Travel to Kiev and you will steep yourself in a period when art and the visualisation of religious events was at its height. The period of Byzantium saw icons as vital components of religious worship. These painted images on wooden panels are known to have dated back to the 6th and 7th century. Sadly few have survived the rigours of time, weather, war and vandalism, but only a walk away from most accommodations in Kiev are to be found a small group of beautiful icons in the cities Khanenko museum.
These are truly priceless pieces that survived mainly due to the medium that was used to illustrate the religious images. These are encaustic paintings, meaning they were done with a combination of paint and heated wax.
Orthodox Christianity has produced some exquisite expressions of the human spirit, and medieval Byzantium is the one that has made perhaps the biggest contribution to European civilisation. The key thing to remember when viewing an icon is that the artist was charged with making sure the image was seen to the faithful as an object of worship, although some wonderful images created by icon artists had a greater impact on people than those done with less decoration etc.
Today, reproductions of icons can be found hanging in many Kiev hotels and among the decorations in Kiev apartments, but they will be there as primarily decorative images. But for the orthodox believer, an icon has and always will be a vital element in their daily worship, and it’s something they consider worthy of veneration.
These images were historically invested with powerful and miraculous properties, and they were central to the life of the Byzantine Empire. It was during the 17th century that Kiev developed into a major cultural centre, with old churches restored, new ones being built and schools being founded, but this blossoming was curtailed only to a degree when Ukraine then found itself split in two with the west under Polish control and the east under Russian. These divisions didn’t halt the indomitable Ukrainian spirit and the Ukraine remained mentally undivided – and the icons painted by artists of that period bear witness to this spirit.
At the end of the 17th century, icon painters in Kiev developed a unique style called ‘Ukrainian Baroque’. In this style, famous donors, religious leaders, etc were portrayed in icon format, and this began a new movement whereby icons began to acquire properly defined, recognisable features.
Those interested in knowing more about the history of Ukrainian icons can Invest in Ukraine track down a wonderfully illustrated book titled ‘Ukrainian icons of the 11th-18th’ centuries’- compiled by Academician and art historian Lyudmyla Milyayeva.
It’s thanks to her efforts that many icons and church items used in religious services were saved from destruction after the Second World War. She mentions in her book how while walking in the Ukrainian countryside she came across a bas relief with the image of St George lying in a villager’s back yard, which turned out to be 11th century.
You don’t have to wander the countryside in search of icons, though! Just leave your Kiev apartments and make for Desyatynna 12, in the centre of Kiev near St Andrews church. There you will be able to visit the only private museum of Ukrainian Icons. These have been collected by Igor Ponamarchuk, a businessman and patron of the arts. He has had restored many icons that would otherwise have been lost and forgotten. He is also a great fan of the primitive artist Maria Prymachenko, and in his museum you can also view around fifty of her wonderful paintings.