10/06/2017, 18.13
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Russian icons between faith, museums and business

by Vladimir Rozanskij

The famous icon of the Angel with the Golden Hair will be moved to a chapel used as a museum, accessible only to government officials and their guests. Like in Soviet times, the icons saved from destruction, can be admired by foreign leaders and delegations, not by the faithful.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – One of Russia’s most famous and beloved icons, the ancient icon of the Angel with the Golden Hair, may no longer be on display at the Russian Museum where it is presently kept. Some reports indicate that Sergei Shmakin (picture 2), a businessman and sub-deacon, plans to move it with the blessing of Kirill (Gundyayev), the Patriarch of Moscow. The rather surprising news has sparked discussions in Russia about the country's cultural and religious heritage.

Pictures for sale

Russia’s ancient icons, known and revered all over the world, are not only valuable relics of Christian faith and Orthodox Christian tradition, but also represent a very significant part in the recent history in state-Church relations, and between Russian society and its cultural identity.

As it is widely known, the Church endured terrible persecution, arrests and killings, including confiscations and looting during the Soviet era. Persecution began with the decree of confiscation of Church properties of 23 February 1922, shortly after the end of the civil war that had caused a great famine throughout Russia. Lenin and Trotsky gave the latter as justification to go after the Church , whilst preserving formal respect for religious freedom. When the Church refused to hand over its golden items and sacred vessels, dresses and icons, the Bolsheviks took the opportunity to accuse the Church of further starving the already hard-pressed people, and to turn against it at a time when people were already enraged by the war between the Reds and the Whites, which lasted for five years after the revolution. The Vatican, in an attempt to save the situation, even proposed to ransom all the Church's valuables in Russia, both Catholic and Orthodox, by raising funds around the world.

After the plundering and the mass arrests of priests and bishops came the closure and often destruction of Church buildings, with the loss of many treasures of artistic and spiritual value, up to the spectacular demolitions under Stalin, who had the great cathedral of Christ the Saviour next to the Kremlin levelled. Only after the collapse of communism was it rebuilt.

The sacrilegious fury of Russia’s Communists failed to turn against the icons. Books and all kinds of material were burnt, but not the sacred pictures, which were almost left untouched. According to the Orthodox tradition in general and Russia’s in particular, devotion to the images has very deep and symbolic roots. Icons are a window on the infinite and a sign of the deity’s presence among people, so that even the most hateful atheists, even just out of superstition, dared not desecrate them.

Museums and commerce

Many icons were stolen, hidden by the faithful or by the persecutors themselves, for no other reason as to sell them in the underground market. Even today, antique dealers around the world sell old, more or less authentic Russian icons. Many others have been confiscated and buried in inaccessible warehouses, to avoid at least public veneration.

Over time, however, the Soviets began to yield to the charm of sacred images, and began to set up special showrooms in various museums, not open to ordinary citizens, but only to party officials and their guests, foreign delegations for example, to whom they proudly showed that they had preserved religious monuments. The museums with the most famous icons were the Tretyakov Gallery, with the works of Andrei Rublev, the Museum of Novgorod the Great, and the Russian Museum of St Petersburg, from which the Angel with the Golden Hair is about to disappear.

The Angel with the Golden Hair and Rus’

The precious angelic icon, symbol of the Russian Museum since 1934, when it was miraculously found, would not be the first to be removed from the public. Shmakin himself was involved a few years ago with the removal from the museum of the Icon of the Mother of God Hodegetria, called ‘Toropetskaya’, dating back to the 13th century.

On that occasion, the businessman-cum-subdeacon worked out a deal with Patriarch Kirill, getting the icon "temporarily" for the opening of a new church in a new prestigious real estate development. The luxury homes in the exclusive village have long been handed over to their owners, but the church has not been built and the icon is rotting away in some warehouse with the danger that it might be permanently damaged (icons are painted on wood and need to breathe and be closely protected).

The icon of the  Angel, which shows off the face of the Archangel Gabriel, is considered even older. It is attributed to Simon Ushakov, iconographer of the first Novgorod school of the 12th century, at the dawn of Christian history of ancient Rus’. It is not only a museum asset but also an icon on which the identity and origins of the Russian Orthodox faith is based. Its preservation requires even greater care, because of its age and the particular technique of painting. Each of the Angel's hair is made with a single golden thread.

Shmakin's plan calls for moving the icon by only 200 meters, from the Museum to the ancient imperial chapel in the Mikhaylovsky Palace, where no liturgical ceremony is celebrated, since it is only museum. The icon would then be admired only by officials and their guests, like in Soviet times. A similar solution was adopted years ago by the leaders of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, who moved Our Lady of Tenderness of Vladimir to the palatine chapel. In this case however, the choice was justified by the throngs of devotees gathering in front of the icon in prayer, and the church inside the Tretyakov Palace is still accessible to all visitors, who are officially invited to stand in devotional silence in front of the Mother of Russia’s faith.

The goal behind the initiative of taking icons out of museums is to bring them back into churches, but in fact they have usually ended up being used to the glorify Russia’s new rulers and exalt their sacredness and closeness with heavenly thrones and dominations.

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