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
Greats 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 Volodymyrs 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. Sophias 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.
Sophias central nave dating from the 11th
century. While studying this fresco, I proposed
my own interpretation of the picture. I believe
that it portrays Volodymyrs 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 Sviatopolks
mother and sons. The prince died in 1019. In
other words, the cathedral was already there
before 101922, 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,
didnt they? Why did they make them? Who allowed
this? Couldnt 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, couldnt 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 Yaroslavs
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 103032. 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 Volodymyrs 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 princes
portrait from the restored fresco in the mid-17th
century. How authentic do you think Westerfelds portrait is?
Restoration was commissioned by Metropolitan
Petro Mohyla and the work was done in a very
careful way. The artist hardly touched the
princes face or attire. The images of Volodymyr
and his wife obviously resemble the princes
portrait on the coins and Annas image in a
fresco in St. Sophias 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 Israels 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 Volodymyrs 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 isnt 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. Joshuas 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.
Ive 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 fathers
achievements. Its 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 models 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 Nesterovs 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, thats how he is portrayed on the coins.
Therefore, I think that Dr. Nikitenko is right
to assume Im 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