ukrainian tales: 8 posts

The Passion of Johann Georg Pinsel

It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.

Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.

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Asya’s Idea of Paradise

The word paradise comes from the ancient Persian word pairidaēza, “an enclosed garden,” and for a Ukrainian, a cherry orchard is an idea of Eden. It has the same potent connotations as a white picketed fence house in the context of the American dream. It doesn’t mean that all Ukrainians dream of retreating to the village and tending to cherries—no more so than all Americans want to live in the suburbs and obsess over greens lawns—but the image has force beyond its mere components.

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In many folk songs, the cherry orchard is where friends meet, families gather for supper and beloved yearn for each other. It is a place of safety and beauty. It evokes all of the things that matter—family, love, friendship, bounty. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most popular works in Ukrainian literature is a short poem by the national bard Taras Shevchenko. Recite the opening lines to any Ukrainian—“A cherry orchard by the house. Above the cherries beetles hum”–and you will see his face light up and his mind travel to his own fantasy garden. “And nightingale their vigil keep,” he murmurs the poem’s romantic coda*.

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Stepfather’s Library

When our house in Kyiv was finally sold, the arrangements promised to be uncomplicated–sign some papers, make a few visits to the notary and townhall and arrange for a moving truck. Unexpectedly, the latter turned into a source of some discord, because while my mother was of the opinion that whatever the house held should either be sold or discarded, my grandmother was adamant that every last chair and plate must be salvaged. “Think of the fine dinner sets we bought for your wedding,” she pleaded with mom over the phone. “I always disliked those zaftig Madonnas–and we did get divorced.” “But what about your lovely lacquered desk?” “Soviet satellites sure made some clunky furniture in their day.” And on and on it went scrambling the telephone lines over the Atlantic. But one thing they agreed upon was to collect my stepfather’s library and store it at my grandmother’s.

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At her house, the books stayed in boxes, because for all of my grandmother’s good intentions, the lack of available space in a house already full to the brim with books made it impossible to find another solution. Every time I visited, I would flip open the lid and glance inside, and one day I couldn’t resist and before long all the boxes were unpacked with books arranged in towering piles on the floor around me.

Of the many things that make us–people, places, experiences–some leave the deepest marks. We’re a mosaic of it all, bits and shards of influences shaping our desires, yearnings and dreams. When I think of my stepfather’s library, I’m conscious of a magnetic pull that the eclectic collection of books had on me, taking me far beyond the intentions of its collector.

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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.

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An Evening of Bounty

If you’ve ever sung or listened to “Carol of the Bells”, you’ve indirectly partaken in one of the oldest Ukrainian traditions of shchedrivky. The old style New Year’s Eve on January 13th is called Shchedriy Vechir, which means Bountiful or Generous Evening, and part of the celebration includes young women and men visiting their neighbors and singing shchedrivky, couplets wishing good fortune, health and much of bounty in the new year. The most famous song associated with Shchedriy Vechir is “Schedryk” (Щедрик), which was arranged by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1916 and later adapted by Peter Wilhousky as an English Christmas carol, “Carol of the Bells”.

ukrainian christmas

Old traditions are closely intertwined with the customs. Shchedriy Vechir also has the alternative name of Malanka in honor of Saint Melania the Younger whose feast is celebrated on the same day. But the old, pre-Christian customs color the festivities.

Different from carols, which are performed starting on Christmas Eve on January 6th and until the Epiphany on January 19th (the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar still follows the one established by Julius Cesar), shchedrivky focuses on the bounty of nature. The original Ukrainian lyrics for “Carol of the Bells,” for instance, tell the story of a swallow visiting a household and describing all of the rich gifts the family is to see in the spring.

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