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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.