the museum’s deserted atrium and into an exhibition hall that had been stripped bare.

“This room was filled with religious icons,” he told me, pointing out many rows of white display cabinets, now containing nothing more than bare brass mounts.

On February 24, Kozhan awakened to the news of the Russian invasion.

"For more than two centuries the enormous, elaborate wooden altarpiece had been caught up in the region’s conflicts"

“Western countries had been claiming that troops were massing, but our government insisted that nothing was going to happen,” he told me as we strolled through empty galleries. “We had no plan.”

Blindsided, Kozhan told his wife and daughter to stay safe, then he steeled himself and went to work.

His first decision, a difficult one, was to close the museum. Then Kozhan and his employees met to formulate a strategy to protect its 1,800 objects on display—Ukrainian modern art, illuminated manuscripts and sacred icons spanning 800 years.

Kozhan was particularly concerned about the pride of the collection, regarded by many scholars as the greatest example of Baroque-era religious art in central Europe: the Bohorodchany Iconostasis.

For more than two centuries the enormous, elaborate wooden altarpiece had been caught up in the region’s invasions and conflicts.

Over the years it had been hastily disassembled and transported to safety, claimed as a spoil of war, tossed aside and left to rot. It had finally settled into a gallery of its own at the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum nine years earlier.

Now it was threatened once again.

Museum curator stands next to Bohorodchany Iconostasis, Ukrainian sacred artCredit: Kasia Strek. Ihor Kozhan, director of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum, with some of the precious Bohorodchany Iconostasis panels he’s desperately trying to save

The Bohorodchany Iconostasis: Creating a sacred masterpiece

Even in a genre known for its dazzling opulence, the Bohorodchany Iconostasis stands by itself.

Created between 1698 and 1705 by the monk and painter Yov Kondzelevych and at least 20 artisans, the iconostasis is a 13-metre-high, 11-metre-wide wall of gilded icons and other religious scenes, set in ornate wooden frames and crowned by a huge gold depiction of the Crucifixion.

The naturalism of Kondzelevych’s images, with their vibrant colours and the individualised facial expressions of the figures, marked a dramatic departure from the formalised Byzantine art that shaped Ukrainian iconography through the 17th century.

The masterpiece helped to forge a distinct Ukrainian identity, separate from that of Russia, its giant neighbour to the east.

For Kozhan, the realistic depictions of human beings, so different from the “very still, very stiff” style of Russian sacred art, is captured by the nickname affectionately bestowed on Kondzelevych by art historians: “The Ukrainian Raphael.”

"The masterpiece helped to forge a distinct Ukrainian identity, separate from that of Russia, its giant neighbour to the east"

The artist was born in Zhovkva, a centre of painting and wood carving located 19 miles north of Lviv, in 1667. At 19, he entered a nearby monastery. Not much is known about his life, but he is thought to have fallen under the tutelage of the great Baroque icon painter Ivan Rutkovych, who kept a studio in Zhovkva.

Rutkovych’s masterpiece, the Zhovkva Iconostasis, also hung in the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum until it was removed only earlier this year.

In 1698, Kondzelevych received a commission from the Manyava Orthodox Monastery, the dominant hermitage in what was then Polish Galicia, to create the Bohorodchany Iconostasis.

Kondzelevych assembled carpenters, joiners, goldsmiths and other artisans, and established a workshop in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. He remained there with his team for seven years.

How the Bohorodchany Iconostasis evaded war and capture

Manyava Monastery in Carpathian Mountains, UkraineCredit: Kasia Strek. The Manyava Monastery was the original home of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis

The Bohorodchany Iconostasis hung originally at the Manyava Monastery, but in 1782, a decade after Austria-Hungary annexed the region, the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II ordered the monasteries throughout the empire to shut down and appropriated their land.

Three years later, the community of Bohorodchany, 16 miles to the north, paid the equivalent of about £10 for the giant altarpiece. It was moved to the town’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity.

The iconostasis was still hanging in Bohorodchany when, in August 1914, weeks after the start of the First World War, the army of Tsar Nicholas II launched a massive assault on Galicia, setting off a panicked exodus.

The Hapsburg army made three futile counteroffensives against the Russians in the Carpathian Mountains. The casualties on both sides numbered over a million men.

Amid the chaos and extreme violence, Austro-Hungarian troops risked their lives to save the obscure religious icon.

Riding into Bohorodchany one night, perilously close to the front lines, “the soldiers began to dismantle the iconostasis and pack it—to the joyful surprise of the residents,” wrote one witness.

The soldiers, assisted by locals, loaded the parts onto trucks and transported them to a museum in Vienna.

After its defeat in the First World War, Austria-Hungary surrendered the iconostasis to Poland, and it hung in the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

In 1924, Andrey Sheptytsky (after whom the National Museum in Lviv is named), a leader of Lviv’s Greek Catholic Church and a Ukrainian nationalist, bought the iconostasis for the equivalent of around £3,300.

He displayed parts of it in a museum dedicated to Ukrainian iconography that he had founded on Lviv’s Drahomanov Street.

Still, the artwork’s trials weren’t over. In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the region and held it until the Nazis invaded two years later. In 1944, the Soviets seized control of the region again, merging parts of Galicia with present-day eastern Ukraine, greatly expanding the size of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Joseph Stalin’s commissars shut down churches, destroyed icons and dismantled the Bohorodchany Iconostasis.

They hung one of its 50 panels in a folklore museum and warehoused the rest in Lviv’s shuttered 14th-century Armenian Cathedral, which was allowed to slowly fall apart. And there it remained until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The art world survives the Soviet Union

Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, but its national identity is still evolving. The Ukrainian-speaking region once known as Galicia, in the west, developed a culture that was distinct from the rest of the country, which was ruled by Imperial Russia from the 18th to the early 20th century.

Ukraine’s suffering under Stalin, the country’s experiment with democracy and Vladimir Putin’s violent meddling have all strengthened a sense of national solidarity.

Another thing that binds east and west is art, especially now, with Ukrainians determined to protect their cultural legacy from destruction by Russian troops.

Liliya Onyshchenko-Shvets, the director of Lviv’s cultural heritage office, initiated an online data bank that allows museum directors across Ukraine to report war damage and identify their needs.

“We have 2,000 wooden churches, many on the Unesco heritage list,” she told me. All are considered highly vulnerable.

Kozhan’s own life story reflects his devotion to Ukrainian culture. He was born in Lviv in 1953, the son of Ukrainian nationalists. At Ivano Franko University in Lviv, he associated with fellow activists who revered the poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko, who agitated for Ukrainian independence in the 1840s.

In 1973, the KGB ordered Kozhan’s expulsion from the university, along with seven faculty members and 19 other students. He served in the Soviet army, then earned his degree elsewhere in Ukraine and went to work for the National Museum, which was dedicated to displays of Soviet folklore as well as arts and crafts.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The incoming local Ukrainian government designated the Hapsburg-era villa, then housing the city’s Lenin Museum, as the new home of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum, and named Kozhan as the director.

“I got a phone call from the city council,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Liquidate the Lenin Museum.’” On our way down to his office, he pointed out the window to a dingy courtyard where a bust of Lenin still lay discarded.

Putin's war on Ukrainian culture

Bohorodchany Iconostasis in Ukrainian museum galleryCredit: Mykola Swarnyk. After the Soviet Union collapsed, art restorers brought the Bohorodchany Iconostasis back to its former glory

Kozhan filled the halls with Ukrainian artworks that had been mouldering in storage. But it wasn’t until 1997 that restorers began to prepare all 50 panels of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis for public viewing. “It was serious work,” Taras Otkovych, director of the restoration team, told me.

Neglected for decades, the paintings were covered with grime. Old varnish needed to be stripped away; misguided restorers a century earlier had painted over many icons.

Otkovych’s team conducted chemical analyses, X-rayed the paintings to determine the look of the original layers, and used cotton swabs and gentle emulsion cleaners to remove dirt and varnish.

In 2013, the entire Bohorodchany Iconostasis was put on display for the first time in a century.

"Putin’s idea of this war is to destroy Ukrainian nationality, and our task at the museum is to preserve it"

This past March, Kozhan supervised the dismantling of the iconostasis for the seventh time in its history. Twelve museum workers toiled for four days, removing the ingenious wooden joints that had locked the icons to their frames, then carefully separating the giant panels into dozens of parts.

Kozhan held up several of the crude-but-effective locking mechanisms. “Every piece was linked,” he told me.

Kozhan agreed to let me visit the secret storage place of the iconostasis on the condition that I revealed no details that could give it away. The next day, an aide in Lviv led me to a basement. There, I set eyes on hundreds of icons and other treasures.

Parts of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis were stacked together without wrapping. Kozhan was confident that they’d be well protected, though he’d reached out to colleagues in Poland to make contingency plans.

“Putin’s idea of this war is to destroy Ukrainian nationality, and our task at the museum is to preserve it,” he told me.

The journey back to Manyava Monastery

The Manyava Monastery, where the astonishing artwork was created, lies in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, 109 miles south of Lviv. The hermitage is a stone-walled compound overlooking a riverine gorge and pine-covered hills.

As I walked through the gate, I took in the peacock-blue-and-golden onion domes rising from churches, a bell tower and a four-storey library.

In the nave of a wooden church topped by three pyramidal tiled roofs stood a replica of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis. The replica was created after the monastery reopened in 1998, following the monastery’s closure of more than 200 years.

Even without having seen the original, except in pieces, I could easily discern that this iconostasis was an inexpert knockoff: the depictions of Jesus, Mary and the saints were less realistic and the tableau lacked depth and richness of colour.

“The artists studied the original and tried to copy it,” said Ioasaf Stasiuk, Manyava’s 23-year-old deputy bishop, a cherubic-looking man wearing a brown robe, his hair pulled back into a ponytail.

During shelling in the First World War, the original wooden church burned down. Ioasaf Vasylkyv, 67, the monastery’s grey-bearded bishop, led me down the main path through the monastery, pointing out fragments of the original structures—the base of the outer wall, the bell-tower archway, the bottom floor of the library tower.

With donations and God’s support, he said, he had put Manyava back together and given it a future again. The monastery has reclaimed its place as one of the holiest Eastern Orthodox sites in the region, drawing thousands of pilgrims every year.

Vasylkyv had two wishes, he said. The first was for the return to the Manyava monastery of the original Bohorodchany Iconostasis, a prospect that seemed unlikely. Kozhan has said as much. “The general principle is that what goes into the museum doesn’t come out,” he told me earlier.

But the bishop’s second wish seemed more attainable, if far from certain: a Ukrainian victory in this latest catastrophic and horrific war.

“I hope you have good health,” he said, escorting me out through the monastery’s front gate. “And may the Russian president and the Russian Army never enter here.”

Banner credit: Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

© Copyright 2022 Smithsonian Institution. Reprinted with permission from Smithsonian Enterprises. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in any medium is strictly prohibited without permission from Smithsonian magazine

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