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The Transfer to the Ukraine of Fragments of Frescoes from Kievís Mikhailovo-Zlatoverkh Monastery

On 16 February 2004 a press conference was held during which Director of the State Hermitage Mikhail B. Piotrovsky announced the transfer to the Ukraine of seven fragments of frescoes from the Cathedral of Kievís Mikhailovo-Zlatoverkh Monastery. The fragments had been stored in the Hermitage. The Cathedral of the Mikhailovo-Zlatoverkh Monastery in Kiev was built in 1108 Ė 1113 by the great Kievan prince Svyatopolk Izyaslavich to hold the family burial crypt of the Svyatopolchichi. As its founder wanted it the cathedral became a worthy rival of the most luxurious Kievan churches. In its importance it was second only to Kievís Sofia Cathedral. It preserved on its walls the second largest (and last) mosaic complex of Ancient Rusí. Up until the 20th century the cathedral was ranked in a short list of most valuable monuments of ancient Russian art.

In 1934 local authorities disregarded the opinion of specialists and took the decision to destroy this unique monument. Thanks to intervention by the Peopleís Commissariat of Culture of the RSFSR and to strong protest from Russian scholars, it was possible to remove the mosaics and frescoes from the walls before the destruction of the building and to carry out architectural measurements. For this purpose V.A. Florov and D.I. Kiplik were sent down to Kiev from Leningrad and Moscow. The efforts of Leningrad and Moscow restorers to save the unique mosaics and frescoes resulted in the creation of nearly 40 separate fragments of mosaics and fresco painting as well as the huge composition of Ďthe Eucharist,í which was taken down from Kievís Sofia cathedral at the same time at the suggestion of V.A. Frolov.

In time the authorities in the Ukraine changed their attitude to the Mikhailovsky Cathedral and saved fragments of the frescoes that were taken down from its walls in museums in Kiev. By the summer of 1941 the Kiev museums had, in addition to Ďthe Eucharistí, some 31 fresco fragments coming from the Mikhailovsky monastery: 27 of these fragments were in the Sofia depository and 4 were in the Historical Museum of the Ukrainian SSR. Unfortunately the records on these fragments were not sufficiently complete and detailed. For example, the inventory book of the Sofia depository which in 1941 held a large part of the Mikhailovsky collection only mentions the subject of the painting of two fragments; the other fragments were simply listed as mosaics and frescoes from the Mikhailovsky monastery.

In the autumn of 1943, the 27 fresco fragments were evacuated to Germany by German occupation authorities who also took archive materials which documented the course and results of the original removal of the Mikhailovsky wall paintings from the cathedral. After the capitulation of Germany these documents turned up in the USA.

In 1946 Ė 1947 the Mikhailovsky frescoes that had been carried off to Germany, namely the 27 fragments, were transferred from the American zone of occupation to the Soviet military administration in Germany and were moved to East Berlin. From there 10 fragments were returned to Kiev, while 17 (for which at that time no accurate attribution was possible) were sent to the Central State Storage House of Museum Collections in the city of Pushkin, near Leningrad.

Staff workers in the storage house who were busy sorting out the artistic treasures that had been returned from Germany wrote to the Committee on Cultural and Educational Institutions under the Council of Ministers of the Ukrainian SSR suggesting that they send experts to Pushkin to identify items of Ukrainian origin, but there was no response to this letter.

In 1948 these fragments were moved in two shipments from Pushkin to the Novgorod Museum of Regional Studies. In 1953 the Novgorod museum transferred 11 fragments to the State Hermitage for permanent storage. It was possible to guess that they once belonged to the Mikhailovsky Cathedral, but no reliable information on this matter was available.

As a result of the decision taken in the Ukraine to restore the architectural ensemble of the Mikhailovo-Zlatoverkh Monastery, including the Mikhailovsky Cathedral, a Museum was built on the territory of the Monastery. This began to bring together monuments relating to the given complex. Work also began to seek out monuments which were held in other collections.

Experts from the Ukraine and the State Hermitage have carried out a major investigation with respect to the frescoes stored in the Hermitage. As a result the provenance of 4 frescoes was precisely established to be wall decoration of the Mikhailovsky Cathedral. The four fragments involved (ERI-184, ERI-186, ERI-187, ERI-193) were returned to the Ukraine on 1 February 2001 (Document No. 9 dated 01.02.2001).

The work continued: Ukrainian scholars studied documents relating to the removal to Germany of Soviet monuments of culture and art and their return. A joint commission of the State Hermitage and the Ukrainian State Service for Controlling the Passage of Items of Cultural Value Across the State Border determined that out of the 7 fragments remaining in the State Hermitage one fragment (inventory number ERI-194) undoubtedly came from the Mikhailovsky Cathedral while the other 6 (ERI-185, ERI-188, ERI-189, ERI-190, ERI-191 and ERI-192) very likely also were once part of this complex.

On the basis of this joint conclusion, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation issued Order No. 109 dated 21 January 2004 concerning the transfer to the Ukraine of the 7 fragments of frescoes that were state property and were stored in the State Hermitage.


Mikhail B. Piotrovsky during the press conference

Fragment of a fresco

Fragment of a fresco


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