HOLY RUS. The Visual History of a Country’s Faith

Natalya Sheredega

Magazine issue: 
#2 2011 (31)

The “Holy Rus” exhibition, featuring items from Russian and international collections, was shown at the Louvre in Paris as part of the “Year of Russia in France”. Collecting many artefacts of ancient Russian monumental art and icon painting, jewellery, embroidery and other forms of artistic expression, it gave European viewers a chance to see the unfading beauty of the Christian art of ancient Rus (Ruthenia). Under the patronage of the presidents of Russia and France, its aim was to increase the European public’s knowledge of Russia. “Holy Rus/Sainte Russie” provoked a serious cultural and political response in Europe, and is now on view in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow until August 14.

The superb works of art of the 10th-19th centuries from a large number of museums have never before been displayed within the same museum space. Brought together, they create a holistic image of statehood, one very important for contemporary Russia. The Moscow exhibition differs from its Parisian counterpart both because it shows more items, and because it conveys a different message.

The Russian show features objects not displayed in Paris, including, a grandiose four-piece 1740s fresco “Battle of the Novgorodians with the Suzdalians”, previously held at the Znamenskaya Church in Yaroslavl; copies, made in the 1920s-1930s, of ancient frescoes in the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, the Spaso-Preobrazhensky (Transfiguration) Cathedral in Chernigov, the St. George Church in Staraya Ladoga, and the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God at the Ferapontov Monastery; several icons from the Tretyakov Gallery, Historical Museum, Museums of the Moscow Kremlin, the Open-Air Museum of the Cities of Vladimir and Suzdal, and architectural models from the Shchusev Museum of Architecture and the Kolomenskoe Open-Air Museum.

Overall, the Tretyakov Gallery show includes more than 450 items from 25 Russian museums, libraries and archives, as well as one unique object from the Louvre in Paris.

In France, the display was seen by foreign viewers, who know relatively little about Russia and its history, mostly as illustrations to a comprehensive history of Russian medieval culture — in other words, the show’s mission was predominantly educational. The Russian exhibition, however, was more focused on identifying the main aspects of the meaning of the Christian history of culture, demonstrating the formative role of Orthodox Christianity and highlighting its content, imagery, messages, and achievements. The different concept dictated a different structure: instead of one historical narrative laid out across the enfilade of Napoleon’s rooms in the Louvre, seven sections of the exhibition in Moscow focus on different aspects of Russian medieval culture.

For Russians, the images of Russia’s past must be “deciphered” to become clearer, more nuanced and more profound. Thus, the exhibition is sectioned into different parts: “Born in the Spirit.

The Baptism of Rus and Introduction of the Christian Faith”, “Under the Protection of the Mother of God”, “Patrons and Mentors. Veneration of Saints in Rus and Russian Saints”, “The Light in the Wilderness. Monasteries in Rus”, “The Earthly Kingdom and the Heavenly Kingdom”, “Holy Objects in Everyday Life”, and “Heaven on Earth. Inside the Russian Christian Orthodox Church”.

This grandiose project came together through the joint work of a large team of art scholars and designers, custodians and art renovators, multimedia specialists and coordinators. Dozens of hand-written books were scanned especially for the show, and authentic works of Russian culture of book production can be leafed through on computer screens. A new catalogue was published for the Russian show, and the structure of the Russian publication — the content of its main theoretical articles, written by leading experts on ancient Russian art — differs significantly from the publication for Paris.

Every section in the catalogue is supplied with an epigraph — several quotations from different medieval texts metaphorically conveying the message and content of the relevant section. The goal of this exhibition is to let Time speak for itself.



The first section of the display features fragments of murals from Ruthenia’s oldest churches — in Kiev, Staraya Ladoga, Ryazan, and Smolensk, as well as ancient manuscripts and icons showing the finest craftsmanship of the artisans working at the very earliest period of Ruthenian culture (before the occupation of Rus by the Tartars and Mongols), and convincingly demonstrating strong ties with Byzantium. The grandiose westward fire-gilt Golden Gates from the Rozhdestvensky (Nativity) Cathedral in Suzdal serves as the “gateway” to the exhibition. Manufactured in the early 13th century, the gate set out on its first ever journey only last year, first to the Louvre and now to Moscow. Among the 28 scenes from the life of Christ and the Mother of God (Theotokos) featured on the gate, the image of the Protection by the Mother of God — the earliest image of its kind among extant icons — is especially remarkable. Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky of Vladimir, who decreed that the day of the Protection by the Mother of God should become a feast day, is believed to have been linked to a unique item on display in Moscow which arrived from the Louvre. Its history is unusual and instructive: the armilla (shoulder shield) was an accessory of the prince’s ceremonial attire. Some scholars believe that it was created in the second half of the 12th century by Moselle artisans using the intricate techniques of champleve and cloisonne on gilded brass; presumably, the piece was gifted by Frederick I Barbarossa to Andrei Bogolyubsky. The records state that the armilla was held at the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral in Vladimir since the 12th century until 1919, when it was transferred to a museum; in 1933 it was sold to an international buyer. In the autumn of 1934 the precious item was bought by the Society of Friends of the Louvre and presented to the museum as a gift.

Like the armilla from the Louvre, most exhibits at the show are not only among the finest artefacts of medieval art but also took part in, and were witness to, certain landmark historical events. In 1805, sorting through Catherine II’s private belongings, the oldest dated handwritten book ever produced in Ruthenia was found, the famed Ostromir Gospels, created in 1056-1057. The text in the oldest altar Gospels is written in a semiuncial hand and decorated with precious initials, and the miniatures were probably made by craftsmen from Constantinople.

The relics from Byzantium and the Holy Land help trace the routes by which religious docrine came to Rus, and the treasures from the ancient hoards and burial mounds, which include finely crafted objects of applied art and Byzantine and Western European coins and jewellery, point to close ties between Kievan Rus and other state entities.

A special place at the show is occupied by the images of personalities from the early days of Russian Christianity, such as Vladimir I of Kiev (Vladimir Svyatoslavovich), the prince who baptised Rus, and St. Boris and St. Gleb, Ruthenia’s first canonised saints, as well as by a distinguished copy of the famed icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir (12th century), created at the turn of the 15th century, perhaps with the participation of Andrei Rublev.



The image of the Mother of God as the protector, interceder with God and special patroness of the nation was a permanent presence in Ruthenian literature and art. In Rus, a feast of the Protection of the Mother of God was introduced in the 12th century, and the year of 1165 saw the construction of the first church dedicated to the Protection — the famed Church of the Intercession on the River Nerl (Pokrova na Nerli). A fragment of its white-stone decor is placed next to the white-stone fragments of furnishings from the oldest Mother of God cathedrals in the Principality of Vladimir and Suzdal — the cathedral in Bogolyubovo dedicated to the Mother of God’s Nativity, built in 1165, the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral in Vladimir, built in 1160, and the Rozhdestvensky (Nativity) Cathedral in Vladimir, built in 1196.

Numerous miracle-working icons and their copies are convincing evidence of the exceptionally reverential treatment accorded to the Mother of God in Rus: these include the “Theotokos Maximovskaya” (c. 1299-1305), commissioned by Metropolitan Maxim; “Theotokos of Tolga” (late 13th century); “Theotokos Pimenovskaya” (1480s), brought from Constantinople by Metropolitan Pimen; “Theotokos of Kazan” (1606); the 16th-century Panhagia Platytera (the Mirozh Mother of God of the Sign), a copy of the old cherished icon from the Mirozhsky Monastery in Pskov. The icon “Theotokos the Unexpected Joy with the Icons of the Theotokos” (19th century) features representations of 120 venerated icons of the Mother of God around the central image. This icon is in essence an encyclopaedia of the Mother of God’s iconography, but its significance is of much more importance. The icon’s dogmatic meaning is conveyed through the central, big-sized image of the icon “Theotokos the Unexpected Joy”. The narrative is culled from the work “Fleece Bedewed” by St. Dimitry of Rostov (written in Chernigov in 1863) — the story of a sinner planning to commit a villainy who prays before an icon of the Theotokos, and the bleeding wounds open on the body of the baby Christ. But the Theotokos begs Christ to be merciful and forgive even such sinners.

The icons “Assumption of the Theotokos” and “Protection by the Theotokos” are devoted to the holy feasts celebrating the Mother of God: the diverse hymnic texts with lots of expansive poetic and symbolic epithets gave rise to such images as “In Thee Rejoiceth”, “Unfading Bloom”, “Theotokos the Orchard” and others. The narrative of the icon “Miracle Wrought by the Theotokos of the Sign”, also known as “Battle of the Novgorodians with the Suzdalians”, is drawn from a legend about the icon “Theotokos of the Sign” which miraculously delivered the city of Novgorod the Great from a besieging army of the Principality of Suzdal in 1170. The colossal mid18th-century fresco from the Znamensky Church in Yaroslavl offers an original interpretation of this rare iconic type which is related mostly to the culture of Novgorod the Great.



Christianity is presented not only in texts but in images as well. The images of Russian sainthood are the most profound, intimate and warm images that ever existed in the country’s history.

The lives of Ruthenia’s first canonised saints Boris and Gleb was included into the famous Sylvester Manuscript (14th century), which contains 40 miniatures relating their spiritual exploits. Icon painters too tackled the lives of the saints, depicting them, in agreement with the canon, either mounted on horses, or standing and facing the viewer directly.

The host of Russian saints, begun with the canonisation of Boris and Gleb, was steadily expanding. The ideal of Russian sainthood largely originated from the ideal of Byzantine asceticism and was depicted not only in icons but in frescoes, miniatures and even wooden statues as well. The examples of woodwork featured at the show include two carved lids of the tombs of St. Ioann the Archbishop of Novgorod, and St. Anthony of Rome, manufactured in the 16th-17th centuries and previously held at the Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod. It should be mentioned that the reliefs became museum artefacts as early as the 18th century, when, after a 1722 directive issued by the Synod that prohibited sculpture in churches, they were removed from the sepulchres and replaced with paintings, and later were transferred to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts.

Another rare piece of woodcarving is “St. George and the Dragon” (second half of the 16th century). The known images of St. George, who was revered in Ruthenia on the same level as St. Nicholas (St. Nikolas of Myra), St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Dimitry Solunsky), St. Blaise, Bishop of Sebastia (Vlasy Sevastiisky), and St. Spyridion, Bishop of Trimythous (Spyridon Trimifuntsky), include not only representations of the dragon-killing episode but also icons with scenes from his life.

The most worshipped female saints included St. Paraskevi of Iconium, Anastasia and, especially, St. Barbara, whose relics were brought from Byzantium to Kiev as early as the 12th century.



In the vast and ever expanding Christian state, monasteries, the centres of its spiritual enlightenment, were also its defence, protective outpost and banner, minor representations of the City of God on earth. That was how they were built and decorated and how they aspired to live.

This section features images of the founders of the distinguished Russian convents — St. Sergius of Radonezh, Demetrius the Wonderworker of Priluky (Dimitry Prilutsky), Zosimas the Abbot of Solovky (Zosima Solovetsky), Sabbatius the Miracle-worker of Solovky (Savvaty Solovetsky), Cyril of Belozersk (Kirill Belozersky), Alexander of Svir (Alexander Svirsky), Barlaam of Khoutyn, as well as manuscripts with their vitae.

The icon “Vision of John Climacus” (late 16th-early 17th centuries) features 30 steps of spiritual ascent as a monk’s road to sainthood. In addition to icons, other items on view in this section include hand-written books with hand-painted miniatures and pieces of gilt-thread embroidery made at the monasteries.



No matter how big a divide there was between the authorities and the sainthood throughout Ruthenian history, the image of holy state power was needed both as the ultimate goal and as a given reality. The vital topic of the relationship between the church and the state in Rus from the age of the principalities to the reign of Alexis of Russia (Alexei Mikhailovich) and Peter the Great, including the history of the synods and the schism (raskol) in the Russian Orthodox Church, is conceptualized through documents, manuscripts, icons, objects of applied art, and items used in liturgies. The tsars’ numerous endowments to the monasteries and churches were evidence of the Russian monarchs’ personal piety and highly reverential attitude to Christian relics. The process of manufacturing a precious frame for Russia’s most revered icon “The Holy Trinity”, created in the early 15th century by Andrei Rublev, extended over several centuries; commissioned by several Russian monarchs, from Boris Godunov to Mikhail I Fyodorovich Romanov, the piece was completed in the 18th century, with financing from the Holy Trinity — St. Sergius Lavra.

The Cathedral of the Archangel in the Moscow Kremlin served as the burial ground for a succession of Russian monarchs up to Peter the Great. The cathedral once held all the most famous sepulchral icons of the ruling family, including the precious lid of the reliquary with the remains of Ivan the Terrible’s youngest son Tsarevich Dmitry, whose murder was once imputed to Boris Godunov, and the picture from the tomb of Grand Prince Vasily III, the father of Ivan the Terrible. The icon “Devotion to the Cross” from the Teremnoi Palace of the Moscow Kremlin images Tsar Alexis and Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna (Miloslavskaya). On a commission from Tsarevna Sophia Alexeyevna, an artisan from the Armoury Chamber Ivan Saltanov created in 1686 a sepulchral portrait of the prematurely deceased Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich.

The grandiose parsuna (a transitional kind of image between an icon and a portrait) “Patriarch Nikon with the Brethren of the New Jerusalem (Voskresensky) Monastery” (1660-1665) depicts the sullen appearance of one of the chief originators of the tragedy of the schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. The valuable panagia (an icon of the Theotokos facing the viewer directly) featured in this parsuna on the Patriarch’s breast is also on view at the show. The awesome and dramatic history of the Russian Orthodox Church is reflected in documentary records — from the 1590 letter of the Constantinople Council authorizing the establishment of the Patriarchate in Moscow to the Spiritual Regulation issued by Peter the Great.



Life consists of years, months and days, which, in a Christian Orthodox mind, are sanctified with a cyclical succession of feasts, with the church calendar, prayers on occasions of the feasts, everyday prayers and even, as the ideal of sainthood would have it, non-stop prayers. From birth to death, an Orthodox Christian lived with religious objects of everyday use, such as baptismal crosses worn on the neck, reliquaries, folding icons for domestic use and for use when traveling, books for reading at home, and graveside crosses symbolising hope for the forthcoming resurrection. There are many surviving art objects manufactured by Ruthenian craftsmen for use by Christians in everyday life: from the 12th-century records, made on pieces of birch bark, about the commissioning of icons for a church, to a set of icons from the iconostasis over Tsarevna Sophia Alexeyevna’s grave in the Smolensky Cathedral of the Novodevichy Convent. Iconostases for graves included icons that had accompanied the deceased Christian throughout his or her life, beginning from the “life-size” icon approximating the size of the newborn and ending with the “graveside” icon placed on the dead person’s coffin. Sometimes icons were presented as a gift on the occasion of a name day, while at other times icons were commissioned. Most icons from Tsarevna Sophia’s sepulchral iconostasis were manufactured by artisans from the Armoury Chamber and set with precious stones.



The house of worship is the ultimate image of Orthodox Christianity. This is the hub of all aspirations of mortal life, the place of transformation prior to one’s entry into the heavenly world; this is where the unfading joy of the light of Christ and the inexhaustible truth of the liturgy are to be found.

Objects used in decoration of Christian Orthodox houses of worship (churches, cathedrals) and during divine services have complex symbolic meanings revealed during the sacraments: these items include an iconostasis separating the altar from the rest of the church, icons on columns and walls, liturgical implements, vestments and books.

The exhibition presents 13 icons from an iconostasis produced in 1497 for the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral of the St. Cyril of Belozersk (Kirillo-Belozersky) Monastery — the images belonged to the Deesis, Feasts and Prophets tiers. The liturgical utensils and vessels on display include a jasper chalice manufactured in 1329 on a commission from Archbishop Moses, a plate donated to the Cathedral of the Archangel in the Moscow Kremlin in remembrance of Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich, and cups for blessing the water. The
liturgical cuffs featuring a Deesis (12th century), which presumably belonged to Barlaam (Varlaam) of Khoutyn, are the oldest surviving of their kind. The ceremonial garb of Metropolitan Jonah (Iona) Sysoevich, created at the Stroganov workshops in 1665, is distinguished by the finest craftsmanship. The gospels, psalters and other unique hand-written worship books of the 14th-15th centuries illuminated with the miniatures are of particur interest.

All these artefacts produce a visually compelling, tangible image of Holy Rus — the Christian Rus that keeps itself pious and clean, the Rus of ascetics and men of prayer, the Rus of God-loving monarchs who viewed their tsardom as the prefiguration of, and the gateway to, the Kingdom of Heaven. Held up against the facts, Holy Rus appears as a state with a really tragic past — the past marred by persecution of saints and destruction of cities, by fratricidal warfare and state crimes, and by the everyday imperfection of the human beings and disorder.

However, observing the historical and cultural artefacts brought together at the exhibition, one becomes convinced that there has existed, to this day, Holy Rus, the Russia of Christian Orthodox tradition, the Russia of the Faith and Holiness, the Russia of monasteries, ascetics and men of prayer, the Russia beloved by the Mother of God and glorified by the Light of Truth.

Every country has its ideal and ideal image, often distanced from its real history, but for that very reason clear and sublime. The exhibition is yet another opportunity to see this solemn, profound and majestic image — to see it not as something far distant, but in actual deeds, in creativity and incorruptible beauty.





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