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Unknown portrait of Volodymyr the Great

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://day.kiev.ua/270727/ Unknown portrait of Volodymyr the Great By Serhii BRATISHKO, documentarian We see Volodymyr the Great (a.k.a. Prince Volodymyr or
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 3, 2009

      Unknown portrait of Volodymyr the Great

      By Serhii BRATISHKO, documentarian

      We see Volodymyr the Great (a.k.a. Prince
      Volodymyr or St. Volodymyr) every day on the
      one-hryvnia banknote. This is his conjectural,
      yet the most popular portrait. It has been
      circulated in Ukraine in millions of copies. The
      second most popular image is immortalized in
      bronze on top of Volodymyr Hill in downtown Kyiv.

      Until now it was generally believed that that the
      only lifetime image of Prince Volodymyr the Great
      was on his gold and silver coins: a hatchet face
      with a dimple in the strong, projecting jaw.
      Scholars agree that this was Volodymyr the
      Great’s main facial feature. Not so Dr. Nadia
      NIKITENKO, Ph.D. (History), head of the
      Department of Historical Research at the Kyiv
      Sophia National Preserve. She is sure that she
      has discovered a fresco portrait of the Kyivan
      prince made by an unknown artist during his
      lifetime. Dr. Nikitenko readily admits that
      finding Volodymyr’s portrait was not the initial
      goal of her research. Her objective was to study,
      with her colleague Viacheslav Korniienko. the
      history of St. Sophia Cathedral and its murals.
      Their study produced sensational discoveries,
      including the date of St. Sophia’s construction
      and a lifetime portrait of Prince Volodymyr the Great.

      Dr. Nikitenko, many people think that searching
      for a lifetime portrait of Prince Volodymyr now,
      in the 21st century, is something akin to science
      fiction, even given that we know his main facial features.

      “There is a picture of a princely family in St.
      Sophia’s central nave dating from the 11th
      century. While studying this fresco, I proposed
      my own interpretation of the picture. I believe
      that it portrays Volodymyr’s family. This
      contradicts the traditional concept that the
      fresco was created in the 1040s as a portrait of
      Prince Yaroslav the Wise and his family. This
      concept is based on an entry in the chronicles,
      to the effect that Yaroslav founded the cathedral
      in 1037. Yet the graffiti we have discovered on
      the frescos over the past two years indicate
      earlier dates: 1022, 1033, and 1036. These dates
      were written by the people who made the graffiti.

      “There is also a graffito that we dated as being
      made in 1019 because it mentions a number of
      historical figures, including Prince Sviatopolk’s
      mother and sons. The prince died in 1019. In
      other words, the cathedral was already there
      before 1019–22, and was embellished with mosaics
      and frescos. I mean whoever wrote these graffiti
      confirmed my idea that St. Sophia Cathedral was
      built during the rule of Prince Volodymyr and
      that it was completed under Prince Yaroslav the
      Wise. I believe that the construction was started in 1011 and completed 1018.”

      For me scratching inscriptions on frescos is now
      an act of vandalism, and even more so in the 11th
      century. These graffiti spoiled the frescos,
      didn’t they? Why did they make them? Who allowed
      this? Couldn’t they put guards in the main temple of Kyivan Rus’?

      “The thing is that these inscriptions that we now
      call graffiti were not regarded as such in the
      old times. They were not the result of
      irresponsible spontaneous reflections, even less
      so acts of vandalism, unlike modern graffiti.
      These inscriptions are solemn and often contain
      coded messages. But there is no denying the fact
      that they damaged the frescos to some extent, and
      so Prince Volodymyr Sviatoslavych envisaged a
      severe punishment in his codex for those who
      “carve on the walls.” People, however, made
      graffiti because they believed in the sacral
      strength of words. That was why the church
      censors who regularly checked these inscriptions
      did not cross out sacral texts. Those that
      sounded too secular to them or, perhaps, were
      even banned by the church as sinful, were
      thoroughly crossed out. You can see quite a few
      such frescos in St. Sophia. However, most inscriptions were left intact.”

      So whoever wrote them did a good thing?

      “Paradoxically, they did. These graffiti
      constitute a unique historical source. The
      written sources that have survived to this day
      are copies made of the original texts several
      times over. Chronicles were written to please
      those who commissioned them and were later edited
      to please new moneyed customers. Graffiti,
      however, are the original authentic texts. We now
      see them precisely the way they were made
      centuries ago. These are autographs of people who
      lived in the early 11th century.

      “Researchers have relied on entries in the
      chronicles about St. Sophia being created by
      Yaroslav the Wise. When this portrait of a prince
      was discovered, everybody decided that it was a
      portrait of the nobleman who commissioned it,
      namely Prince Yaroslav and his family. This
      conclusion has never been called into question.
      Yet the graffiti contradict the chronicles, and
      the graffiti are the living voice of the people
      who witnessed the foundation of St. Sophia
      Cathedral. Whom should we trust then?”

      Supposing that Prince Yaroslav completed the
      construction of St. Sophia, couldn’t he have
      commissioned a fresco portrait of his family?
      After all, the interior of a temple is painted
      after its construction is completed.

      “The fresco images cannot represent Yaroslav’s
      children because they were born after the
      cathedral was built. His eldest son Volodymyr was
      born in 1020, while his daughters were born some
      time in 1030–32. Here in this fresco we see
      grown-up children. The eldest daughter wears a
      shawl under her princely hat, which means that
      she is a married woman. So this picture actually
      depicts Prince Volodymyr’s family, including his
      eldest daughter Feofana, who was given in
      marriage to Ostromir, the vicegerent of Novgorod.
      She is mentioned in the Ostromir Gospel. Her
      image follows that of Anna, who is placed in the
      center of the portrait, together with her husband
      Volodymyr. Interestingly, both Volodymyr and Anna
      are clad in royal attire, as on coins and in
      miniatures. Yaroslav and Iryna did not have this status.”

      The fresco images of the prince and princes have
      not survived the ravages of time, but the Dutch
      artist Abraham van Westerfeld copied the prince’s
      portrait from the restored fresco in the mid-17th
      century. How authentic do you think Westerfeld’s portrait is?

      “Restoration was commissioned by Metropolitan
      Petro Mohyla and the work was done in a very
      careful way. The artist hardly touched the
      prince’s face or attire. The images of Volodymyr
      and his wife obviously resemble the prince’s
      portrait on the coins and Anna’s image in a
      fresco in St. Sophia’s northern tower. However,
      this fresco is not the main source in identifying them.

      “Whenever I want to figure out some or other
      subject matter, I refer to Old Rus’ literary
      sources because literature and art mirrored each
      other. Whom did Old Rus’ authors compare Prince
      Volodymyr to? To such holy kings as David,
      Constantine the Great, and Israel’s leaders Moses and Joshua.”

      I can understand the comparison to the kings,
      particularly Constantine. Volodymyr, like this
      Byzantine emperor, made Christianity the state
      religion. But why Moses and Joshua?

      “Just like Moses and Joshua, Volodymyr led his
      people to their Promised Land, i.e.,
      Christianity. Moses took his people as far as the
      Promised Land but died on its threshold. Joshua
      was Moses’ follower and successor who actually
      led the Jews into the Promised Land. He was a
      great biblical military leader, so in the Middle
      Ages statesmen who defeated barbarians and
      especially those who introduced Christianity were
      compared to him. Before he conquered Canaan,
      Joshua was visited upon by Archangel Michael, and
      this scene is represented in a fresco in St.
      Sophia. It was there that I saw Volodymyr in the image of Joshua.”

      Dr. Nikitenko, do Volodymyr’s main features in
      the fresco coincide with those on his coins?

      “Absolutely! We have his profile in the fresco.
      Interestingly, his browridges stand out a bit,
      his aquiline nose isn’t long, and he has a strong
      lower jaw with a prominent dimpled chin. The
      overall image is very much like that on the coins.”

      Could this be a coincidence?

      “No. In the canonical art that was widespread in
      the Middle Ages Joshua is usually portrayed as
      having Semitic features. In our fresco he
      represents a totally different anthropological
      type than the accompanying characters. As befits
      the subject matter, he stands surrounded by
      Israelites. He is dressed like a military leader
      and wears a leather helmet. Yet his face is
      vastly different from the faces of the Israelite
      warriors under his command. Joshua’s face is
      anything but Semitic. We see a Varangian hero
      with Nordic features, while all his soldiers are
      obviously Semitic with the characteristic ethnic
      features. The man we see is Prince Volodymyr of
      the Riuryk dynasty that originated in Scandinavia
      (as evidenced by modern studies of the Riuryk
      genotype). I am sure that the image of Joshua is
      actually a lifetime portrait of Prince Volodymyr.”

      Does history know any pictures of medieval
      military leaders portrayed as Joshua, or is Volodymyr the Great the only one?

      “I have been intrigued by this fresco for a long
      time. I was struck by this unusual portrayal of
      Joshua, but I had no right to make my conjecture
      public until I found precedents in Byzantine art.
      I’ve had to study a great many sources and
      research papers. Was any Byzantine emperor
      portrayed as this saint? The answer is yes, and
      not only in Byzantine but also in Bulgarian and
      Serbian art were leaders often depicted as
      Constantine and Joshua because they were
      righteous rulers and military leaders who led
      their people to salvation. This is not my
      invention but a fact that has scholarly proof.”

      Why “superimpose” the image of Prince Volodymyr
      the Great on that of Joshua? Was it an attempt to simply glorify the prince?

      “There is more to it than glorification. The
      thing is that in medieval mentality an ideal
      statesman plays the role assigned him by God.
      Volodymyr was destined to follow in the footsteps
      of Moses and Joshua, and he did lead his people to their Promised Land.

      “In other words, Volodymyr brilliantly carried
      out the mission assigned him by the Lord. It was
      the greatest spiritual accomplishment of the
      prince and all of Rus’, which he personified. He
      commissioned this fresco and wanted to be
      portrayed as Joshua — not to increase his own
      glory, although this did make sense at the time,
      but mostly to put the history of Rus’ in the
      context of Holy History. I see this as an
      aspiration to lend Christian legitimacy to Rus’,
      because even in the late 10th century Byzantines
      referred to our forefathers as savages. This
      legitimacy was of utmost importance for newly
      converted Rus’. It meant Christian legitimization
      of the young Riuryk dynasty, which was heathen
      prior to that. That was why the princely family
      of Christianizers was glorified.”

      Does this mean that Volodymyr started his own canonization?

      “All interior decorations it St. Sophia Cathedral
      testify that the images of Volodymyr and Anna
      were being prepared for canonization even during
      their lifetime. I might as well point out that
      this desire to be canonized had parallels in
      Byzantium. The baptizers of Rus’ had the right to
      claim this status because they had performed
      actions that were equal in their importance to
      the acts of the apostles. The church did canonize
      Volodymyr and grant him the equal-to-the-apostle
      status, whereas Anna had somehow sunk into
      oblivion. Honestly, even the people have all but
      forgotten about Volodymyr, considering that he
      was placed 16th in the TV project “Great
      Ukrainians.” The first place went to Yaroslav the
      Wise, who actually capitalized on his father’s
      achievements. It’s a shame because Volodymyr,
      rather than Yaroslav, is the true creator of our
      state and our people. Our history knows no other leader of such caliber.”

      What is going to happen to this previously
      unknown portrait of Volodymyr the Great?

      “The Kyiv Sophia Preserve plans to create the
      first historically authentic sculptural portraits
      of Volodymyr and Anna and put them on display. Of
      course, we will ask anthropologists and forensic
      experts to lend us a hand. This scholarly
      reconstruction project will be based solely on
      authentic images. This will be an act of
      historical justice. We will get in touch with
      philanthropists and pass the hat around because
      this project is going to be a costly affair. Yet
      it is our joint project, one that involves the whole nation.”


      Dr. Dmytro STEPOVYK, Ph.D. (Art, Theology, and Philosophy):

      “Certain individuals are known to have been often
      portrayed as characters of the Old and New
      Testaments. Making portraits implies painting
      from nature, meaning that the artist has to keep
      seeing the model’s face, even changes in its
      expression, and capture its characteristic features.

      “The Baptizer of Rus’ is depicted in the
      iconostasis of St. Volodymyr Cathedral as man
      with a gray beard. Volodymyr may have grown a
      beard or it may have been Nesterov’s imagination
      (he painted the icons for the iconostasis) and
      whoever did the wall decorations. However, it is
      quite possible that even after the adoption of
      Christianity Volodymyr had no beard in keeping
      with the tradition prevalent in Rus’-Ukraine
      before Christianization. Anyway, that’s how he is portrayed on the coins.

      “Therefore, I think that Dr. Nikitenko is right
      to assume — I’m not saying ‘state with 100
      percent certainty’ — that the image of Joshua [in
      the fresco] is actually that of Prince Volodymyr.
      After all, their accomplishments are similar.
      Joshua led the Israelites from Egyptian captivity
      and into the Promised Land, while Volodymyr
      brought his people from heathenism into the true faith.”

      Rev. Vitalii KLOS, Ph.D. (Theology), lecturer,
      Kyiv Theological Seminary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate:

      “If the image of Prince St. Volodymyr is
      reconstructed with scholarly authenticity, I do
      not think that this will contradict any church
      canons regarding his image. In my opinion, we
      must clearly realize that the images displayed in
      our temples are important not only from the
      standpoint of authenticity. What matters in the
      first place is what these people did at one time
      or another. Naturally, before the images of
      Prince Volodymyr were displayed in the temples,
      information was obtained from sources we know, as
      well as from other sources that remain unknown to
      our scholars. Therefore, it is possible to assume
      that these images have authenticity. In other
      words, the images in the temples bear some
      resemblance to what Prince Volodymyr really was as a personality and man.

      “Dr. Nikitenko is an expert in her field, so she
      may make another discovery in this matter if she continues her research.”

      #7, Tuesday, 3 March 2009
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