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A miracle of traditional art in the Russian North

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This article is from a series by the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography.  

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.  You can find a complete list of his articles on RI here.

The original title of this article was: Epiphany at Oshevensk: A miracle of traditional art in the Russian North


The historic Russian North, centered on the White Sea, has long been known as a repository of traditional arts and crafts. Among the most distinctive displays of this artistic culture are a few surviving wooden churches with 18th and 19th century painted interiors that combine religious piety and emotional expression.

The best example still standing is the Church of the Epiphany at the village of Oshevensk in the Kargopol region of Arkhangelsk Province. Oshevensk is in fact a cluster of settlements, including three hamlets picturesquely situated along the Churyega River. The Epiphany Church is located in the first hamlet, Pogost, a name derived from a term for sacred ground that usually contained a cemetery and church.

Built of sturdy pine logs in 1787, the Epiphany church is an unsurpassed combination of structure and art in the Russian north. (The church is also referred to locally as the Baptism, as Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are the same holiday in Orthodoxy.) Octagonal in shape, the main structure of the church is crowned with a tall “tent” tower. The church bell tower stands separately to the northwest with its own vertical cap. The two complement each other in serene harmony.

Yet the miracle of this church is its interior, which encompasses one of the largest such spaces among northern log churches. Its icon screen is enormous in extent, yet few of the icons remain. The church was closed in the 1930s, opened during World War II, and closed again in 1960 during Nikita Khrushchev’s “final” campaign against religion. The church was reopened for prayer and occasional services in the late 1990s.

During this long period of closure, most of the icons in the main iconostasis were taken from the church. The icons in the uppermost row, dedicated to the Prophets, survived, but in October 2014, the church was broken into and these remaining icons were stolen. Only the magnificent carved icon screen remained. Although most of the icons have now been recovered, much work remains to restore them to their original place.

The most impressive display of art in the interior is the painted suspended ceiling, or “heaven” (nebo), which still has its panels in place, although with sporadic damage to the painted surface. The basic form of the “heaven” is a polygon segmented by flat beams extending from the top of the walls to a ring in the center. The beams are slightly inclined and thus create a frame that is self-supporting between the walls and the ring. The painted panels are in the shape of extended triangles and are laid upon the frame without fasteners. The design makes ingenious use of tension and gravity.

These “heavens” are a distinctive feature of the traditional North, a combination of painting and structure. The paintings at the Epiphany Church have been attributed to the Bogdanov-Karbatovsky family, one of the dynasties of icon painters active in the Arkhangelsk territory in the latter half of the 18th century. They were also involved in the painting of the icons for the monumental icon screen of the Kargopol Nativity Cathedral, rebuilt after a major fire in 1765. Such artists brought new expressiveness to a traditional art in transition from tempera colors to oil paints.

The “heaven” at the Epiphany church is uniquely large, with 18 panel segments that include eight archangels, the four evangelists, the Crucifixion and heavenly forms such as seraphim. The central ring is occupied by an image of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All).

The panel rising from the center of the icon screen depicts Christ on the cross. The panel to the right of Christ (the viewer’s left) contains Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos). The panel to the left of Christ depicts St. John the Evangelist, author of one of the canonical Gospels and thus a divinely inspired witness to the Crucifixion. Each panel of the entire ceiling has the name of the person depicted painted in bold black letters.

Next to Mary Theotokos stands Mary Magdalene. As a close follower of Jesus, she is mentioned several times in the Gospels and stood at the foot of the cross. She also appears in all four Gospels as a central person in the Resurrection narrative. Although both figures are depicted in blue robes symbolizing purity, Mary Magdalene is also clad in a crimson cloak.

St. John the Evangelist is flanked by Longinus the Centurion, the name given in medieval Christian sources to the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Christ with his spear. Longinus was canonized by both the western and eastern churches for his witness to and proclamation of the divinity of Christ. The bright red cloak that he wears over his armor creates symmetry with the cloak of Mary Magdalene.

This arrangement of five central figures, typical for Orthodox depictions of the Crucifixion, is flanked by panels containing the two main archangels, Michael (in the panel next to Mary Magdalene) and Gabriel. As the supreme archangel (arkhistratig), Michael leads the Hosts of the Lord against Satan’s army in the Book of Revelation. As a symbol of his militant power, he is portrayed in armor with a red cloak. His right hand holds a lance, here given the atypical form of a trident. Gabriel, portrayed more modestly, is God’s primary messenger, most notably in the Annunciation.

The eastern half of the ceiling concludes with portrayals of the Evangelists Matthew (in the panel next to Archangel Gabriel) and John the Evangelist. This is the second representation of St. John: first as a witness to the Crucifixion and secondly as one of the four Evangelists.

The western half of the nebo continues with other archangels in the Eastern Orthodox tradition including Selaphiel, who is often seen as an intercessor between God and the worshipper. Next to Selaphiel is Archangel Uriel, traditionally associated with various human endeavors such as the arts. Here Uriel is portrayed accompanying the boy Tobias, son of Tobit from the Book of Tobit. The boy holds a fish that he caught and that will subsequently play a role in the narrative of this complex legend. Usually it is Archangel Raphael (the healer) who accompanies Tobias, but the letters on the panel clearly spell “Uriel.

Also included among the western panels are the Evangelists Mark and Luke, as well as the Archangel Jegudiel. The central part of the western half of the nebo consists of three panels featuring archangels Barachiel, Selaphiel and Michael. This is the second depiction of Archangels Selaphiel and Michael, a repetition called forth by the unusually large number of panels in the Epiphany Church ceiling.

In addition to the main altar (behind the icon screen), the Epiphany Church has two additional altars dedicated to St. John the Divine and the martyr St. Vlasy that have miniature versions of the “heaven” painted ceilings. For heated winter worship in this severe climate, a refectory with the altar of St. John the Divine extends from the west of the main structure.

The miraculous paintings at the Oshevensk Epiphany Church are in urgent need of preservation. Valuable in themselves, they also suggest a continuity in Russian art extending to the major 20th-century artist Natalya Goncharova — for example, her work entitled “The Four Evangelists.” In each case we see both clarity and depth of expression, fluidity of line, delicate shading and a radiant expressiveness.

 

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Simon Harris and wife welcome new baby boy

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Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has announced the birth of a baby son.

Posting on Instagram, the Minister said he and his wife Caoimhe had on Wednesday “welcomed Baby Cillian into the world”. Cillian is the couple’s second child, they also have a daughter Saoirse.

“Caoimhe and baby doing great and Saoirse delighted to be a big sister and looking forward to meeting him soon.”

Mr Harris thanked all of the staff at the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, Dublin.

The Fine Gael TD said he will be taking paternity leave for a few weeks to “get to know this new little man”.

In a previous post he said Tánaiste Leo Varadkar would be taking any of his department’s business to Government during the time while Minister of State Niall Collins would be carrying out his day-to-day work in the department and Labour leader Alan Kelly would be providing a pair for Dáil votes.

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Macron presses Biden for ‘clarifications’ over submarine snub

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Macron was left furious by Australia’s decision last week to ditch a 2016 deal to buy diesel submarines from France in favour of nuclear-powered ones from the United States and Britain.

After a cabinet meeting, government spokesman Gabriel Attal made clear French anger had not abated with an unusually frank statement of Macron’s expectations from the scheduled conversation with 78-year-old Biden.

The exchange would be an opportunity to “clarify both the way in which this announcement was made and the way for an American re-engagement in its relationship with an ally,” Attal said.

Paris was particularly outraged that Australia negotiated with Washington and London in secret, which French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denounced as “treachery” and a “stab in the back”.

French officials were notified about the loss of the contract just hours before Biden unveiled the new AUKUS security and defence partnership between the three English-speaking countries.

READ ALSO OPINION: France’s Australian submarine row shows that Macron was right about NATO

Macron was expecting “clarifications about the American decision to keep a European ally outside of fundamental talks about cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Attal added, without giving the schedule time for the exchange.

“We expect our allies to acknowledge that the exchanges and consultations that should have taken place did not, and that this poses a question about confidence, which all of us need to draw conclusions about now.”

Showdown

The submarine row has plunged Franco-US ties into what some analysts view as the most acute crisis since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Paris opposed.

After four years of tumultuous relations with ex-president Donald Trump, the spat has also dashed hopes of a complete reset under Biden, who took office in January aiming to rebuild frazzled ties with Europe.

As the row drags on, observers and some of France’s European partners are wondering how and when the French leader will call an end to the face-off, which is playing out just seven months ahead of presidential elections.

British Prime Minister Johnson said it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to ‘prenez un grip’ (get a grip)” in comments in Washington that mixed French and English.

“‘Donnez-moi un break’ because this is fundamentally a great step forward for global security,” he told Sky News.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, whose country is staunchly pro-American, defended Biden as “very loyal” and warned against turning “challenges which will always exist between allies into something they should not be.”

Conditions

Attal said that France and the US needed to begin a process “to create the conditions for confidence to be restored”.

As well as an acknowledgement of French interests in the Pacific region, the process should include “full recognition by our American allies of the need to boost European sovereignty as well as the importance of the growing commitment by the Europeans to their own defence and security.”

This latter point is a source of tension between Biden and Macron, who has pushed hard during his four-and-a-half years in office for Europeans to invest more in defence and pool resources in order to increase their joint military capabilities.

The US, and some EU members including Denmark and Baltic countries, see this as a potential challenge to NATO, the US-led transatlantic military alliance that has been the cornerstone of European defence since World War II.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly argued against the idea of France withdrawing from NATO command structures, which some politicians in France have suggested in the wake of the submarines snub.

“Is it worth slamming the door on NATO? I don’t think so,” she said, while adding that “political dialogue is non-existent in NATO.”

Australia’s decision to order nuclear-powered submarines was driven by concern about China’s commercial and military assertiveness in the Pacific region, where Biden is seeking to build an alliance of democratic states to help contain Beijing.



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Paschal Donohoe plans bank levy extension but lower haul

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Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will continue the Irish banking levy beyond its scheduled conclusion date at the end of this year, but plans to lower the targeted annual haul from the current €150 million as overseas lenders Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland retreat from the market, according to sources.

Reducing the industry overall levy target will avoid the remaining three banks facing higher levy bills at a time when the Government is seeking to lower its stakes in the bailed-out lenders.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB paid a combined €93 million levy in each of the last two years, according to their latest annual reports. A decision on the new targeted yield, currently linked to deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) collected by banks on customers’ savings, will be announced at the unveiling of Budget 2022 on October 12th.

Originally introduced in 2014 by then minister for finance Michael Noonan for three years to ensure banks made a “contribution” to a recovering economy after the sector’s multibillion-euro taxpayer bailout, the annual banking levy has since been extended to the end of 2021.

A further extension of the levy has largely been expected by the banks and industry analysts, as the sector has been able to use multibillion euro losses racked up during the financial crisis to reduce their tax bills. A spokesman for the Department of Finance declined to comment on the future status of the banking levy as planning for Budget 2022 continues.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB (PTSB) alone have utilised almost €500 million of tax losses against their corporation tax bills between 2017 and 2019, according to Department of Finance figures.

Sources said that the Government will be keen not to land a levy increase on the three lenders at a time when it is currently selling down its stake in Bank of Ireland and plotting a course for the reduction of its positions in AIB and PTSB in time.

The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), which holds the Bank of Ireland stake on behalf of the Minister for Finance, sold 2 percentage points of holding in the market between July and August, reducing its interest to just below 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, it has been reported in recent days that the UK government is planning to lower an 8 per cent surcharge that it has applied to bank profits since the start of 2016. It comes as the general UK corporation tax is set to rise from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in 2023.

“The optics of reducing the surcharge might still be bad politically, but it would signal the partial rehabilitation for the nation’s banking sector,” said Eamonn Hughes, an analyst with Goodbody Stockbrokers, in a note to clients on Tuesday, adding that he continues to factor in a retention of the Irish banking levy in his financial estimates for banks over the medium term.

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