The Life-giving Tree. Russian Wood Sculpture in Italy

Galina Sidorenko

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#4 2006 (13)

It is significant that the year of the 150th anniversary of the Tretyakov Gallery has witnessed the realization of the long-planned "Russian" cultural project of Intesa Bank, as the exhibition "Wood Sculpture from the Russian Territories, from Ancient Times to the 19th Century" opened in Italy. The Tretyakov Gallery is displaying the best part of its collection there for the first time.

On the initiative of Intesa Bank, the show traveled to two cities - Rome (July 29 to August 27), at the Capi- toline Museums, Palazzo Caffarelli (organized by the Communa di Roma); and Vicenza (September 9 to November 5), at the Palazzo Montanari galleries (organized by Intesa Bank). The project's director is Dr. Fatima Terzo Bernardi, officer at the cultural treasures department of Intesa Bank. Along with the Tretyakov Gallery, other participants in the project include the Moscow Kremlin museums, the Historical Museum, the Andrei Rublev Museum of Old Russian Culture and Art, and the Igor Grabar Art Conservation Center, which supplied items from the collections of museums in Ryazan, Egorievsk and Palekh after restoration at the Centre.

The exhibition consists of 57 works, with a catalogue published by the Italian publisher ELECTA, consisting of two parts, the first prefaced by an article by Carlo Pirovano, the exhibition's Italian curator (who was also in charge of the catalogue). The preface is followed by articles by Anna Ryndina (the evolution of the style of Russian ornamental woodwork); by Natalia Goncharova (folk sculpture); by Galina Klokova (the methods and key elements of folk sculpture); by Galina Sidorenko (the project's academic aims and the exhibition's concept); and by Bruno Toscano - on "Russian wood”. The second part contains descriptions of the exhibits, written by a group of researchers from the Russian museums. The catalogue's chief photographer is Walter Maino.

Russian museums have very rarely displayed their wood sculpture internationally. On the rare occasions they have, it was either at exhibitions of masterpieces of Russian woodcarving or dedicated exhibitions of individual museum collections, like the sculpture of Perm and the Russian North. The most significant among such exhibitions took place in Paris in 1973 and was titled "Great Traditions of Russian Wood Sculpture from the Middle Ages to the Moderne".

Lately, specialists in medievalism and art and culture studies have become interested in the theme of the medieval sacred topography and the place of icons, sculpture and applied art objects in the sacred space. The study of the "sacred spaces" in Byzantium and Old Rus has been largely influenced by the international symposia held regularly in Moscow, since 1994, by the Centre of Eastern Christian Culture and the Tretyakov Gallery. The Russian icon exhibition "Sophia: The Wisdom of God", which opened the celebration of the 2000th anniversary of Christianity (at the Vatican, in the Charlemagne Hall, 1999, and Moscow, at the Tretyakov Gallery, 2000), was one of the first to make an attempt to interpret conceptually, through the focus of symbolical theology, different symbols and themes as constituting in iconography "the sacred space" of the one theological dogma. Following these trends and in response to a proposal from Intesa Bank to exhibit a selection of the artefacts of Russian religious wood sculpture from its ancient beginnings to the 20th century, the authors of the concept of the wood sculpture exhibition (Anna Ryndina and Galina Sidorenko) decided to present, for the first time, sacral sculpture in the context of religious perceptions of wood in the periods of paganism and Christianity. The concept of the exhibition named "Life-Giving Wood” was adopted by the Italian organizers.

Russian wood sculpture was properly aesthetically appreciated as a plastic art in the 20th century. It became especially famous thanks to the carved woodwork of the 18th-19th centuries from the region of Perm - its artistic expressiveness was equal to that of the French statues from Burgundy or the Spanish or Portuguese retables. Historically, Russian wood sculpture, whether in the period of polytheism or in the period of dominance of the iconographic canon originating from Byzantine art or, finally, in the New Time - has never digressed far from the tradition, which was invariably rooted in the cult of wood.

For the ancients, wood was always equated with a universal symbol of the structural foundation of the universe. With their tops reaching out to the heavenly light and roots submerged in the darkness of the underworld, trees were always regarded as a habitat of both good and evil spirits. In the Indo-European mythology "trees" had two radically different meanings. One, "cosmos" and "divine universe", another, "chaos" and "hell". The universal ideas about the duality of the tree's nature were epitomized in the biblical tale of the paradise tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The medieval doctrine about the nature of the paradise tree of life and the tree of knowledge and the "redemptive and eternal truth" of the Crucifix was at the core of the liturgical texts of the Third Sunday in Lent and the feast of the Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross, and these texts have formed the foundation of the exhibition's conception. Within this thematic framework, the symbolizations of the "tree" in the festive canon by the Byzantine hymnographer St. Cosmas of Majuma (the 8th century) have been especially important. The symbols in the festive chants encompass the entire mystical meaning of the Life-Giving Tree and expound the dominant idea about the role of the tree in man's fall and in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. The verse of the canon explicates the mystery of the Crucifix and its tree, which became not the instrument of the murder of Christ, but the instrument of salvation; unexpectedly, too, the canon also contains an idea that the tree of knowledge is healed by the tree of the Cross. Just as our first fathers fall occurred through the tree, the Expiation came about through the tree as well. In Christian art of the post-Byzantine period this idea formed a basis for the symbolical representation of the New Testament Tree of Life.

The idea of the Old Testament primal paradise tree of life, promised by Christ in the Apocalypse (Revelations 2:7), was a source for different legends and iconographic compositions in Christian art. Thus, the apocrypha tells about the paradise tree of life, shining with gold in flame-coloured beauty and embowering the whole of paradise with leafed boughs and fruits from every tree. An elaboration on the Old Testament allegories of the Tree of the Holy Cross contained in the canon of St. Cosmas formed the basis for several representations of the "Tree of Life", where it has a certain resemblance with the menorah - the candelabrum in the Holy Temple. This brings to the foreground the idea of the mysterious link of provenance of the Life-Giving Tree from the Old Testament.

The iconography's most consistent focus was on the symbolical aspect of the Tree of Life within the thematic framework "paradise tree of life - the Crucifix", the theme reflected in the hymns sung on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. In these hymns the salvation of the world through the sacrificial crucifixion of Christ becomes not only the centre of the Tree of Life, but also the hub of the universe. An example of this interpretation is the processional Cross (18th century, from the Historical Museum) - a symbol of the Holy Church represented by the new paradise Tree of Life, spawned by the Life-Giving Tree of the Crucifix, which sprouts the eight-pointed crosses solemnly cresting the cupolas of the universal Church. In addition, there is the Roadside Cross (1665) from the Solovki monastery (the Tretyakov Gallery), where the Life-Giving Tree with the crucified Christ is the centre, in the words of St. Gregory of Sinai (14th century), of the entire "four-pointed world” of the universe.

In the canon of St. Cosmas the theme of the tree is rounded off with the definition of the tree of knowledge as the tree of temptation, and the Tree of the Cross, as the "tree of salvation".

St. Cosmas enunciates a profound idea that the first man "inopportunely ate" of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and this put him in a state that could harm the paradise tree of life, which became a forbidden tree because of this.

St. Cosmas's canon ends with the poetic allegory "Mother of God - Paradise". The canon compares the Mother of God to "mystical paradise, which, untilled, did put forth Christ, by Whom the life-bearing tree of the Cross was plant ed." (hirmos of Ode IX). In the saint's vision, "Christ God, Who was nailed in the flesh ... enlightened the world" and all the trees, and yet, in paganism the tree continued to be exposed to "deadly bitterness", and remained the tree of fear and temptation.

Looking at the world of Russian wood sculpture through the perspective of the World Tree legends, liturgical texts and the exegeses of the tree in the hymn by St. Cosmas, we can examine the statuary images and take into account their affiliation with one or another symbolization of the "tree", and thus categorize them, albeit tentatively, either as a "tree of temptation" or a "tree of healing". With this in mind, the exhibition's conception proposed such a structure for its layout and catalogue, with the epigraph: "And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree, ... the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." (Genesis 2:9). The "Tree of Temptation" section also has an epigraph: "... shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?" (Isaiah 44:19). This section has two parts: "the tree of fear" - the sacred images of gods and spirits (idols), and "the tree of joy" - the images of the solar cult ("bereginyas", or guardian goddesses, animals, birds, ornaments with solar signs, and others). The section features rare surviving items of the pagan cults, including the sun-shaped mast of a river-boat of the early 18th century (from the Historical Museum), the wooden door of a cupboard with the carved images of a "faraonka" and a mermaid with lions, and a 19th century horse that decorated the roof of a house and served to avert evil (both also from the Historical Museum).

The religious syncretism of the Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes that developed in the Russian lands in the early stages of the advance of Christianity was especially evident in sculptural woodcarving. The pagan mythological and magic ornaments decorating the interiors and exteriors of village huts and city houses survived unchanged, and this fact is a testimony to this peculiar syncretism. Only if we take into account the entrenched cult of sacred wood - a "concealed" syncretism - can we explain the unique phenomenon of the wide incidence of wood statues in the churches and chapels built in the 18th-19th centuries along the rivers of the Volga and the Kama, localities not long previously dominated by paganism.

The exhibition features several remarkable exponents of both types. One of them is the head of an idol, a unique artefact of the oldest extant wooden statuary, dated to the late 3rd - early 2nd mil- lenium B.C. (the Historical Museum), contemporary with the Cycladic culture famed for its marble idols. The idol's head, discovered in the Eastern Trans- Ural, is also contemporary with the sacred Palladium of Troy - a female effigy made of wood. In its style, the head of the Trans-Ural idol most resembles the so- called "xoana”, the rough-hewn woodblocks of pre-historical Greece. In any interpretation, the idol's head is a part of the vast cultural world that moved from the stage of fetishism on to zoomorphic and anthropomorphous images.

In some regions of Russia, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the churches had "dark cells” - rooms with wooden effigies of a sitting Christ - there was a popular belief that at night the Christ stood from his seat and went out of the church. This belief was so widespread that this sort of statue received a second name, "the Midnight Christ". In Rus this belief showed that Christ, Mother of God and the saints, imaged in wooden statues, were perceived as corporeal and animated beings living on earth. This atavism fostered a double belief among Russian Christians, inciting them to rely equally on holy prayer and magical spells, especially since the Russians' life was overwhelmingly connected with wood. Houses, cribs for babies, tools, churches, icons and, finally, coffins were all made of wood. Wood was literally the tree of life, and in the cult of the tree ancestor worship became fused with the worship of the Life-Giving Tree of Salvation - the Holy Cross.

Canticle 6 of the festive canon - "the Holy Cross ... the salvation tree..." - is the motto of the section devoted to Christian-themed statuary, and the outline of the conceptual structure of the Russian wood sculpture exhibition.

The "Tree of Healing" and "Heaven on Earth" sections of the exhibition feature the holy faces in the sacred space of the Church. The epigraph for these sections was borrowed from the troparion of canticle 9 of the canon for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross: "May all trees in forest rejoice; because their nature is consecrated by the Christ who planted them in the beginning and is now splayed on a tree..." Every item in these sections has a symbolization directly connected with the Life-Giving Tree. The "Tree of Healing" section features the carved effigies of Sabaoth, Crucifixion, Resurrection (Myrrh-Bearing Women). It also features icons with the Mother of God of the Passion and the Assumption, and crosses symbolizing the Life-Giving Tree.

The two sections are interconnected by images of Christ, the Mother of God and the Crucifix. The repetition of subjects like St. Nicholas, St. George and St. Paraskeva, and same-type crosses, at the exhibition attests not only to their wide incidence and stable popularity in different times and different localities. The statues reflect one of the most important features of Russian spiritual life, rooted as it was in a commitment to the traditions of the past, and a desire to model all present things after past things. A carved wooden effigy would be already a monument of old, worthy of worship. The styles changed, but the image remained essentially the same.

The conceptual approach to Russian wood sculpture, taking into account the symbolizations of "wood" in Christianity, reveals the depths of the statuary's symbolical meaning, as well as the sources of the symbolism in contiguous scholar disciplines. The layout of the exhibition was created along such concepts.

Certainly, a "poetic approach" to the imagery of Russian wood sculpture is only one among many aspects of its perception. With regards to the relievo carving of the Russian Middle Ages and the New Time, the description of every item in the catalogue outlines its typology, features of style and functions, with descriptions showing how varied is the sacral meaning of the wood sculpture. Thus, the high-relief effigy of St. George on a white horse (1460s, the Tretyakov Gallery) served first of all as the coat-of- arms of the Moscow princes, and the effigy of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, [holding a sword] - "St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk" (1 540, the Pskov Museum-Reserve) - was worshipped as a protector of the Town and Church.

Some statues have psychological inflections. The "Mother of God Hodigitria" effigy (16th century, the Tretyakov Gallery), with its sunken eyes and mournful lines at the tightened lips, conveys a feeling of profound sorrow and suffering.

The "breakaway" from the background surface, to which reliefs and high reliefs were bound, made them, in essence, icons too, painted or decorated with bejewelled icon frames and coverings and thus "otherworldly" icons; this development, in the 18th-19th centuries, produced statues with "concealed" volume. "The Angel" (late-18th century, Tretyakov Gallery) is an incorporeal creature given flesh, who produced an impression of being palpably present in the space of the church. The "Christ in the Dark Cell" effigy (18th century, Tretyakov Gallery) radically changed the perceptions of and attitudes to sacral sculpture. Previously, sacral sculpture was "heaven on earth", protecting, healing troubles and sicknesses; but "Christ in the Dark Cell" appealed to the sense of mutual compassion and love, because one of the main themes recurring in the Christ-in- the-Dark-Cell statues in 17th century Russia drew on these lines from Matthew (25:36): "Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

The carved painted wooden icon with images in relief, depicting the Cross of Calvary inside a cathedral (19th century, the Tretyakov Gallery), with cryptographic messages celebrating the LifeGiving Cross in the feast day of its Exaltation is a symbol of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. This icon, adorned with solar signs, encompasses the "amplitude" of the imagery of Russian wood sculpture, its symbolism both as the "tree of salvation" and the "tree of joy".

The exhibition in Rome enjoyed great popularity with about 300,000 visitors and was no less success in Vicenza.

Illustrations

St. George on Horseback. 1460s. Moscow
St. George on Horseback. 1460s. Moscow
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 68.5 by 49 by 9.3 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Image of the Church. 19th century
Image of the Church. 19th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 31 by 24 by 2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk. 1540
St. Nicholas of Mozhaisk. 1540
Рainted in 1696, from South-West Rus. Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 174 by 80 by 17 cm. Pskov History, Architecture and Fine Arts Museum Reserve
Deesis Tier. Late 16th century, from Russia’s Northern provinces
Deesis Tier. Late 16th century, from Russia’s Northern provinces
Wood; carved work. 25.9 by 88.5 by 1.9 cm. State Historical and Cultura Museum Reserve “The Moscow Kremlin”
The Mother of God Hodigitria with Deesis and Chosen Saints. 16th century
The Mother of God Hodigitria with Deesis and Chosen Saints. 16th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 45 by 38 by 2.4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
St. George and the Dragon. Late 17th – early 18th centuries
St. George and the Dragon. Late 17th – early 18th centuries
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 72 by 55 by 8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
St. George and the Dragon. Late 17th – early 18th centuries. Detail
St. George and the Dragon. Late 17th – early 18th centuries. Detail
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 72 by 55 by 8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
St. Hermolaus. Early 17th century
St. Hermolaus. Early 17th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 73 by 45 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Christ in the Dungeon. 18th century
Christ in the Dungeon. 18th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 25 by 7.5 by 9 cm (with the stand). Tretyakov Gallery
Detail of the left part of the Royal Doors. 17th century. Ryazan
Detail of the left part of the Royal Doors. 17th century. Ryazan
The Royal Doors. 17th century, Ryazan
The Royal Doors. 17th century, Ryazan
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 169 by 97.6 by 5.5 cm. The Pozhalostin Ryazan Regional Art Museum
The Mother of God of the Passion. Late 17th – early 18th century
The Mother of God of the Passion. Late 17th – early 18th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 80 by 60 by 10 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
The Great Martyr Paraskeva, named “Friday” (Pyatnitsa). Late 17th – early 18th century
The Great Martyr Paraskeva, named “Friday” (Pyatnitsa). Late 17th – early 18th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 83 by 33 by 9.7 cm. Andrei Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture and Art, Moscow
The Venerable Nilus of Stolbny. 19th century, from the Ostashkov neighbourhood
The Venerable Nilus of Stolbny. 19th century, from the Ostashkov neighbourhood
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera, oil; carved work, polychrome painting. 25 by 13.5 by 11.5 cm (with the stand); 22.5 by 10.5 by 7 cm (the saint’s figure). Tretyakov Gallery
The Holy Hierarch. The lid of a reliquary 16th century, Moscow (?)
The Holy Hierarch. The lid of a reliquary 16th century, Moscow (?)
Wood; carved work. 111 by 30 by 7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
St. George and the Dragon. Late 16th – early 17th centuries
St. George and the Dragon. Late 16th – early 17th centuries
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 40 by 30 by 1.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Roadside Cross. 1665
Roadside Cross. 1665
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera; carved work, polychrome painting. 49.5 by 23 by 3.4 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Angel. Late 18th century
Angel. Late 18th century
Wood, levkas (chalk priming), tempera, oil; carved work, polychrome painting. 105 by 59 by 25 cm. Tretyakov Gallery

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