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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Peeling Away Paint to Uncover Masterpieces

MTGudkov working on the restoration of the original Vasnetsov fresco on the ceiling of the Church of the Birth of John the Baptist in Presnya on Tuesday.
Dressed in paint-spattered jeans, Ilya Gudkov stood confidently on the rickety wooden scaffolding several meters above the church floor.

"I think this is very distinctively his style -- these clouds, for instance," Gudkov said Wednesday, pointing his brush at one of several frescoes by Viktor Vasnetsov, a celebrated artist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The frescoes were recently uncovered in a room at the Church of the Birth of John the Baptist in Presnya, located on a quiet side street near the Moscow Zoo. Vasnetsov painted the frescoes in the 1890s, but they were painted over in the Soviet era and forgotten for decades.

This spring, a team of restorers led by Gudkov began the laborious task of uncovering the original Vasnetsov frescoes, which were hidden beneath as many as five layers of paint. Russians got their first glimpse of the restored works this week when Channel One television showed them on its Tuesday night news broadcast.

The restoration will give art historians a chance to examine previously unstudied works by the artist, who is best known for "The Three Bogatyrs," a painting of three medieval Russian warriors on horseback that often turns up in parodies and advertisements.

"I think it's enormously exciting that there's been this discovery," Joanna Vickery, head of the Russian department at Sotheby's auction house in London, said by telephone Wednesday. "He was the great chronicler of old Russia."

The discovery also comes at a time when works by Vasnetsov and his peers are hot items on the art market, eagerly snapped up by rich Russians seeking to amass prestigious art collections. Last year, a canvas by the artist called "Wise Oleg" set a record for his work when it sold for $637,000 at a Sotheby's auction in London.

Now the Russian Orthodox Church is also adding a few Vasnetsovs to its collection.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Most of the frescoes will remain out of view, as they are in the church's sanctuary, where only priests are allowed.
"The beauty and the heritage of Russian painters, and the beauty of Russian churches in general, should be renewed and restored," said Father Pimen, the head priest at the church. "I think this is only natural."

Although the Presnya church continued to function in the Soviet era, escaping many of the indignities suffered by other Russian churches, such as being turned into barns or cinemas, its precious frescoes were nearly destroyed by hasty and incompetent repair crews.

"People had a fairly relaxed attitude back then," Gudkov said. "Rather than properly restoring something, it was easier to just take it and paint over it. It was a lot cheaper and a lot less time-consuming."

Art historians have examined the frescoes to certify their authenticity, and records show Vasnetsov did indeed work at the church in the late 19th century, Gudkov said. He added that the frescoes were similar to other works by the artist, including various sketches and a set of well-preserved frescoes at St. Vladimir's Cathedral in Kiev.

igor tabakov / mt
Ilya Gudkov
Yet unlike the frescoes at St. Vladimir's Cathedral -- a popular tourist attraction in the Ukrainian capital -- those in the Moscow church are unlikely to draw many visitors, since they are located in its sanctuary, the room behind the iconostasis where only priests are allowed to go.

Visitors will only get a small glimpse of the frescoes on the rare occasions when the central iconostasis doors are opened. According to Orthodox tradition, the doors may only be opened on certain important holidays, such as Easter.

Gudkov admitted that the frescoes he had helped uncover would not be seen widely. "Mostly, this is for the priests who carry out regular services in this church," he said.

Lay visitors may take some consolation, however, in the fact that some Vasnetsov works will be available for public viewing once the restoration project is completed next year.

"Paternitas," a work painted on a thin, translucent fabric, is being restored and will be set up the church's nave, which any visitor can enter, Father Pimen said.

The church, which is located at 2 Maly Predtechensky Pereulok, also has an original Vasnetsov fresco that managed to survive undamaged throughout the Soviet era. It depicts the opening of Christ's tomb and is located in the nave.

Vasnetsov was born in 1848 in a remote village in the present-day Kirov region and later moved to St. Petersburg to study art.

He rose to prominence as a member of the Wanderers movement, which rebelled against the classical style taught at the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts, choosing to depict realistic scenes from Russian life instead.

Later, Vasnetsov switched to mythological and fairy-tale themes. He died in Moscow in 1926.