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Henry M. Robert

“Sometimes crosses reveal wonderful pages of our history”

Dnipropetrovsk staurographer Viktor Veklenko on evolution and preservation of the symbol of faith in Ukraine
16 January, 2014 - 10:25
THE CROSSES IN DNIPRO REGION EMERGED IN THE TIME OF KYIVAN RUS’, BUT THEIR NUMBER GREW WHEN COSSACKS STARTED TO EXPLORE THE LAND – APPROXIMATELY IN THE 16th CENTURY, SAYS THE STAUROGRAPH WHOSE COLLECTION INCLUDES HUNDREDS OF CROSSES WORN CLOSE TO BODY. IN UKRAINE THIS SCIENCE IS ONLY IN THE MAKING, THE RESEARCHER ASSERTS
PECULIARITIES OF CROSSES SHOW DIFFERENCES IN CULTURE: IN THE 18th CENTURY RUSSIAN CROSSES WERE MOLDED, BUT IN UKRAINE THEY WERE USUALLY CUT FROM A METAL PLATE. UKRAINE HAS ALWAYS BEEN A GATE TO EUROPE; NEW TRENDS REACHED IT SOONER THAN RUSSIA, CATHOLIC PLOTS ARE FREQUENTLY MET, SAYS VIKTOR VEKLENKO

Dnipropetrovsk historian Viktor Velkenko calls himself a staurographer – expert on crosses. After graduation from the history department he headed the archeology laboratory of the Dnipropetrovsk National University and took part in excavations. As a result he wrote a monograph “Crosses worn close to the body in Samar, the Fortress of Holy Mother of God.” As a researcher, Veklenko gathered quite a big collection, which served as the basis for Ukraine’s only Museum of the Cross, opened in Petrykivka raion. The new museum successfully fits in the concept of the Cossack ethnic hamlet Halushkivka.

“Petrykivka is associated not only with the manner of decorative painting, but also famous carpet weaving and other cultural traditions,” the scholar says, “I am glad that children from Petrykivka and other villages can come to the museum and see the national history. The exposition includes metal, ceramic, wooden, and glass crosses from 15 regions of Ukraine, dated from the Kyivan Rus’ period till the early 1900s.”

 Why did you take up this topic?

“Everything was defined by my research interests, which developed in two directions. Those included the staurography – the history of the cross and the history of Samar neighborhood, research of the New Fortress of Holy Mother of God. Everything started in 2000, when Ancient Zaporozhian Town Samar with Ferriage, an interesting book written by two local lore researchers, Volodymyr Binkevych and Vadym Kameko, was published. It determined the direction of the search of a population center, which marked the beginning of Dnipropetrovsk, according to researchers. The first scouting of the place where the fortress was built after the Cossack town of Samar was held by archeologist Volodymyr Shalobudov. The results showed that the place was not touched by so-called ‘black archeologists.’ The excavations, in which I participated, revealed many items, like kitchenware, coins, pipes, buttons, and trade seals, but I was mostly interested in the Cossack crosses, worn close to the body. I took interest in the topic of Zaporozhian Cossacks and the church since my student years. Therefore I tried to sort through the findings; however, the problem was that there was no academic literature on the topic. The contacts with Russian colleagues came in handy. The study of the stock of the Dnipropetrovsk Museum of History, which has accumulated a great deal of staurographic material, was really helpful. I had an opportunity to get to know the ‘black’ market as well. I don’t consider myself a collector, but with time I became an owner of hundreds of crosses, which I use as samples to identify the findings.”

 Does it help to systematize the crosses?

“The Crimea is a standalone place on the territory of present-day Ukraine. Christianity and crosses, which were worn close to the body, emerged there back in the 5th-6th centuries, owing to Byzantine influence. They reached our territory 500 years later, in the time of Kyivan Rus’. The cross is a symbol of being a Christian. Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross. This is a symbol of faith for a Christian, but wearing of a cross was not a must at that time. For example, it was only in the early 17th century that wearing of a cross was announced compulsory in Muscovy in the church book of Patriarch Philaret of Moscow. There were no rigid rules concerning the shape and decorations of the cross. Like a Kyiv Cave Monastery monk said, you can bind two sticks and this will be a cross.

“But crosses sometimes reveal wonderful pages of our history. For example, the cross of the time of Kyivan Rus’, which was found near the famous Petrykivka Village. It was the place where Prince Volodymyr’s silver coin was found. But the most interesting findings are presented by the Ihren peninsula in the estuary of the Samara River, a borderline with the steppe, Dyke Pole (Wild Field). Many coins of Golden Horde were once found there, as well as Christian crosses. Maybe in the time of Golden Horde, as well as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the population there was mixed and included people of various religions and cultures; crosses are found in the lower part of the Dnipro Bank. This indicates that our ancestors started to explore these lands back in the time of Kyivan Rus’.”

 Why are so many crosses found? Were people buried with them?

“The thing is that, according to Byzantine law, it was forbidden to bury people with crosses. They were usually inherited – from father to son, from mother to daughter. Therefore there are few crosses in the graves, they are mostly found in the cultural layer on the territory of population centers. People often lost their crosses: the cords, on which one could wear as well an icon, an amulet, or a bottle with tears of ‘crying’ icons, frayed or tore. There were different crosses, like a reliquary cross. They were worn above the clothes mostly by wealthy people to protect themselves from devilry or evil eye. It has a lid which covered a hole, where a piece of holy relics was kept. There were also pectoral crosses, worn by clergy.

“As I have already said, the crosses in Dnipro Bank region emerged back in Kyivan Rus’ time, but their number grew when Cossacks started to explore our lands, approximately starting in the 16th century. This can be seen from the Samar excavations – the New Fortress of Holy Mother of God. Whereas Samar was a Cossack settlement, a Russian garrison was quartered in the fortress since the late 17th century. It was the time when the cultural differences become obvious, in particular, in crosses. In the 18th century Russian crosses were molded, whereas in Ukraine they were cut from a metal plate. And their shape changed with time. In the 16th century the crosses were simple. In the 18th century the external corners of the central part of the cross were highlighted with the help of crosses or other decorations. Analogies with the baroque style come to mind.

“Later the crosses become stricter and more often a crucifix is depicted on them. I don’t know yet how to explain this. Maybe, the artistic methods were influenced by Rzeczpospolita. Ukraine has always been a gate to Europe; new trends reached it sooner than Russia – Catholic plots could frequently penetrate. Incidentally, with time the cross becomes not as much a symbol of faith, as a decoration. This can be seen from the female crosses; in Western Ukraine the cross becomes an element of zgarda, a necklace made of different crosses. It should be taken into consideration that crosses were made not only of metal, which was quite expensive. At that time there were half-kopeck coins and quarters. One could have a good drink and a bite for a half-kopeck. Common people wore wooden or even leather crosses. For apparent reasons, they could not have been preserved, therefore the picture is incomplete.”

How did you come up with an idea to open Ukraine’s first Museum of the Cross?

“I want to note that, by and large, there is no Ukrainian staurography – it is only in the making. To bring everything in order, we need to accumulate the material – say, have thousands of crosses, which were worn close to body, link them to concrete archeological monuments, regions, and periods. This is a thorny path, because Ukraine was divided politically and in terms of religion. So far we are mostly on the stage of accumulation. A great problem is connected with so-called ‘diggers,’ who hunt after antiquities. They equip themselves with old maps and search with metal locators the places of ancient population centers, dig up the weapons, coins, christcrosses, and many other things which they later sell. They have no problems with selling them: one such digger showed me a notebook with orders from collectors. A phone call is enough for the buyer to come. The problem is that these items are taken out of the cultural layer and put into circulation without description. Such finding, if torn out of the ‘context’ loses its value in many ways. I am interested in the material, when I can understand where it comes from and what its chronology is.

“Gradually we came up with an idea to create Ukraine’s first Museum of the Cross, which already has over 2,000 items, which represent the Christian history of Ukraine, though fragmentary. Everything started after we held three exhibits in Dnipropetrovsk and six – in Kyiv, jointly with the network of Christian shops ‘Guardian Angel,’ dedicated to the topic ‘Image of Christ from ancient times to present day.’ In fall, on the Feast of the Intercession we launched a museum in the Hrechyn Village, Petrykivka raion. It develops the concept of ‘The Image of Christ’ – all the items are from my collection. The idea was a brainchild of the owner of ethnic hamlet Halushkivka, entrepreneur Volodymyr Vyborny. The oblast council did not show any interest to the project, but we received an active support from the raion authorities. Besides, we enjoy response and support from business and Orthodox Church clergy. Numerous touring groups come to Halushkivka on weekends, mostly from our oblast, although there have been groups from Kharkiv and Poltava oblasts, and Zaporizhia. The museum showcases crosses from a variety of regions, but the exposition is formed. We want to preserve the cultural heritage. There is much work to do, which will take us for years and include cataloging, description, re-exposition, but the most important thing is that we have launched the process. A unique brand is being created. There are many ideas concerning the development of the museum, but, like they say, ‘if you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.’”

By Vadym RYZHKOV, The Day, Dnipropetrovsk. Photos courtesy of the author
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