Tretyakov Outraged Over Church Icon Move

MTA student at the Tretyakov Gallery copying the "Holy Trinity" icon, which the Moscow Patriarchate wants to borrow and display at Sergiyev Posad's monastery.
The Russian Orthodox Church has outraged employees at the Tretyakov Gallery by requesting to borrow a 15th-century icon for religious services outside Moscow — a trip curators say could irrevocably damage one of the outstanding works of ancient Russian painting.

The Moscow Patriarchate has requested that "The Holy Trinity," painted by the great Russian icon painter Andrei Rublyov, be transported to Sergiyev Posad, 60 kilometers northeast of Moscow, for the June holiday of Pentecost, known in Russian as "Troitsa," or Holy Trinity Day.

There, the patriarchate hopes, the icon will be put on display at the country's most revered monastery — the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.

While the Tretyakov Gallery administration is considering the request, staff at the museum's ancient Russian art department are leading a campaign to prevent the icon from being moved, citing the fragile condition of a central symbol of Russian spirituality.

"This is not simply madness, but also a crime," Levon Nersesyan, a senior researcher in the department, said Friday. "We could damage this treasure just for someone's whim."

Nersesyan first took the conflict public last week with a post on his LiveJournal blog in which he accused his bosses of kowtowing to the Russian Orthodox Church, which saw its political influence steadily grow under former President Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister.

So far the museum has not yet asked the Culture Ministry for permission to move the icon. There has only been a letter of request from Patriarch Alexy II that was read aloud to museum employees, Nersesyan said.

"The letter said something about 'difficult times' for the Russian people, who need to be united and encouraged by this sacred image," Nersesyan said.

Both transporting the painting and leaving it on display could be extremely damaging, said Yekaterina Gladysheva, Nersesyan's colleague at the museum.

The painting is very sensitive to temperature changes and has been kept behind glass in a dimly lit room in the Tretyakov Gallery since 1923, Gladysheva said. Despite the fact that the temperature and humidity behind the glass have been regulated, the icon still has cracks in it, and the slightest shift could damage it, she said.

"Three days at a cathedral, with its drafts and hundreds of candles burning — not to mention thousands believers seeking to kiss it — could be a disaster," Gladysheva said.

Yekaterina Seleznyova, chief curator of the Tretyakov Gallery, said the museum's management is "very much aware how fragile and precious the piece is" but that it was necessary to consult with experts on the feasibility of moving the icon before rejecting the church's request.

"Why should we say 'no' to the church in this case before consulting with experts who are ready to present to us their most modern know-how in this area?" Seleznyova said.

Alexy II spoke with Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev in September about borrowing the icon and followed up with the letter to the Tretyakov Gallery, said Father Vladimir Vigilyansky, a spokesman for the patriarch.

"We believe museums exist … to preserve masterpieces, as well as to exhibit and transport them properly if needed," Vigilyansky said in a telephone interview. "When museum workers say transporting the icon is impossible, they just prove they are unprofessional."

Rublyov painted the icon especially for the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra monastery in Sergiyev Posad, and the painting was never returned after it was taken for restoration shortly before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, said Vigilyansky, who described museums as "prisons" for icons.

"Even prisoners can be released for vacation on good behavior," Vigilyansky said, RIA-Novosti reported. "I guess for 100 years of good behavior the icon deserves a three-day vacation."

The significance of the icon for Russian culture cannot be overstated, said Gennady Popov, chief curator at the Andrei Rublyov Museum and one of the country's leading experts in Rublyov's work. Only a few of Rublyov's paintings remain, and "Holy Trinity," which Rublyov painted in about 1410, is the most important and best preserved, Popov said.

Vigilyansky, the Moscow Patriarchate spokesman, said the "main purpose" of the icon is to be used by believers. He described museum workers as "guardians of stolen things," though he said they should not take the comparison personally.

"It's not their fault, of course," Vigilyansky told RIA-Novosti. "It is due to historical circumstances and laws that made keeping stolen things legal."

The church has no plans to insure Rublyov's painting should it receive approval to borrow it, Vigilyansky said. The icon belongs to the state, and it is the state who should insure it, he said.