Scented Saints, Written Images, Endangered Heritage

Beautiful sillage is a sign of sainthood in the Orthodox tradition. The fragrance, or mirro (holy myrrh), can be emitted by real life saints, saint’s relics or even icons, painted images of saints. It’s common even today to hear stories of icons shedding myrrh and filling the whole church with the heavenly scent. Such events are called thaumata, a Greek word for wonders. They’re not miracles in the supernatural sense like walking on water or feeding 4,000 with seven loaves of bread. Thaumata are everyday marvels, brief glimpses of the divine through the veil covering us. The same kind of wonder is held responsible for icons, because to paint a saint it’s not enough simply to have artistic skills. One has to be inspired.

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“I didn’t mean to become an icon painter. It was never my goal as an art student. I can’t explain it, but in the end, that’s just what happened,” says Natalya Gladovska, an icon painter at the Lavra Art Studios. My mental image of an icon painter owes much to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev–a somber bearded monk in black robes. Gladovska laughs when I tell her so. She’s warm and bubbly, and everything about her, down to her tendrils of abundant red hair escaping from a loose bun, is filled with energy and verve.

We’re drinking tea on the balcony of Gladovska’s attic workroom and the vista spreading around us is awe inspiring. On the left flows the Dnipro River that separates Kyiv into two halves, Right and Left Banks. The Right Bank is the oldest, the place where Kyiv took its roots at the end of the 5th century CE. The hills of the Right Bank are dappled with the golden domes of the Monastery of the Caves, Pecherska Lavra, that shimmer darkly against the saturated blue of the skies. Christian hermits settled the caves on these hillsides in 1051 and established the Monastery. Their remains, including those of Alipy of the Caves, one of the earliest Orthodox icon painters, are still in the underground cells below us.

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“Well, technically, not an icon painter, but a writer,” says Gladovska, explaining that in Ukrainian, icons are referred to as “written”, rather than “painted”, while the word itself comes from the Greek word for image, eikon. They are not simply images designed to educate or embellish. Icons are considered a sacred conduit between the worshiper and God. Given the church canons, I assumed that there was little room for artistic license in the Orthodox representations, but as I discovered when exploring the Lavra Art Studios, it’s not only my idea of an icon painter that is out of date. My understanding of iconography also needs a revision.

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The Lavra Art Studios are located on the territory of Pecherska Lavra, a UNESCO World Heritage complex with churches, six National Museums, monastic quarters, and the Metropolitan of Kyiv’s residence. The Studios were founded more than 130 years ago as a painting school by artist Ivan Yizhakevych who is responsible for some of the most resplendent church decorations in Kyiv.

Many prominent Ukrainian artists such as Kateryna Bilokur, Maria Pryjmachenko, Heorhii Yakutovych, Petro Vlasenko, and Yuriy Khymych worked here. In the 1930s Diego Rivera came to the Studios to work with Mikhailo Boitchuk, the founder of the Monumentalist School of Art. Today the building houses icon exhibits, painting classes and more than 30 artist workshops, both religious and secular. The Lavra Studios are supported by the artists themselves, and anyone is welcome to walk in, admire the art, and even get an impromptu lesson with an artist while sharing tea. It’s a warm and inviting place, and after my first serendipitous visit, I’ve looked forward to returning.

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Icon artist Mykhailo Haiovy expands my knowledge further. In his studio, which also doubles as a classroom, the icons cover all surfaces, and there is something thrilling and poignant about the half-finished images taking form before my eyes. Haiovy shows me different examples of icon styles, from linear Byzantine ones in dark colors and doleful moods to vibrant and luminous Ukrainian baroque images. While early Orthodox icons de-emphasize corporeality, later images are full of humanism and emotion. He explains that icons are indeed painted according to the church canons: what a saint should look like, what attributes she should have, what she should wear. On the other hand, the artist can select the details and interpret them based on his or her own vision and style.

Of the Orthodox styles, the Ukrainian style is the most expressive. With the long history of cultural exchange starting with the Renaissance, Ukrainian artists blended Western European elements with their native arts, creating vivid, sumptuous images. Even some of the more classically Byzantine narratives are interpreted in a dynamic, vibrant manner.  The figures are more realistic and three-dimensional. Jesus Child is clad in vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. The Ukrainian Virgin Mary has lush, full lips and a heart-shaped face. She is often depicted holding flowers. Do I see her lowering her face to take a stealthy inhale of that large crimson rose?

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Because icons are so prominent in Orthodox tradition, icons themselves are big business. Around the Lavra monastery complex I spot numerous kiosks selling icons in all shapes and sizes. Some are advertised as hand painted, but while iconography is a new topic for me, I didn’t attend 10 years of art school for nothing. I can spot shortcuts and mass produced images. Their ornate gilded frames don’t fool me.

The contrast with the Art Studios couldn’t be greater, because its artists work entirely by hand. Icons may be done in mosaic, printed on metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth as well as illuminated with a candle. If done on wood, icons can combine painting and carving, and Haiovy shows me an image in progress, a saint’s face coming through the soft brushstrokes of faded gold. His Byzantine eyes are expressive and intense. The moment stops still as I return his gaze.

The walls of the Art Studios breathe history, and this warren of corridors and workshops, smelling of damp wood, oil paints, gauche and plaster has made such a mark on art history since the 19th century and continues to contribute to Ukraine’s cultural heritage, both secular and religious. Serhii Vandalovsky created more than 30 iconostases, monumental icon screens, for churches around the world, while other icon artists, sculptors and painters are active in all spheres of art, including the mural work for the restored Dormition Cathedral in Lavra.

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Incidentally, this doesn’t make the Lavra Art Studios immune from venal politics. The Art Studio is situated on a piece of prime real estate, and the Lavra administration has repeatedly engaged in acts that can only be described as property raidership. Although the building’s papers were in order and the finances for it came from the artist guilds, the Lavra authorities have sent requests to vacate the building, turned off water, and shut off the electricity. After the artists appealed and publicized the issue, the motion was stopped, but the situation is in limbo and the future is uncertain. One thing is true–if the Lavra Art Studio disappears, the unique cultural heritage will vanish along with it.

Everyone I meet at the Lavra Studios expresses alarm at the precarious situation. Both Gladovska and Haiovy, along with other artists, maintain files of documents, send petitions and use all of their efforts and resources to preserve this unique space. They point out that re-purposing a building, as the Lavra authorities have done with other historical structures and now plan for the Studios, brings the UNESCO designation into question and violates this status. Four other museums on the Lavra territory, including the Museum of Decorative Arts housing precious artworks by Ukrainian genius Kateryna Bilokur, have been threatened with closure at one point or another.

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It’s my last day in Kyiv, and after I say goodbye to the artists and descend down the narrow streets out of Lavra into the city center, I stop by the caves. It’s been years since I visited these dark recesses holding rakii, burial caskets filled with the relics of saints. I remember clutching my father’s hand in the darkness and being frightened and overawed by the slender, mummified 11th century hands resting on emerald velvet. The only light in the caves is given off by slender beeswax candles, and I held mine so tightly that it melted in my warm, sweaty palm.

Today, however, I feel something like wonder. The caves are quiet and serene. As I enter the dark alcoves the light from my beeswax candle makes the shadows recede and brings into relief the smooth stone walls, dark icons, and glass caskets. Somewhere a monk intones prayers. I hear the dry rustle of pages being turned. I find the rakia of the icon artists Alipy and Grigory. “When you pray, you can ask him for something, for yourself, but better for others,” I overhear a mother say to her young son. So I ask Alipy to help the artists he inspired. When I step into the murky sunlight, the honeyed, waxy scent remains on my fingertips.

 

Photography by Bois de Jasmin. Top image: work by Mykhailo Haiovy. 2nd collage: Kyiv vistas, Natalya Gladovska’s studio. 3rd collage (clockwise): Lavra Art Studios,  Natalya Gladovska’s icon in progress, Lavra Bell Tower. 4th collage (clockwise): Mykhailo Haiovy’s icon writing in progress. 5th collage: 18th century Ukrainian baroque icons from Ivan Honchar’s Museum collection, and modern icons from the Lavra Art Studio. 6th collage: Serhii Vandalovsky’s icon, Lavra Art Studio. 6th collage: Lavra vistas from the Bell Tower.

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107 Comments

  • Sofie: Beautiful… October 5, 2015 at 7:58am Reply

  • Rosie: Thank you for such an illuminating read Victoria.
    What a fascinating subject, on a tradition i know so little about.
    I went to the Byzantium exhibition at The Royal Academy in London a few years ago, which was so inspiring, but i had know idea that are skilled artists in this field today.
    How awful that this is under threat, as so much of our cultural heritage is today.
    I heard on the radio today that ISIS have demolished another heritage sight, The Arch of Triumph in Palmyria region of Syria. that has stood for over 2000 years. October 5, 2015 at 8:44am Reply

    • Victoria: The traditions are so fascinating, and while the Orthodox church has stricter rules for the depictions of saints, different traditions interpret them in varied ways.

      I traveled around Georgia and saw many ancient churches that the Soviet army used for target practice. Quite tragic. October 5, 2015 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Graciela: Amazing post Victoria…! . Beautiful page. Very rich.
    I`m from Argentina. Excuse me my bad English… 🙁 October 5, 2015 at 9:12am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Graciela. I’m very glad that you’ve enjoyed it. October 5, 2015 at 1:16pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, you have outdone yourself…what a fantastic post and so informative. Thank you! October 5, 2015 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Phyllis. 🙂 October 5, 2015 at 1:22pm Reply

  • Karen 5.0: Thank you for this fascinating piece, Victoria. I had the good fortune to visit a friend in Kiev in 1999, and remember well my feelings when we explored Pecherska Lavra. I was frightened in the caves, too, but quickly overcame my claustrophobia when we emerged outside surrounded by the beautiful gardens, the golden domes, the graceful architecture, and the serene priests moving about the area. I fervently hope that real estate interests do not triumph over matters of the spirit; we need more affirmations of the latter now more than ever. October 5, 2015 at 10:04am Reply

    • Victoria: The Dormition Cathedral Refectory Church, the one with a large green dome covered with golden ribbons, and the caves are my favorite places in Lavra. And the Lavra Art Studios, of course. It’s one of a kind place. There is something so mysterious and moving about the caves and the caskets with saints’ relics. Lavra is a gorgeous place, but the people who run it care about little more than profit. It’s making me very upset the more I learn about it.

      On the other hand, the public attention to the matter has made a positive difference. October 5, 2015 at 1:38pm Reply

  • AndreaR: Tears 🙂 October 5, 2015 at 10:06am Reply

    • Victoria: I know, it’s making me very sad too. October 5, 2015 at 1:40pm Reply

      • AndreaR: Joyful tears as well for writing this wonderful article on the iconographers of Kiev.
        There’s a lovely gallery in Lviv that features beautiful icons. I’ve haven’t had the chance to visit, but have ordered some small, but exquisite icons from them.
        http://iconart.com.ua/page.php?_lang=en&
        Both Canada and the USA are blessed to have gifted iconographers. October 5, 2015 at 2:28pm Reply

        • Victoria: I haven’t had a chance to visit this gallery during my trip to Lviv, but I saw some 17th and 18th century icons in Kyiv from the western regions. They’re stunning! So full of emotion, movement. Even the icons painted by non-professionals are wonderful. I will try to pull a few photos on my FB page. October 5, 2015 at 3:11pm Reply

          • AndreaR: Would love to see them. I especially love folk art icons. October 5, 2015 at 3:24pm Reply

            • Victoria: I have a favorite one which depicts Saint George slaying a dragon, except a dragon looks like a cross between a fat mouse and a huge cat. I guess, the artist didn’t see many dragons around. October 5, 2015 at 3:50pm Reply

              • AndreaR: Sounds like my kind of dragon. October 6, 2015 at 12:09am Reply

                • Victoria: It’s rather charming. October 6, 2015 at 10:48am Reply

  • Geneviève: Amazing post!!!!! Thank you! I loved reading and seeing it! October 5, 2015 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Genevieve. October 5, 2015 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Trudy: What an interesting and beautifully written post on a subject that I know very little about. By reading this article I’ve be made more aware of a tradition and a treasured art form. It is heartbreaking that a culture that has survived centuries and sacred to many (and harms no one) is in jeopardy. Informative and very lovingly told. October 5, 2015 at 10:15am Reply

    • Victoria: My great-grandmother was of a generation that knew a lot about icons and religious traditions, but then the next two generations lived in the society where it was even forbidden to put an icon on the wall. My grandmother remembers icons hidden, buried in the gardens at night. It’s fascinating that all that notwithstanding, the tradition didn’t disappear and in fact gained new forms, new vitality. So it would be a shame it vanishes for purely mercantile reasons of people in power. Most of the icons sold around Lavra, many very expensive, aren’t the real thing. They’re printed and then covered with paint to give an illusion of a hand-made artwork. October 5, 2015 at 1:43pm Reply

  • Karen: Thank you once again, Victoria. Your talents illuminated this piece and my morning. I wish this could be more widely read. October 5, 2015 at 10:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for such kind words, Karen! October 5, 2015 at 1:44pm Reply

  • Ann: Icons are written, not painted? Of course. It makes total sense. Beautiful photos and a story I will think about for a long time. October 5, 2015 at 10:41am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved it too. It makes sense too, because the icon is a story, not just an image. October 5, 2015 at 1:44pm Reply

  • spe: LOVE THIS! My father’s family immigrated from the Ukraine (to Canada). Beautiful. Thank you! October 5, 2015 at 11:15am Reply

    • Victoria: In Canada you must have many Ukrainian icon painters too. Many artists immigrated from Ukraine around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and there are some exceptional painters in the diaspora too.

      In which part of Ukraine did your family live? October 5, 2015 at 1:46pm Reply

  • Joy: Thank you, Victoria for such a lovely read! This was very educational for me, as I had no awareness of this beautiful place or craft and art form.
    It would be a travesty if they lost this space, and it became amother Gap or a restaurant.
    I loved your description of the scent of beeswax candkes. They are quite unique for their fragrance and melting point.

    Joy October 5, 2015 at 12:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: They will probably make it a hotel or something along these lines. The Lavra authorities already were able to evict one historical building that used to be an old hospital.

      I love the natural beeswax candles, and the scent they leave on skin. I have a few on my table right now that I keep just for smelling, not burning. October 5, 2015 at 1:49pm Reply

  • Solanace: Congratulations on the beautifully written post, Victoria. The same thing seems to be happening everywhere, but I have faith in resistance. You surely gave the guys a hand with your moving words and pictures. October 5, 2015 at 12:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also have hope and faith that art, passion and truth will prevail. Otherwise, things are just too darn depressing. October 5, 2015 at 1:50pm Reply

      • Solanace: News are nightmarish, heart disease-inducing. The unfrivolous glossiness of bois de jasmin is a huge solace. October 5, 2015 at 2:23pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’ve stopped reading news in the morning, or else my day starts with a minor trauma. But of course, I don’t wish to stay separated from the real world. Even a bottle of perfume is touched by the big global trends, not to mention politics, economics and climate change. October 5, 2015 at 3:09pm Reply

  • Karen: Thank you for posting such an interesting and informative piece. Beautiful photos. October 5, 2015 at 12:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it, Karen. I forgot to mention, but the Lavra is also a place for some of the most beautiful old textiles and embroideries. The museums on the territory hold a vast collection. Another impressive collection is of Scythian gold. October 5, 2015 at 1:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I found this link with lots of pictures of the famous gold pectoral. The detail is incredible. Can you believe, this piece is from the 4th century BC?
      http://www.craftycristian.com/the-scythian-gold-pectoral-from-tovsta-mohyla/ October 5, 2015 at 1:53pm Reply

      • AndreaR: I want one of those! October 6, 2015 at 12:10am Reply

        • Victoria: I saw this summer for the first time in years, and I was stunned by the size and craftsmanship. It’s really incredible. October 6, 2015 at 10:49am Reply

      • Michaela: Stunning!!!

        I believe the soviets were more tolerant over Scythian gold than about Orthodox icons. October 6, 2015 at 4:19am Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, they only destroyed the less valuable icons. The precious stuff they kept in Kremlin. It’s really amazing that the Scythian gold stayed in Ukraine. The usual policy, a typical colonial tactic, was to take all of the valuable things to Moscow. October 6, 2015 at 10:52am Reply

      • Karen: Incredible, isn’t it! In 2008, the Sackler Museum here in Washington DC had a fascinating show, Wine, Worship and Sacrifice – the Golden Graves of Vani. Located in now western Georgia, the gold work was amazing.

        One fascinating thing I learned was that sheep fleeces were used in the panning of gold – the fleeces were then hung to dry and the gold flakes shaken or picked out. So there really was a Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts went looking for.

        What I’m always amazed by is the incredible quality of workmanship done in various ancient cultures. The pectoral is amazing! October 6, 2015 at 5:39am Reply

        • Victoria: It’s interesting that you mention Vani, because this spring I went there, specifically to explore the archaeological digs. The museum was closed for renovations, and it was the national holiday, but the chief archaeologist took us around the digs and even the store room and unpacked crates and showed us various objects. Later, in Tbilisi, I saw some of the Vani gold, and it was stunning. The quality of workmanship is impeccable, more refined than anything I have seen. There were perfume bottles too.

          That trip alone would make a good story. October 6, 2015 at 10:57am Reply

          • Karen: Wow – what a coincidence! The exhibit had a profound impact on me, mainly because I had absolutely no idea about the level of sophistication in the jewelry/golds work. Plus, learning about fleece being used to pan for gold made the whole story of the search for the golden fleece more “real”.

            It never occurred to me that one could go to the site, but some research is in order and it may end up on our travel-to list. What an incredible experience that must have been for you. October 6, 2015 at 3:33pm Reply

            • girasole: This exhibit and the site sounds incredible! Karen, do you know if the exhibit was installed anywhere else, after DC? Or where the items are permanently held? Is their permanent home the museum you attempted to visit, Victoria?

              I really enjoyed reading this post, Victoria. My first real exposure to the Orthodox tradition occurred when I was in graduate school a few years ago – there is such beauty in it and your writing captures that so wonderfully. Thank you! October 7, 2015 at 10:53am Reply

              • Karen: Hi Girasole! Here is a link to the exhibition, I do not know if it went to other museums –

                http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/Gold/default.html

                It was an incredible show, and what I (finally) realized is that any exhibition that sort of shakes up or expands my knowledge, as opposed to reinforcing what I already know, ends up having a profound impact on me. Not sure if I have articulated this “right”, but just a small insight such as learning about the use of fleece for panning for gold made the myths more connected to a real world. October 7, 2015 at 3:06pm Reply

                • Victoria: You put it so beautifully, and I agree completely. Anything that makes me look at the world differently is bound to leave a deeper mark in my memory, and I had this experience at Vani. October 8, 2015 at 9:37am Reply

                  • Karen: Thank you Victoria! Always a good thing to have your world shaken up a bit with beauty! October 8, 2015 at 11:51am Reply

                    • Victoria: I’ve spent this evening leading through a book I bought in Vani and admiring the gold work. October 8, 2015 at 4:08pm

              • Victoria: Right now, the museum in Vani is under restoration, so the treasures are in Tbilisi. Tbilisi is worth visiting just for the museums alone. It’s such a culturally rich city.

                Thank you, I’m very happy you liked the article. October 8, 2015 at 9:34am Reply

            • Victoria: We were in Kutaisi, which was very close to Vani, and yes, it’s worth a visit. The surrounding areas are beautiful, and there is still so much to be discovered. October 8, 2015 at 9:21am Reply

              • Karen: Truly fascinating. It is on my must-travel-to list now! October 8, 2015 at 11:52am Reply

                • Victoria: Georgia is a stunning country with some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen. Better to go in spring to enjoy the blooming mountain vistas. October 8, 2015 at 4:09pm Reply

  • Aurora: So moving, so beautiful and beautifully told, Victoria. For me too icons meant Andrei Roublev, and to discover thanks to you this wonderful space, and then that it is threatened. If there is a petition online I am going to sign it immediately. I keep going back to the two pietas not only their eyes but their mouths too express such grief and as you mention the eyes of these icons, they have such wisdom and mystery in them.

    PS I would have been terrified in the caves too, and may I confess mummified remains of any kind still frighten me, so I would have to skip this part of Lavra but am so grateful you described it so poetically, may your prayer for the preservation of this unique place be heard October 5, 2015 at 1:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a good idea about the petition. I will find out. The Lavra Art Studio is pretty much the only place on the Lavra territory you can visit for free (not that I mind paying admission to the museums, but it’s refreshing to see something like this), and you learn a lot. Since you see many different styles of icons, it’s fascinating to compare how the artists chose to express the grief of the pieta, for instance.

      And I completely fell in love with the Ukrainian baroque icons, which are so lively and full of color. And roses! 🙂 October 5, 2015 at 2:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: P.S. I do urge anyone to visit the caves though. Just walk through and don’t look at the relics (not much is shown anyway, apart from the hands, which are invariably slender, with very beautiful long fingers). There is so much history there, and it’s not frightening at all. After, it’s the resting place of Nestor the Chronicler, whose contributions to history are as important as those of Herodotus. October 5, 2015 at 2:46pm Reply

  • silverdust: While not a saint from the Orthodox tradition, St. Padre Pio’s presence is announced by the scent of roses. When a piece of gauze saturated with Pio’s blood was being transported for testing — in a closed container — the gentlemen in the car remarked on the scent of roses.

    He’s not the only saint this phenomena is associated with.

    http://bit.ly/1LtwxsL October 5, 2015 at 1:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for the link. It’s fascinating, and I’m interested in any tradition as it’s connected to scents. Many Hindu deities are also marked with a beautiful scent, and they’re offered aromatics because the delicious smells please them (and in turn, this inspires them to care for their devotees). My mother-in-law baths the gods in her little shrine with rosewater before offering prayers to them. October 5, 2015 at 2:52pm Reply

      • Claire: In medieval Western Europe, good smells and an incorruptibility of the body were associated with sancticity and with saints. Here’s an articleon the topic http://www.pia-journal.co.uk/articles/10.5334/pia.430/ October 5, 2015 at 3:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much, Claire. This is a great article, and it also has an interesting mention of the sweet smells and sainthood in the Islamic tradition.

          After all, there is something miraculous about the beautiful scents, so intangible, so evanescent and yet so powerful. October 5, 2015 at 3:52pm Reply

  • Joy: As I re-read your article, I noted that the icon writers refereed to themselves as icon writers, not painters. I worked in the world of organized unions. the sign painters work is really called sign writers, and their union is officially the Sign Writer’s Union. Their work originally in the U. S. was to use gold paint and “write” the names of businesses and names of occupants on the glass windowed doors of the old office buildings. They did this work free hand. Now they mostly use vinyl and machines, so they draw and do the art with computer programs, then print and cut by very large machines.

    I loved your photos also showing the light coming into this beautiful space. The herringbone oak floors and oak steps were gorgeous. It is interesting to see that the brush strokes are imperceptible. Your article is something that I will re-read many times and find new knowledge.

    Thank you for bringing this world to us.

    Joy October 5, 2015 at 2:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Joy, I didn’t know this bit about the Sign Writer’s Union, but I have always loved the old signs with their flair and beautiful calligraphy. Today there are lots of fonts, but only few are used widely, so there is little variety. One of my favorite things to do is to look at the old photographs and spot different signs.

      I have always seen icons in churches or museums, rarely this up close, so discovering all of these little details was fascinating. The gold detailing in one of the icons is the real thing, by the way. Gladovska showed me how she applies gold leaf in translucent layers. She said that it’s so thin you have to be careful not to blow it away. Of course, the thinness also means that you can layer for a luminous, complex effect. October 5, 2015 at 3:08pm Reply

  • Henry: Great article! October 5, 2015 at 2:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading, Henry! October 5, 2015 at 3:09pm Reply

  • Bab: What an interesting article filled with beautiful imagery. I didn’t know that this art had artists who specifically studied for this genre. Beautiful.
    Thank you for the illumination 🙂 October 5, 2015 at 3:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: I knew that there was a special school, since the iconography is an integral part of the Orthodox tradition, but I had no idea in what shape it was. After all, the Soviet regime, as I mentioned in another comment, didn’t support this sort of thing. Also, I didn’t realize how different various styles were. October 5, 2015 at 3:49pm Reply

  • Hamamelis: This post is a small thaumata Victoria, thank you. October 5, 2015 at 4:52pm Reply

    • Michaela: Indeed, this post is a thaumata! I’ll keep on reading it… October 6, 2015 at 4:12am Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much, Michaela. October 6, 2015 at 10:50am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re too kind! 🙂 Thank you. October 6, 2015 at 10:36am Reply

  • Yvonne: A beautiful article, Victoria! I know I will be returning to read it many times. Your photos are also beautiful. October 5, 2015 at 5:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Yvonne. All of these comments mean a lot to me. October 6, 2015 at 10:36am Reply

  • Alicia: I also studied art and art history for several years at the Ecole du Louvre and other places, before turning to literature. My mother was devoted to sculpture and worked in the conservatory of art, so art was my first love. Your article touched me profoundly. I know not how to thank you for it. October 5, 2015 at 6:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re such a polymath, Alicia. It’s so impressive, and of course, one interest feeds another and inspires new directions for research or just other passions. October 6, 2015 at 10:38am Reply

      • Alicia: It was very difficult for me to choose a career because, I was interested in everything, indeed. In the end I really didn’t choose, because I completed two doctorates simultaneously at the University of Stanford, CA. One in Romance literatures and languages, and the other (a very rare one that now no longer exiists) in the Humanities (comprising everything from the song of Gilgamesh to the philosophy of Adorno). It was a useless doctorate, but the one that embraced everything I loved. Eventually I wrote mostly on Medieval and in Renaissance-Baroque literature and culture both in Europe and Latin America, with a few articles on modern poetry and short stories. Really,what I truly love is beauty. That is what I tried to understand for a lifetime. That is also why I love fragrances, because of their beauty. Beauty mightt be subjective, but if it is real, it is also immortal. As Keats put it: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” October 7, 2015 at 6:45pm Reply

        • Victoria: Very impressive! I love how diverse your interests are and yet how you’re able to connect them.

          That quote by Keats is wonderful. October 8, 2015 at 9:40am Reply

  • angeldiva: Great article, and, you know how I appreciate your photography. This reminds me of my time spent in Slovenia where I knew many artists. I want very much to retire in Europe.
    Do they have a giftshop/website ? International mail-order can be detailed, but, money can always help a good cause. I personally spend time looking online for embroidered goods.
    I loved hearing the connection between the icon and the smell of myrrh. My fathers side of my family worked with a saint in the 1700-1800’s.
    People take religious, and artistic freedoms for granted. Your article makes real the imposition of a government who dictates to their citizens what art they can or cannot display.
    So, I am moved that you shared that as these restrictions are against what I hold as sacred personal freedoms.
    I also, believe it is an international travesty to destroy any place that holds a religious sanctity to the people of that country. Even if their beliefs are different from your own, sacred places must be protected against political unrest. It should be an enforced area of the law of NATO. October 5, 2015 at 10:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t think the Lavra Studios have their own shop or site, but individual artists do. For instance, here is the site for Mykhailo Haiovy:
      http://www.mixail.com.ua/
      It’s in Russian, though.

      Today in Ukraine anyone can practice any religion they want, and towards the end of the Soviet era, these things were relaxed considerably. But during the Soviet period, especially the 30s and then 60s, many churches were destroyed. October 6, 2015 at 10:48am Reply

      • Karen: Plus, many of the tools for the traditional textile work such as fabric stamping/printing were destroyed in the Central Asian countries. The suzanis from the Soviet era are fascinating (at least to me), the patterns become huge – and the colors are bright. Although the needlework may not be fine, as can be found in the antique pieces, there is an exuberance to the pieces that is fun and uplifting. I’m sure that people were happy to have some bright colors.

        There are many collectives making suzani pieces now – in the more subdued tones with high-quality needlework, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the large motifs and optimism that is found in the Soviet-era ones. October 6, 2015 at 3:39pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s because they became standardized. Because the textiles were no longer produced as individual artisanal creations, but rather were designed in a centralized fashion (often directed by the Ministry of Culture), the traditional patterns were adapted for the mass production. They could still be made by hand, but the patterns were the same or similar. Not all things were about the system, because the artisans were guaranteed steady income and raw material supplies, but there is no question that the creativity and artistry have suffered. October 8, 2015 at 9:27am Reply

          • Karen: Interesting – we ended up with quite a collection of suzanis while visiting Konya (it used to be said that if you want to find Central Asian textiles, go shopping in Istanbul or Turkey). Someone familiar with suzanis pointed out the different designs that I was not familiar with- such as pomegranates and cotton flowers – and then having a chance to look at some antique ones, could see how those motifs (plus the sun and other flower designs) just got larger and larger until what had been a small part of an old piece became the entire design of one of the newer ones.

            Some are signed and/or dated. Plus, some have the loops for hanging as wall dividers. October 8, 2015 at 11:58am Reply

            • Victoria: My embroidery teacher in Ukraine travels every year to Turkmenistan for an arts and crafts conference, and she showed me some lovely textiles and patterns she brought back. October 8, 2015 at 4:15pm Reply

              • Karen: What a treat! There is a revival going on in many hand crafts – as the world seems to be spinning faster and faster, I think we all crave a connection to creating things with our own hands. October 9, 2015 at 6:13am Reply

                • Victoria: On the other hand, even more crafts are disappearing. It’s hard to compete against the cheaply made, mass-produced items. Same goes for traditional perfumes. October 9, 2015 at 11:56am Reply

  • Marsha: Beautiful Victoria. Just beautiful. October 6, 2015 at 7:43am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Marsha. 🙂 October 6, 2015 at 10:57am Reply

  • Gentiana: Thank You, Victoria for the beautiful article…..The Pecherska Lavra is one of the places I wish to go since years…. You refueled my wish ! Thank you. October 6, 2015 at 10:07am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s definitely worth visiting. I took my husband around, and we spent an entire day there (and ate a delicious Lenten meal at the Lavra refectory). But you could easily make it a 2 day visit to process everything better. October 6, 2015 at 10:59am Reply

      • Gentiana: Yes, deffinately, one day is not enough. For me, travelling from Romania, it is worth to include it in a trip for at least 7-10 days. The Orthodox Church organizes pilgrimages to Ukraine and Russia… I have to see when end how 🙂 October 12, 2015 at 11:33am Reply

        • Victoria: But with a (very expensive) visa to Russia and huge distances, it doesn’t make much sense to me. 7-10 days for both countries would be too hectic. October 12, 2015 at 3:11pm Reply

  • rickyrebarco: Wonderful article and I love the photographs of this amazing art form. I agree that the Ukranian icons are more expressive than the traditional Greek and Russian ones. I love the gold and white ones, just splendid.

    I spent about 2 years in my university days going to a Syrian Orthodox church with a friend and we visited Greek churches, Russian churches and I saw many icons and types of iconography. This art is truly a national treasure for Kyiv and the Ukraine. I hope to go there someday. Thank you so much for sharing with us! October 6, 2015 at 4:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also love the combination of colors. The gold and white ones are still in progress, so they will have more colors once they are finished.

      The Syrian Orthodox iconography is really splendid too. October 8, 2015 at 9:30am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Magnificent, Victoria.

    Clearly, as you have demonstrated many times previously, if this perfume thing falls through (ha ha), then you have a brilliant career as a photo-journalist awaiting you! October 6, 2015 at 6:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much. 🙂 October 8, 2015 at 9:30am Reply

  • nozknoz: Andrei Rublev is one of my top ten films. As another commenter noted, you’ve outdone yourself with this post. And that Scythian pectoral – I’ve never seen anything like it.

    If you ever have the chance to visit St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai, there are very old icons there that survived the period of iconoclasm thanks to the remoteness of the location. October 8, 2015 at 12:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much.
      Andrei Rublev is really an incredible film, with such powerful imagery.

      The Scythians also decorated their horses with gold, and they must have been quite a sight. The story of the pectoral is that it was found during the digs by chance. The archaeologists thought that the site held nothing of interesting and were about to abandon it when the chief researcher saw something in the dirt. And the rest is history. Central and Southern Ukraine are dotted with the Scythian burials–they often look like pointed hills, and while many have been emptied centuries ago, some are waiting to be discovered. October 8, 2015 at 9:48am Reply

  • Aisha: Loved this post, Victoria!!! Sacred images, especially icons, are my favorites. These are just stunning!

    I took an art history course in college in my senior year. That was the one time I wished I had majored in art history rather than English. October 8, 2015 at 7:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also loved my art history classes in college. I still wish I studied history. 🙂 October 9, 2015 at 11:54am Reply

  • Austenfan: I always feel sad when art falls victim to political scheming and corruption. It ought to be treasured. I hope that the Lavra Studios hold their own. October 9, 2015 at 10:54am Reply

    • Victoria: The people who direct Lavra, the management of the Russian Orthodox church in Ukraine, don’t care about art, only about profits they get from visitor and pilgrims. I’d like to find some evidence to the contrary, but so far I haven’t. October 9, 2015 at 12:10pm Reply

  • SilverMoon: Beautiful article, Victoria, and even more lovely photos. Very much enjoyed reading and learning. October 10, 2015 at 11:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I’m very glad you liked it. Selecting photos was the hardest part, since I took so many at the Studios. October 11, 2015 at 1:10pm Reply

  • Magda: Seems very difficult art.. October 12, 2015 at 8:05am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s very intricate. October 12, 2015 at 2:58pm Reply

  • Neyon: Very interesting about the saints emitting the scent of myrrh. Reminds one of how intimately scent and spirituality is interlinked. October 20, 2015 at 6:07am Reply

  • laraffinee: What a delight to see your visit to the Ukrainian Iconography studio on this site. I was looking for information about books on perfumes and perfume reviews and was linked to your site. I am of Ukrainian descent and am learning the art of Iconography. It is a sacred art that transforms the iconographer. Since I have begun my studies, I have been searching for a scent that captures the essence of frankincense, myrrh and beeswax/honey that I experience in the Orthodox service and was so present in the Pecherska Lavra caves. Can you recommend one? November 27, 2015 at 8:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! I’m glad that you found me, and I’m happy to meet another iconographer. It’s such a complex, fascinating art, and you’ve put it so well–it transforms the artist. And the viewer too.

      One of the fragrances that makes me think of Lavra is Annick Goutal Myrrhe Ardente. It has all the right combination of notes–warm incense, beeswax and sweet spice. November 28, 2015 at 3:07pm Reply

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