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Treasures of the Pecherska Lavra Monastery in Kyiv — spiritual and material legacy
The Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery is about a thousand years old, and during the millennium of its existence a great amount of art treasures has been accumulated there. The Lavra Monastery used to be the centre of icon painting and chronicles writing, and in later centuries books were published, education supported and medicine studied and practised in that monastery, the biggest in the land.
The architectural ensemble of the Lavra Monastery with the earliest landmarks dating to the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries is an impressive sight, but no less impressive is a collection of sacral art and liturgical objects which is kept in the section of the Lavra Monastery which is not a functioning monastery but a state historical and cultural preserve.
There are about 70,000 museum items in that collection which contains icons, ancient portraits, embroideries, objet’s d’art made of gold and other precious metals, prints, old books, archaeological and other finds, and old photographs. Among these items one can find things made abroad, not only in Ukraine, in the past centuries.
Exhibitions of these treasures are regularly staged both in Ukraine and elsewhere. Currently, an exhibition of liturgical objects was held in the historical and cultural preserve section of the Lavra Monastery. Over 200 exhibits, many of them shown at an exhibition for the first time, date from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Icons, church vessels, reliquaries, chalices, tabernacles, decorative items, fabrics and liturgical garments are imbued with symbolical meaning and a special, spiritual beauty.
Of a particular importance in the Christian religious service is the cross, the central symbol of the Christian faith. Crosses used in the religious services were of different shapes and sizes, depending on the role these crosses had to play. Crosses were made of precious and ordinary metals, and of other materials, wood being the most often used. At the exhibition, we could see crosses made of cypress in precious frames and with miniatures of high artistic merit which depicted the Biblical and evangelical scenes.
Chalices and other objects used in liturgy were on display at the exhibition. Among them were plates (discos) on which prosphorae were placed. Prosphorae symbolized the Lamb sacrificed to expiate the sins of humankind. At the Eucharist, the prosphorae are believed to mystically turn into the flesh of Christ. During the Orthodox service, a zvizdytsya — the object that symbolized the Star of Bethlehem — was placed in the centre of the plate. Most of the chalices and plates shown at the exhibition were made of silver; one of the plates that dates from the nineteenth century, was made of jasper.
Liturgical objects were covered with special pieces of fabric called vozdukhy (literally — “made of air”). They symbolized the shroud into which the body of Jesus Christ was wrapped after the crucifixion. Vozdukhy shown at the exhibition date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were made and embroidered in Ukraine.
Crosses, reliquaries, books of Gospels, and tabernacles were also part of the religious service. Tabernacles — cases or boxes on the church altar containing the consecrated host and wine of the Eucharist — were usually made to resemble chapels or miniature churches. Some of such tabernacles made of silver were on display at the exhibition. One of the tabernacles was unusually big — its height was over three feet and weight over 80 pounds. It was made for the Monastery in Moscow in 1906.
Garments worn by the priests and attendants during the service were richly decorated and had symbolical meanings. Sakkos, phaelonion and stoicharion symbolized the garments Jesus Christ wore during his stay on earth; orarion and epitrachelion (stole) demonstrated that the priest wearing them had the grace of God on him (no services could be held without this garment); palitza symbolized the spiritual sword of the Word of God which was considered to be the spiritual weapon of the faithful servants of the Church.
Some of the palitza shown at the exhibition used to belong to prominent church figures. They had the images of saints embroidered on them — a particular saint was chosen for each clergyman depending on his patron saint. Thus, for example, the image of St Arseny was embroidered on the palitza of the Kyiv Metropolitan Arseny, and the image of St Eugene was embroidered on the palitza of another Kyiv Metropolitan Yevheny, who was also a prominent historian in his own right.
Silk, velvet, brocade and other expensive fabrics were used for making the priests’ garments which were lavishly decorated with embroideries, precious stones, pearls and gold and silver threads. Many of the garments shown at the exhibition were made by nuns at the Voznesensky and Florivsky Monasteries in Kyiv in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Most of the items shown at the exhibition were once used in actual religious services at the Uspensky Cathedral and other churches of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery.
The Monastery received many gifts from the Russian Imperial family, high-ranking persons, wealthy patrons, aristocrats, and political and public figures. Many of such items still bear tags with the names of the donors.
Among such gifts shown at the exhibition stood out a silver chalice decorated with enamel and semi-precious stones made by a German master in the eighteenth century and donated to the Monastery by Ivan Mazepa, hetman of Ukraine and an important political, military and cultural figure in Ukraine of the late seventeenth – early eighteenth century. His mother, Mariya Mahdalena who was Mother Superior of the Voznesensky Nunnery in Kyiv, encouraged Gaptar embroidery with gold thread at the nunnery, and the vozdukh, dating from 1689, was one of her gifts to the Pechersk Monastery.
Another remarkable chalice shown at the exhibition was donated by Vasyl Kochubey, a high-ranking official of the Cossack hierarchy, to a church in the village of Dykanka in the Land of Poltavshchyna; later, this chalice found its way to the Pechersk Monastery. Curiously enough, Kochubey and Mazepa were bitter enemies in their lifetime, but their gifts sat peacefully side by side at the exhibition three centuries later.
The beautifully decorated chalice donated by Stephan Yavorsky, a philosopher and poet, and the chalice donated by Zosima Valkevych, the archimandrite of the Pechersk Monastery, were among the most noticeable items exhibited.
Among the crosses shown was the one that was made for Ihnatiy, the archimandrite of the Pechersk Monastery, in the 1520s; later, the cross was reworked twice, in the same century and then in 1763 at the expense of Zosima Valkevych. This cross should be mentioned as an excellent piece of workmanship. Another cross worthy of mention among those shown was the one presented to the Metropolitan of Kyiv Platon Horodetsky on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the Adoption of Christianity in the ancient state of Kyivan Rus. This cross was made out of rock crystal and adorned with amethysts.
Many of the items exhibited were once in possession of other monasteries and churches of Ukraine but later they made their way to the Pechersk Monastery. Not all of those churches and monasteries have survived but the ritual objects that had once been used are evidence of their past glory. These items are also mute witnesses to many a dramatic event that Ukraine lived through in the times of old and in more recent, even more violent times.
Two crosses from the Hustyn Monastery, one of which was donated by the Russian tsar Mikhail Fedorovych in the seventeenth century, a reliquary from the Mykilsko-Pustynny Monastery, and a tabernacle donated by the wealthy industrialists Kharytonenkos to a church in the village of Natalivka in the Land of Khersonshchyna, made in the early twentieth century in Russia, were among the most memorable items displayed.
All the items shown at the exhibition were carefully chosen by art historians and museum workers, their high aesthetic and historical value being the main criteria for selection. The exhibition provided insights into the history of decorative and applied art here in Ukraine and outside its borders, and for visitors who came to see it, the visit was a memorable experience and a joy of seeing objets d’art of excellent workmanship and beautiful design.
Based on an essay by Iryna SHULTS, head of the Department
of the Studies of Art Heritage
of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery,
and Kateryna GERELES.
Photos by Volodymyr ZHYDCHENKO
Vozdukh. Crowning of the Virgin.
Chalice. Gilt silver, carving,
Vozdukh. “Do Not Cry for Me.”
Zvizdytsya. Engraved metal. Ukraine,
Sakkos (chasuble) of Metroplitan
Back cover of the Gospel
Gospel. Velvet, silver, carving,
Discos and Zvizdytsya. Gilt silver.
Cross in a silver frame. Cypress
Archangel Gabriel, the silver frame
The icon of the Virgin of Yeletsk (center)
Miter. Brocade, embroidery, pearls,
Cross. Gilt silver, carving,