Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church Wins Victory in Dispute Over Icons

Two of Russia's most sacred icons, which have become the subjects of a tug-of-war between the Church and the museum that houses them, could soon be hanging inside a Kremlin cathedral.

An order signed Monday by President Boris Yeltsin says that the Holy Trinity, painted by Andrei Rublyov, and the 12th-century Virgin of Vladimir are to remain federal property.

The order also says, however, that the icons can be returned to the Russian Orthodox Church for religious use as soon as a way is devised to move and display them safely.

The decision was a victory for the Church, which has sought the return of the icons for several years. But specialists at the State Tretyakov Gallery, where the icons have been visited by thousands of flower-bearing believers and art lovers, doubted that the safety of the fragile icons could be ensured.

Yeltsin's order says that once the legal, financial and physical problems involved in transferring and protecting the icons have been resolved - particularly the creation of unique protective cases - the icons can be moved, said Anatoly Krasikov, a spokesman for the president.

The church plans to move the icons to the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Assumption as soon as a way is devised to protect them, said Alexander Bulakov, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchy.

"The most important thing for us is that these icons should be preserved. That's why the church doesn't need to have them immediately", he said.

"We don't need them for religious purposes right now, because we have copies of them", said Bulakov. "But our people need them to restore historical justice".

The 15th-century Holy Trinity, painted by the great Russian icon painter Andrei Rublyov, is considered one of the outstanding works of ancient Russian painting.

The Virgin of Vladimir, an icon of Byzantine origin that dates from the 12th century, is believed to work miracles. It was also carried by Saint Sergius in the procession before Dmitry Donskoi's 14th-century victory over the Mongol hordes. In Moscow since the 14th century, the Virgin of Vladimir has traditionally called upon in times of danger.

Both icons were taken from the Church after the Russian Revolution and have been on display at the Tretyakov since 1930.

The icons are kept in a controlled environment of 18- to 20-degrees Celsius and about 60 percent humidity, said Nadezhda Rozanova, director of the museum's department of Ancient Russian Art, adding that the slightest change in the environment can create tiny cracks in the paint.

That is what happened last month, she said, when the Virgin of Vladimir was removed from the museum and loaned to the church. Although the icon was only out of the museum for seven hours, the damage was evident, Rozanova said.

"Despite a glass case, it suffered quite a bit", she said, adding that the icon has been undergoing restoration since then. It was the first time the icons had left the museum since World War II, when they were taken for safekeeping to Novosibirsk.

Rozanova said she could not imagine what kind of special case could be built to protect the icons adequately. Moving them to the cathedral also would deprive them of the constant monitoring by specialists required to keep them for future generations, she said.

Robert Woolley, senior vice president and director of decorative arts at Sotheby's in New York, said that the technology probably does exist to create a hermetically sealed box that maintains a stable environment for the icons.

"It's complicated and expensive", he said.

"What does affect icons more than anything else is change in temperature or climate. That can be very dangerous".