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“The Glory of Ukraine” — Icons of The Nativity from the Joslyn Art Museum Exhibition

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The Glory of Ukraine — "Sacred Images from the 11th to the 19th Centuries," from the oldest monastery in Ukraine, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery (also known as The National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve), and the Andrei Sheptisky Lviv National Museum; and "Golden Treasures and Lost Civilizations," ancient artifacts from the Museum of National Cultural Heritage PlaTar — fill the galleries of the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, Nebraska…

In a perfect world, everything in life should be accompanied by music — and nothing else than Dmitry Bortniansky's angelic Hymn of the Cherubim would do for our video of all five magnificent Nativity icons from The Glory of Ukraine, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. For more information, please see Nativity Icons of The Glory of Ukraine, at the bottom of this page. (Video © Crèchemania.com.)

 
An inner courtyard at the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, features a tile fountain and arched mezzanine — a quiet, contemplative space flooded with natural light. 
  
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Just past a stunning Dale Chihuly glass sculpture reminiscent of an upside-down Christmas tree, I see The Glory of Ukraine sign. The name of one the exhibition's Major Sponsors, Mutual of Omaha, stands out.

I smile remembering all those wonderful Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom shows I loved to watch on TV as a child. But today, it's not a black-and-white show that Mutual of Omaha — and all the other generous Major, Contributing, and Supporting Sponsors —has in store for me, but a technicolor spectacular of gold and precious icons.

But the gold — beautiful Cimmerian, Scythian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Kyivan Rus' artifacts — will have to wait, because I find myself surrounded by a gallery's worth of magnificent icons.

Last time I beheld such an incredible collection of sacred images was at the Russian Museum, in Russia's cultural capital, St. Petersburg. But a world-class exhibition? Amidst the cornfields of Nebraska? How did The Glory of Ukraine come to the Joslyn Art Museum?

"I can't take credit for it," says Toby Jurovics, Chief Curator & Richard and Mary Holland Curator of American Western Art. "I've been at the Joslyn for five months, and this was an exhibition that was organized before I arrived. So the exhibition was as much as a surprise for me as it was to you.

 
The gleam of gold isn't limited to historic artifacts but also found on precious icons — The Mother of God Hodigitria, mid-18th century, The National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve, Ukraine — The Glory of Ukraine, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. 
  
"Literally, the first thing I did after arriving was to unpack this exhibition. That is unusual. Normally, a curator will work on a show for several years, and is familiar with all the objects. But The Glory of Ukraine sort of arrived out of whole cloth.

"And we're the only institution in the country where you're seeing the archeological artifacts and the icon paintings side-by-side. I think they really do work very well together, and it certainly gives you this greater sense of early Russian, Ukrainian, culture.

"We may have very set ideas about antiquity, but —particularly, with the archeological artifacts (there are objects in the exhibition that show Greek or Oriental influence) — we realize there was always this global culture through trade, or war, and social influences and factors. The world has always had this very rich fabric. And that to me is what's so fascinating about the archeological section of the exhibition."

Yes, I know what you mean, Toby: The Mother of God with the Infant Christ, the late 18th century Poltava Region icon in your exhibition shows no Byzantine, but Western art influences. In fact, it's so reminiscent of the 1600s Cuzco School Nativity I encountered at Christ the Light Cathedral, in Oakland…

"There is a Renaissance influence in Ukrainian iconography that doesn't exist in the Orthodox world. It is my understanding that is something very specific to the Ukrainian tradition, because it splits off from the Byzantine tradition.

"It's interesting to hear you say this, see how different people respond to the exhibition, see what is it that speaks to them. There are two icons of The Entry Into Jerusalem in the second gallery that to me are the ones that I was most fascinated about.

While some may look at the second half of the 16th century icon of The Entry into Jerusalem [see image below, left] and say that it was unsuccessful as a representational image, I think there is such an wonderful expression in the way the face of Christ is rendered.

"There is a kind of awkwardness, as though the iconographer couldn't figure out how to get that donkey in the scene. It's hard to put your finger on it, but you can see how Christ was sort of inserted into the scene, and that's interesting as well. Christ is almost apart from the group of people welcoming him into Jerusalem. I don't know if that was intentional or not, but certainly, looking at it now, you read it that way.

"Maybe it's the way that the people was rendered in a formal, but also, in some ways, very crude style. There's this tremendous amount of empathy in them.

 
"There's a tremendous amount of empahy," in this icon of The Entry Into Jerusalem, says Toby Jurovics, Chief Curator, Joslyn Art Museum. The Andrei Sheptitsky Lviv National Museum, Ukraine — The Glory of Ukraine, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. 
  
"No matter how you respond to these works or what position you're coming to them from, they are tremendously resonant. That's always the preferred goal of installations — to be able to make that connection, move that forward for people."

What has been the reaction to the The Glory of Ukraine?

"People have been delighted with the exhibition; it's been very popular. And that's always what you want to happen. We've really have had a great response."

The acclaim of my friends who filled a bus from Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Sioux City was certainly unanimous. In fact, I'm driving back the 220 miles to Omaha with a van full of friends, before the exhibition closes!

"I'm really pleased you enjoyed the exhibition so much, and it's very dedicated of you to make another trip back and to bring people with you. So I thank you for that, Alexis."

What will fill your galleries next?

"The golden treasures of The Glory of Ukraine will be replaced by collection Highlights, in an exhibition to be called Joslyn Treasures.

It will be a combination of paintings from our collection that has been traveling to other museums in the U.S. and Europe in the past five years, as well as a group of paintings that have been in the vault.

Collection highlights and unseen gems; really a show that emphasizes the breadth of our collections."

Before saying goodbye, Toby says, "You spend ten days straight in those galleries doing the installation, and it's funny that this icon of The Entry into Jerusalem comes back to you as the most meaningful. Things do speak differently to everybody."

 
The Adoration of the Shepherds, a Festive Tier icon from a Kyiv region icon screen, The Andrei Sheptitsky Lviv National Museum — The Treasures of the Ukraine, just one of the magnificent treasures filling the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.(For more detailed images of this icon, see the Crèchemania Icon Gallery. Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  


What spoke to me the most, of course, were the icons of The Nativity.You can see them all — The early 19th century Adoration of the Magi; the late 17th early 18th century The Adoration of the Shepherds (also shown above); the early 16th century The Nativity of Christ from Vil'cha; the mid-16th century The Nativity of Christ from Lyiv; and the mid-18 century The Nativity of Christ from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery — in the video on top of the page, accompanied by Dmitry Bortniansky's Hymn of the Cherubim.

I stood in front of The Adoration of the Shepherds (shown above), a small (20 wide x 26 inches high) painted panel for so long, I just might have alarmed a guard or two.

 
The Adoration of the Magi, an early 19th century icon, The National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve — The Glory of the Ukraine Exhibition, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. ((For a larger and detail images of this icon, click this link or the image above. Photo © Crèchemania.com.)  
  
This icon — simply painted — or rather, "written," as icons are referred to — could have come from the iconostasis of my village church in Greece.

The iconostasis, or icon screen (litterally "stand,") is the icon-laden partition that separates the sanctuary from the nave of an Orthodox Church.

Iconostases came into their own in the 15th century, replacing a low wall (think communion rail) with tiers of icons that reached high towards the dome.

The first, or Magnificent Tier always features the Mother of God to the left of the central Beautiful Gate (or Royal Doors), with Christ in Majesty to the right.

Just above is found the Festive Tier, featuring icons depicting the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. Usually, at the very left is found the Birth of the Mother of God, with the Transfiguration to the extreme right.

The Adoration of the Shepherds that I could not tear myself away from, was found in such a Festive Tier, from a church in the Kyiv region, and dates from the late 17th early 18th century.

Enclosed by an octagonal, gilded and carved frame, this icon depicts the Mother of God seated on the left, her rich red cloak and halo trimmed with gold.

The hands of the Mother of God are extended as in depictions of The Deisis (Supplication), and on her shoulders and headdress golden stars symbolize her virginity before, during, and after The Nativity.

On a manger whose straw radiates like golden sun rays, the Newborn Child is swaddled tightly with red ribbons, while an angel kneels, hands together, in prayer.

Joseph, in contemplation, stands, his head leaning on his left hand, in amazement of the miracle that has unfolded in front of his eyes.

And two adoring shepherds, crooks in hand, approach, one with hands crossed, the other tipping his hat.

It's an endearing, charming scene, far removed from the powerful traditional Byzantine depiction of The Nativity. Yet, it's Western influence does not diminish one iota its power to inspire and incite the faithful to devotion: in fact, I instinctively find crossing myself in veneration, as I would have done in church.

The hours ticked by, icon after splendid icon, in the hushed, golden lit galleries of the Joslyn Art Museum.

I so look forward to going back.

 
The Nativity of Christ, The Andrei Sheptitsky Lviv National Museum — The Glory the Ukraine, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. For a larger and detail images of this icon, click this link or the image above. Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  
The Nativity icons of The Glory of Ukraine

In case you find the beautiful Nativity images of the video (top of page) all too fleeting, I have included all five icons of The Nativity from The Glory of Ukraine in our Nativity Guide. They are:

You may see those larger and detail images by clicking the photos at left, or their titles. They are:

The Adoration of the Magi Festive Tier early 19th century icon, The Andrei Sheptitsky Lviv National Museum, Ukraine (also shown above).

The Adoration of the Shepherds Festive Tier late 17th century icon, The National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve, Ukraine (spanning in the middle of the page, above.)

In the early 16th century The Nativity of Christ from the Festive Tier of the Church of the Assumption in Vil' cha (present-day Poland), the reclining Mother of God rests on a red cushion (see image at left). In this "narrative" icon — many scenes are depicted as if concurrent: two handmaidens prepare the Newborn's first bath; the Magi approach with gifts; the angels announce the good news to the shepherds; and Joseph is tempted by the devil.

The surreal cave — enveloping the icon in a mystical atmosphere — is pierced in two by the Light emanating from the Heavenly Sphere, above. The ray of light culminates in the Star of Bethlehem that has come to rest above the Newborn Child wrapped in his tomb-like manger, a symbol of His Passion.

On this icon's Nativity Guide page I had to include a close-up of the endearing ox: munching away, but ever mindful of his role of warming the Babe with his breath, it's portrayed casting a-corner-of-his-eye glance towards the manger!

 
The Nativity of Christ, The Andrei Sheptitsky Lviv National Museum — The Glory the Ukraine, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. (For a larger and detail images of this icon, click this link or the image above. Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  
In the mid-16th century The Nativity of Christ, The Andrei Sheptitsky Lviv National Museum — The Glory the Ukraine, the cave's step-like peaks become a metaphorical stairway to heaven — redemption brought about by the Incarnation taking place below (see image, below left).

The seated Mother of God is shown engaged about to unwrap the Babe's swaddling clothes in preparation for his first bath. A handmaiden is shown dipping a little finger in the basin to make sure the water's just right.

Above the manger, two angels hold crystal orbs, and a third motions to the approaching Magi holding high their gifts.

And in a most touching tableaux, the ass and the ox — heads protruding from arched windows — seem engaged in joining the angelic chorus, eyes pointed heavenward.

Raised gold filigree adds another special touch to this marvelous depiction of The Nativity.

The mid-18th century Ukrainian Baroque icon of The Nativity of Christ (shown at left, below) was "written"in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery.

Showing Western influence, the familiar scene is set in darkness pierced by three bright beams emanating from heaven, at right.

Heavenly white clouds and an engel's red cloak billow, as an older Joseph beholds the angel, and the Mother of God tenderly holds her Newborn Son in presentation.

An angelic host rests on a cloud, and, in the distance, an angel from his very own cloudy perch gives the good news to the shepherds.

These beautiful Nativity icons, of course, are only a small part of The Glory of Ukraine exhibition.

 
The Nativity of Christ, The National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve — The Glory the Ukraine, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. (For a larger and detail images of this icon, click this link or the image above. Photo © Crèchemania.com.) 
  
It would take many, many pages to even touch upon all the priceless images brought so close to home by the Joslyn Art Museum and the generosity of its sponsors.

I thank them — and Curator Toby Jurovics — from the depths of my heart, on behalf of all of you, Crèchemania afficionados, and members of the Crèche Guild.

If only you could join me for the three-hour ride to Omaha to see this extraordinary exhibition — I'd even play Dmitry Bortniansky's Hymn of the Cherubim in the car for you.

Another trip to the Joslyn

When my friends Elaine, Carla, Natalie, and I walk into the Joslyn on Saturday morning, The Glory of Ukraine galleries are not just packed with people, but also filled with music.

I smile thinking what I said on this page about everything in life happening to music, and am soon lost in a student orchestra's soaring oboe — and the glorious iconography of the Omaha World-Herald and Michael and Gail Yanney Galleries.

As I guide my friends from one exquisite Nativity icon to the next, pointing out elements of the Byzantine iconographic Canon, "The tomb-like manger alludes to Christ's Passion…" — I find myself attracting a small crowd of other visitors.

And for a moment, I'm back in my home town of Sioux City, Iowa when I was young, giving tours of my beloved Holy Trinity to patrons of the church's Grecian Dinner.

Of course, I can't visit Omaha and not have lunch at Jim and Jennie's Greek Village, or leave town without a stopping at my friend Effie's house for afternoon Greek coffee, melomakárouna, and karythópitta treats.

AYX

Whether you've seen — or won't be able to see — The Glory of Ukraine, you'll love the homonymous coffe-table catalog of the exhibition. It's filled with beautiful images and explanatory texts, and it may be ordered from: Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street, Omaha, Nebraska 68102-1292; 402-342-3300; call, or visit the Joslyn, on the Web, including its Hitchcock Museum Shop.

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