Vladimir Putin hands over “Trinity,” a masterpiece icon, to the Russian Orthodox Church. Why art historians and museum experts are shocked by this decision
Павел Васильев
Vladimir Putin hands over “Trinity,” a masterpiece icon, to the Russian Orthodox Church. Why art historians and museum experts are shocked by this decision
17 May 2023, 15:21

A guard with the “Trinity” icon at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, June 2022. Photo: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

The most famous work of Russian iconography, Andrei Rublev’s 15th century “Trinity,” is being taken away from the Tretyakov Gallery by Putin's decision to hand it over to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). “For a large number of believers, this icon is a great shrine,” the Kremlin explains this measure. It took museum workers by surprise, and experts who monitor the “Trinity’s” condition believe that the removal of the icon will put it at risk of destruction. Mediazona tells how, despite the resistance of scholars and curators, the Russian Orthodox Church succeeded in obtaining the masterpiece.

On Monday afternoon, the Moscow Patriarchate announced the return of Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” icon to the ROC. The announcement on the Patriarchate's website stressed that the decision to return the work of art, which has been kept in the Tretyakov Gallery for nearly a century, was made by President Vladimir Putin “as a response to numerous requests from Orthodox believers.”

The news of the future removal of the icon from the Tretyakov Gallery’s holdings caught its employees by surprise. They learned of Putin's decision from media reports on the day when an expanded restoration council was held at the museum to discuss the icon’s condition. “We are still trying to figure out what's going on, everyone is in shock,” one of the museum’s employees described the museum’s atmosphere in a conversation with Mediazona.

A day later, Patriarch Kirill issued a detailed comment on the situation. At a meeting of the Holy Synod, the patriarch said he had sent only a “modest wish” to the head of the presidential administration, Anton Vaino, to display the icon, which Orthodox believers consider to be miraculous, for worship at Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow for a fortnight to mark the Feast of the Trinity, which is celebrated on June 4 this year.

“In response, as you already know, the President of the Russian Federation made the historic decision to return the icon of the Holy Trinity to the Russian Orthodox Church. We could only dream of this relic being returned to the Church, so that our people could pray before this shrine, asking for God's blessing on both the country and the Church,” Kirill said.

Journalist and art historian Ksenia Korobeinikova says on her Telegram channel that the Ministry of Culture (with the exception of one person, she does not give their name, but claims it’s not the minister) and the Tretyakov Gallery knew nothing about the possible transfer of the Trinity.

“Everyone was sure that the icon would have to be handed over for a second time to the Lavra just for a couple of days. And it is understandable. Even by law, works from the state museum fund can not cease to be museum property. There is only a by-law ‘On the procedure for the transfer to religious organisations,’ but in accordance with it, a museum’s property may be transferred to anyone, including the Church, only on the basis of a bilateral agreement,” writes Korobeinikova.

Last summer, despite the protest of restorers and art historians, the Rublev icon was taken to the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the most important Russian monastery, where it was exhibited for a couple of days to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh.

“The ‘Trinity’ somehow survived the trip. We, ten museum staff, were on duty at Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius around the clock for three days. It was monstrous! We stood there with measuring instruments and monitored changes in temperature and humidity. One night, 40 people, soaking wet, came in running, they were on some kind of marathon and were caught in the rain. And because they were standing in a small space, close to the icon, their wet clothes immediately inscreased the himidity. We had to close down the church”, said Elena Saenkova, head of the Old Russian Art Department of the Tretyakov Gallery, in one of the interviews.

According to her, in the Lavra, the “Trinity” was exhibited in a regular display case, while a special case was needed to maintain the necessary parameters. After its return to the Tretyakov Gallery, 61 “significant changes” were discovered on the fragile icon, which requires a special temperature regime and certain humidity for its storage.

As the experts noted, this was only “the beginning of a chain of negative changes in the state of preservation” of the masterpiece. In the Lavra, the “Trinity” has experienced severe temperature fluctuations and now five of its sections “are in an emergency and need to be strengthened,” the restorers pointed out at the time.

Patriarch Kirill during the Trinity Sunday service at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, 12 June 2022. Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS

A Moscow restorer familiar with the situation told Mediazona that after the trip to Lavra the “Trinity” was stored for some time in the depository of the gallery, and when its condition stabilised was once again shown to the public: “The necessary procedures have been carried out to stabilise the state of preservation. Everything necessary was done to prevent any bad tendencies.”

It is important to mention that since 1998 the “Trinity” has been available not only to the lay public, but also to the faithful. The icon is carried each year in a special frame through the interior of the gallery to the Church-Museum of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi during the celebration of the Holy Trinity. “But there have never historically been any crowds, no queues of people wanting to pray,” a source at the museum told Mediazona. They wonder why the Orthodox believers are being referred to when the decision to remove the icon is made, even though they have never shown any great interest in the “Trinity.”

The Kremlin believes otherwise. “For a large number of believers, this icon is a great relic. Hiding it in the museum’s holdings does not exactly meet their wishes,” Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said, adding that the president consulted with experts before making the decision to hand over the “Trinity” to the church.

According to Kremlin’s plan, the icon will be on display in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow throughout 2023, and after that it will be sent to its “historic site” in the Holy Trinity Lavra. The Ministry of Culture added that the Rublev icon “will be moved with the participation of experts in strict accordance with security requirements.” They promise to store it in a special capsule that maintains humidity and temperature. However, based on the experience of last year’s “Trinity” tour to Sergiev Posad, museum staff fear the situation could repeat itself. And the removal of the masterpiece from the Tretyakov Gallery will be fatal for the icon.

“As a result of these ill-conceived actions, the icon will perish. This is the only result. It will simply perish. And you will be shown a dummy,” believes Lev Livshits, art historian and a member of the expanded restoration council at the Tretyakov Gallery.

At the council itself, experts concluded that the icon can only be preserved under the supervision of restorers and that its transfer, even temporal, is impossible. “It would be like Catholics asking the Hermitage to return Leonardo’s ‘Madonna Litta’ to them. But the ‘Madonna Litta’ is available to everyone, regardless of religious views. The ‘Trinity’ is also much more than just an object of religious worship. It is a symbol,” a source in museum circles argued in an interview with Mediazona.

In addition, says one of the museum employees, the Tretyakov Gallery has created special conditions for students, restorers, artists, and researchers to have safe access to the icon. When the it returns to the temple and the Lavra, the continuation of such a display is unlikely.

“It is unclear what will happen next,” one of the Moscow restorers told with Mediazona. “I cannot recall anything of the sort. For the entire museum communit, our colleagues from other museums, it is a shock. They were all dumbfounded by this decision and very surprised at how quickly this has all been resolved.”

Mikhail Mindlin, head of the Andrei Rublev Museum, said the preservation of the “Trinity” requires a vault capsule with special equipment for uninterrupted maintenance of temperature and humidity conditions which has yet to be manufactured. “It’s like with securing a nuclear reactor—in the event of a power cut, back-up systems switch on. The same conditions that have been maintained in the Tretyakov Gallery in recent decades,” Mindlin told the paper Moskovsky Komsomolets. “And this capsule should be vandal proof, it should protect from any intentional or unintentional damage. The icon must be immaculately protected in all senses.”

A restorer close to the Tretyakov Gallery adds that the safety of the “Trinity” will depend on how the transfer of the icon will be implemented and what the ROC will do to protect the relic: “We don’t know how this procedure will take place. We don't know anything. We do not know how they intend to exhibit it. Therefore, it is impossible to say anything for sure. Everything can happen.”

Editor: Dmitry Treshchanin

Translator: Daria Fomina

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