Museum Staff Against Moving
14th-Century Icon

The Toropets icon of the Virgin Mary is at the center of a custody dispute.

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An icon in St. Petersburg’s Russian Museum was secretly delivered to a newly built church in an elite gated community in the Moscow region, despite strong resistance from a number of the museum’s experts.

The dispute over the museum’s Toropets icon of the Virgin Mary highlights disagreements between preservation experts and the Russian Orthodox Church over the use of culturally and religiously valuable objects.

“We kept silent about the transportation of the icon only to ensure the icon’s safety,” Ivan Karlov, deputy head of St. Petersburg’s renowned Russian Museum, said at a press conference, Interfax reported.

“Last night, the icon was taken to the church, where it will be kept temporarily, in a special climate-controlled Mercedes minibus,” Karlov said on Dec. 3. “We were very afraid of vibrations and the effect of the temperature during transportation. However, the icon was placed in a special box, and the process went successfully.”

The icon will be kept in a special climate-controlled showcase in the church, Karlov said. The museum’s commission examined the conditions in which the church can keep the icon, and concluded that they meet the museum’s norms, he said.

The Alexander Nevsky church to which the icon was taken will also allow the museum’s experts to access a video image of the icon online at any time. In addition, the museum’s restoration workers will go to monitor the condition of the icon every month. If any of the museum’s conditions are violated, the icon will be returned to the museum, he said.

Vladimir Gusev, head of the Russian Museum, said the icon had been given to the church temporarily, and that it would later return to the museum, Interfax reported.

“Of course, I am concerned that the icon may not be returned, for such precedents have been known,” Gusev said. “However, this time the church, state and museum have gone for a compromise on many questions, so I’m sure the icon will return to the museum.”

Meanwhile, a number of experts at the Russian Museum are angered at the Culture Ministry’s decision to hand over one of the museum’s oldest icons to the church, particularly as they expressed their opposition to the move last week.

“The fact that the icon was removed from the museum in defiance of the opinion of experts and the public shows that we have a situation in which all the museum’s standards of preservation have been violated,” said Irina Shalina, head researcher of the museum’s Ancient Russian Art Department.

The 14th-century icon is in such fragile condition that any transportation could be risky for it, Shalina said.

The Culture Ministry said the museum’s restoration council and the expert fund and purchase commission had made the decision to allow the temporary exhibition of the icon in the church.

However, Shalina said at the restoration council meeting held in the museum last week that many of the museum’s experts spoke against allowing the icon to leave the museum, though some agreed with the idea.

Irina Sosnovtseva, another research worker in the same department, said “a number of the museum’s research workers had shown real professional courage in speaking against the transportation of the icon, despite strong pressure they had experienced.”

Shalina said it was a principle of the museum not to lend an exhibit to anywhere if there was as much as the slightest risk to its condition. For this icon, any change in temperature, for example, could be deadly, she said.

“Besides, we really don’t understand why such a precious icon should go to a newly built church in an upscale gated community that has no relation to the icon,” she said.

Shalina said the icon had been leased to the church until Sept. 22 next year.

The request to give the icon to the Alexander Nevsky church for one year was issued to the museum by the Culture Ministry last week. The ministry was in turn responding to the request of Russian Patriarch Kirill, who asked the ministry “to consider an opportunity” for the icon to be housed temporarily in the church, the ministry said.

An expert group went to see the church to decide if its conditions were suitable for the icon and concluded that they were, the ministry said.

The Russian Orthodox Church is known to believe that icons should serve their original purpose — that is, to serve worshippers. Shalina said the museum was often willing to meet the interests of Russia’s churches and had given them 169 icons during its history.

“However, there are works that cannot be taken anywhere, under any circumstances,” she said. “It is difficult to imagine how, for instance, Rafael’s Sistine Madonna could be given to a church. The same applies to our icon — especially since we, as a state organization, bear full responsibility for the fate of our exhibits,” she added.

“Therefore, we will fight for our icon to the end,” Shalina said.

Meanwhile, the five-cupola Alexander Nevsky church, as well as the gated community, are being built by the Sapsan construction company, whose president Sergei Shmakov is known to sponsor the reconstruction of Orthodox churches. He has sponsored restoration work in the Korsunsko-Bogoroditsky Cathedral in the town of Toropets — where the icon in question was previously kept for two centuries.

The prototype for the icon of the Virgin Mary was brought to the Russian town of Polotsk from Asia in the 12th century. A Pskov icon painter made the current copy in the 14th century. Several centuries later, the icon arrived in the Russian town of Toropets, where it was kept in a church for two centuries. Later it was brought to St. Petersburg and was handed over to the Russian Museum in 1936, Shalina said.

The Moscow Times
14 December, 2009