"Recipes for people who care"
We live in a society of systematic mistrust and resentment
A few days ago, as usual, the directors of several of Russia’s major museums came together at a reception in honor of the triennial of the enthronement of Patriarch Cyril. We discussed our mutual professional concerns, especially the preparations for the multiple-museum exhibit entitled “Russia and the Holy Land,” dedicated to the 130-year anniversary of the founding of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. Its history is an instructive example of productive cooperation between science, the Church, and culture.
We live in a society of systematic mistrust and resentment. This is taken for granted historically, and one must interact with this phenomenon on a system-wide level. Different recipes for the appropriate attitude to take are proposed.
It turns out that there are more than a few issues between museums and the Church, and various malicious forces would very much like to turn them into hostility. To keep this from happening, museums have been suggesting well-intentioned measures to defeat mistrust and resentment, and it includes the spiritual side of life as well.
The State Hermitage Museum, for example, always proceeds from the fact that the Soviet government rode roughshod over museums, just as did it over the Church. Yet, at the same time, it was then that many ritual items took on a new, eminently worthy function; they became museum pieces, intended to be seen by everyone, to cultivate knowledge of history and aesthetic taste. The dual nature of art that originated in the Church also creates the foundation for friendly cooperation.
Due to historical fate, the remains of Christian Saints have been preserved in the Hermitage. Yet the place for these remains is in churches. Many relics of the Armenian Saints were preserved in the famous Skevrsky triptych, a masterpiece of the Jeweler’s art in the middle ages. We ceremonially transferred the relics to the Echmiadzin monetary, while the triptych itself is being exhibited in the museum. Preparation is underway on producing a copy of it for the Armenian Apostolic Church. We have small fragments of the remains of Orthodox Saints, which are not connected with works of art. In cooperation with the Abbess of the Voskresenskiy Novodevichy Convent in St. Petersburg, a list of such relics has been prepared, and a procedure for transferring them to the temple is being developed with the approval of the Minister of Culture and the Governor of Saint Petersburg.
The Winter Palace is home to the silver ornaments of the tomb of St. Alexander Nevsky, whose remains were removed from Vladimir and transferred to Saint Petersburg by order of Peter the Great, who founded our city, yet discontinued the patriarchate and abolished the confessional seal. By order of the empress Catherine the Great, a magnificent ornament, made from the first silver ever extracted in Russia, was erected over the Saint’s tomb. This masterpiece of Russian art from the Baroque period is decorated with reliefs illustrating Alexander Nevsky’s exploits, and celebratory texts composed by Lomonosov.
In 1922, Church valuables were confiscated to be sold or melted down. Alexander’s tomb and the silver iconostasis of Kazan Cathedral were subjects of particular interest. Petersburg’s art historians and the managers of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum were able to save the tomb and ensure that it was recognized as a cultural monument, worthy of a museum. In this way, it wound up in the Hermitage. The iconostasis of Kazan Cathedral could not, alas, be saved. Several years later, the authorities began to talk about melting down the tomb’s ornaments once again. In order to save it, the Hermitage gave away some of the silver doublet coins from its collection as a ransom payment.
The remains of the Saint are in Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and the monument, which can justly be said to be a tombstone, continues to represent Russian culture and Russian history for millions. The silver marker is not a miracle-working icon; its role is less ceremonial and more historical and cultural. As such, transferring it from a world museum to a temple would be a mistake. We can see a sort of solution here as well. An exact copy of the tomb can be placed in Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery. The Hermitage has already obtained the support of the national and municipal authorities. Based on the museum’s suggestions, the government is in the process of resolving the question of creating such a copy. I hope that philanthropists will also get involved.
There is one more question; the religious spaces within the Winter Palace, and the Grand Church above all. It is a museum space, and holding regular services and burning candles there is impossible. But something else is possible. For the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage, after the restoration of the iconostasis and the interiors, museum cases containing Russian and Byzantine icons can be placed there, as well as an exhibition dedicated to the memory of the Romanov family, with whose fate that church is closely connected. The Grand Church is also connected with the wonderful holiday that falls on the 25th December; the day of Alexander I’s Manifesto on the expulsion of the enemy from Russia. On that day, in memory of the great victory over Napoleon, a prayer service and parade were traditionally held in the Winter Palace. Holding such a ceremonial prayer service in the cathedral once a year is proper and right.
Russian museums can serve as an example of how to solve many problems, not only in the area of religious life, but also in the areas of legislation, economics, politics, military reform and education. Our “recipes” have been published in a national report entitled “Russia’s Museums at the Turn of the Millennium,” from the Union of Museums of Russia. This is a document for people who really care about both the past and the future.