A holy history

A holy history

The ‘Holy Russia’ exhibit opens its doors in St. Petersburg.

Published: November 2, 2011 (Issue # 1681)

A late 15th-century icon of St.
George of Novgorod fighting a

A unique collection of 450 works of Russian art that attracted more than 26,000 visitors to the Louvre last year is now on show in St. Petersburg at the Mihailovsky Castle.

The French opening of the “Holy Russia” exhibit, the centerpiece of 2010’s Year of Russia in France celebrations, was attended by President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It was at the opening that Medvedev first suggested showing the impressive collection selected from 25 Russian museums and libraries in its native country.

“I’m confident that the Holy Russia exhibition will become a brilliant milestone in Russia’s cultural life and leave an unforgettable impression on museum-goers,” wrote Medvedev in his welcoming message to the Russian incarnation of the show.

Only 300 pieces from the original collection have in fact come to St. Petersburg. Some of the exhibit’s treasures — such as an armilla (a shoulder decoration) — can only be seen in the show’s catalogue. The armilla, depicting the resurrection scene, is believed to have been a part of the 12th-century prince Andrei Bogolubsky’s ceremonial dress. During the Stalin era, it was sold to a buyer abroad for 60 million euros ($84,960,000).

Despite the fact that the collection is incomplete, it still includes many rare and fascinating items. The real jewel in the crown of the exhibition is a collection of pages from the Ostromir Gospel, the oldest surviving East Slavic manuscript book. The book has never been displayed in its entirety.

Another highlight is the Icon of the Vladimir Mother of God, which dates back to the time of the celebrated icon painter Andrei Rublev.

“We have also added three icons from the Russian Museum’s own collection,” said Irina Solovieva, head of the museum’s ancient Russian art department.

Such a large-scale show of icons and holy objects was completely unthinkable during the atheistic Soviet period, but now visitors have a chance to see many “living” pieces from a lengthy and crucial period in Russian history. In contrast to the Louvre’s decision to display the items following a historical timeline, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where the exhibit was shown earlier this year, the masterpieces are arranged thematically.

“Most visitors here are Christians, so they know a lot about Russian religion, but in the Louvre it created a real furor because there had been no such exhibition there since the 60s,” said Solovieva.

The exhibition is devoted to the 10th through the 18th centuries of Russian history. The Christianization of Kiev, which was then at the center of what would eventually evolve into Russia, took place in about 980 AD. Christianity came from Byzantium, so Byzantine culture had a great influence on sacred paintings and beliefs in Rus. Before accepting Christianity, Vladimir the Great, the ruler who converted Kievan Rus, familiarized himself with other religions such as Islam and Judaism, as well as with Catholicism.

Vladimir sent ten of his servants to neighboring countries to find out more about people’s beliefs. After they returned, they reported the best religion to be in Greece.

“Your grandmother Olga had a good reason to convert to the Greek religion,” his ambassadors are reported to have said, sealing Vladimir’s decision.

This pivotal period of Russian history is represented by works of applied art, Byzantine and Western European coins and jewelry, fragments of murals that were used to decorate churches in Kiev, Smolensk and Staraya Ladoga prior to the Mongol invasion, and the dazzling Golden Gates from the Nativity Cathedral in Suzdal.

These objects have never been shown together before. At the opening of the local show last week, Deputy City Governor Vasily Kichedzhi described the exhibition as “a symbol of the holy Resurrection of Russia” and claimed that the government would always support such projects, because “every object here shows moral purity.”

The history of the Russian church, however, hasn’t always been so serene. Another significant but bloody period is evoked by a pointed helmet belonging to Ivan IV, otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible. The 16th-century ruler is infamous for organizing the Massacre of Novgorod during the Oprichnina, a period marked by mass repressions, executions and land confiscation.

It is significant that St. Petersburg is the last city in which the collection will be exhibited. It was Peter the Great, founder of St. Petersburg, who changed the course of Russian sacred art and placed the church under state supervision. But ultimately, even his project to build a “window on the West” couldn’t make his countrymen turn their backs on the country’s religious past.

“Holy Russia” is on show through Jan. 20 at the Mikhailovsky Palace, part of the State Russian Museum, 4 Inzhenernaya Ulitsa. Tel. 595 4248. M. Gostiny Dvor. www.svyatayarus.ru.

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