Last spring, another Volhynian Our Lady came back to people. In May, the Museum of Volyn Icons presented four holy images from an old church in Rudka-Kozynska (a village in Rozhyshche raion), which had been restored in Lviv. In the 1980s, these icons were given by hieromonk Nifont, then senior priest of the church, to a special commission which made an inventory of church utensils in churches that were closed during the 1960s, as well as in those that were still open. A research expedition lead by Pavlo Zholtovsky saved hundreds of unique items, which could decorate any world-class museum. Likewise, the icons found by hieromonk Nifont, bear a style of an unknown original Volhynian artist. Luckily, the young priest realized the importance of those “wooden boards” back then. Since then, after he became Metropolitan of Lutsk and Volyn and head of the Volyn Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Nifont still remains one of those who contribute to the Museum of Volyn Icons with valuable icons from village churches and finance their restoration. As a matter of fact, it was him who sponsored the publication of the museum’s first research works.
Further destiny of Rudka-Kozynska icons shows how precious icons from ordinary Volhynian churches are. An expert committee selected them from among the Museum of Volyn Icons display for presentation at an exhibition in Kyiv, dedicated to the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus’. The exhibition is called “Great and Grand,” and anyone who enters the Museum of Volyn Icons is overwhelmed with the feeling of greatness and grandeur. Presidents, metropolitans, ambassadors from various countries have seen it. The museum annually opens its doors to pilgrims from Poland, Russia, Paraguay, Israel and other countries, who come to bow to the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Kholm. It is a so-called apostle icon which, according to experts, was painted by the Apostle Luke. The Day wrote in detail about the grievous fate of the icon after the World War II, when it was evacuated from Kholm (now Chelm, Poland), about how restorer Anatolii Kvasiuk worked on it for the long 12 years millimeter by millimeter (and for the first few years he had to do it secretly), and about why the icon was given to the Museum of Volyn Icons. During the solemn ceremony, a greeting to the Volhynian icon museum’s staff from The Day’s editor-in-chief Larysa Ivshyna was read. The museum considers he a dear friend and values her opinion greatly.
Tetiana Yeliseieva, present director of the Museum of Volyn Icons, was a participant of those first research expeditions lead by Zholtovsky. Thousands of holy images and other works of art were saved in times of imposed universal atheism, they were inventoried and taken to the local history museum. And these very findings became the future basis of the tremendously rich exposition of the Museum of Volyn Icons. Icons from Rudka-Kozynska have been restored at the Lviv branch of the National Research Restoration Center for almost a year, and experts say they date back to the late 18th century.
The unique collection of the museum, which is the only one in Ukraine to present an authentic regional icon painting school, contains over 2,000 monuments of sacred art of the 16th-19th centuries. The masterpieces include The Savior in Glory (16th century), Saint George and Life (1630), Savior the Pantocrator (early 17th century), works by Iov Kondzelevych Savior the Pantocrator (17th century), Prophets, Saint George (early 18th century), and also original samples of Volhynian decorative carving and sculpture dating back to the 17th-18th centuries. The prestige of the Museum of Volyn Icons as of a renowned center of collecting, research, and preservation of sacred art objects motivated the members of public association Kholmshchyna to give the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Kholm to the museum in September, 2000. This icon is a unique monument of Byzantine art of the 11th-12th centuries. And now this museum is perhaps the only one in the world to receive crowded cross processions.
KHOLM ICON OF THE MOTHER OF GOD. 11th CENTURY / Photo replica from the album The Museum of Volyn Icons by Tetiana YELISIEIEVA and Anhelina VYHODNIK. Kyiv: Maister-Print, 2010
The museum celebrated its anniversary with a traditional international scientific conference “Volhynian Icon: Research and Restoration.” Colleagues from Russia, Poland, and Belarus were invited. Government officials awarded diplomas and money rewards to staff members and experts. But the main reward for the museum was one more building in the downtown: the museum’s store-rooms are full of unique icons, which cannot be displayed in the current exhibition due to the lack of space.
Svitlana STRELNYKOVA, director general of the National Research Restoration Center, Ukraine:
“The Museum of Volyn Icons is a truly unique cultural establishment, which preserves wonderful objects of sacred art. And the fact that the icon of Our Lady of Kholm, which is a national and worldwide sacred object, is kept at this museum, testifies to the importance of its collection. We have been cooperating with the museum for 20 years, and during this period a large number of sacred art objects were restored in our laboratories and workshops. Restoration artists from our Lviv branch cooperate with the museum too.
“We love and respect this museum very much, we value the collection that is being preserved by the museum’s specialists. We are grateful for this cooperation. Talking of the significance of this museum, its exhibition is simply priceless! I think that it possesses monuments of international importance. There are many striking, impressive art objects related to Our Lady icon painting, to various religious holidays. A great number of connoisseurs of such art find the museum in catalogues, and by the way, the Museum of Volyn Icons is a frequent publisher, it shows its exhibition in albums and books. It is one of the leading museum institutions in Ukraine, because it does not limit its activity to only one narrow direction. Every year scientific conferences and exhibitions are held, the museum displays its exhibits in other Ukrainian cities, and profound methodical work is being carried out. This is absolutely praiseworthy. Those publications that were prepared for the 20th anniversary testify to a truly scientific approach to studying and developing the collection, to the fund work.”
Volodymyr ALEKSANDROVYCH, Ph.D., historian, deputy director at the Medieval History Department, Krypiakevych Ukrainian Studies Institute (Lviv):
“When I started working at the Olesko Castle in 1976, I saw an icon of Our Lady from St. Apostle Luke church (Dorosyni, Volyn oblast) on display at the Lviv Art Gallery. It was the first unique Volhynian icon that I later could enjoy seeing every day. The now late gallery director Borys Voznytsky used to say that it was such a pity that so few Volhynian monuments of sacred art have survived. During the 20 years of the museum’s activity, an astonishing number of unique monuments of the Volhynian icon painting school was discovered. We have 33 icons, painted before the 17th century. Volyn stopped being a terra incognita to historians, art critics, and researchers of sacred art. It turned out to be an utterly important region of the Ukrainian art tradition development. Thanks to Volyn’s historic connections with Kyiv, there are a lot of Kyiv icons here, I think there might be even more of them here than in Kyiv.
Volodymyr ALEKSANDROVYCH: “When the album The Museum of Volyn Icons was presented at the National Sanctuary ‘Sophia of Kyiv’ last spring... many experts said that there are world-class treasures in Lutsk and they should be shown to connoisseurs in Europe.”
“Luckily, these monuments were not destroyed, but managed to survive to this day and are available for people to see. Such museum and its collection favorably represent not only Volyn, but Ukraine in general. Neither Athos nor Sinai has such icons as Our Lady of Kholm. And Lutsk, Volyn, Ukraine, has them. This anniversary for me is not only summing up of what has been done, but first of all, determination of what has not yet been done. Recently, we were on a trip with a group of clergymen round churches in Lutsk district, and you know, there still are incredible things there that should be saved. Icons that would adorn many museum exhibitions. People do not always realize what treasures they possess, what great witnesses of history these old icons are. One of the most precious Volhynian icons, The Savior from a church in Pilhaniv near Lutsk, was brought to the museum as a piece board, because the workmen who repaired that church had used the icon’s other side to mix cement. The creation of the icon museum helped to rescue hundreds of sacred images, because many of items that were brought to the museum had not been used by the church for a long time.
“When the album The Museum of Volyn Icons was presented at the National Sanctuary ‘Sophia of Kyiv’ last spring (by the way, it is nominated for the book of the year), many experts said that there are world-class treasures in Lutsk and they should be shown to connoisseurs in Europe.
“This has been discussed for a long time now. When Kuchma was president, exhibiting Ukrainian icons in the Vatican, and then in Belgium, and so on, was discussed. Unfortunately, this has remained empty words for years. For example, in Belarus, collections of sacred art are much more modest, but look how they treasure them! Our colleagues from Belarus told us that they had taken rather ordinary icons, provincial painting which is closer to folk art, to Spain. And an absolutely unexpected thing happened: there were unprecedented crowds of visitors lining up to see the exhibition of Belarusian icons! Volyn can present significantly more valuable icons. But someone needs to do it. Every icon is a small piece of our history. One such monument appears, and we discover a whole trend in history which was not known before. We have things to show, the problem is that we do not do it.”
By the way, you can pay a virtual visit to the Museum of Volyn Icons by using the Ukraina Incognita website: incognita.day.kiev.ua