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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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Madrid’s Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado granted World Heritage status | Culture

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Madrid’s famous Retiro Park and Paseo del Prado boulevard have been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The decision, made on Sunday, brings the total number of World Heritage Sites in Spain to 49 – the third-highest in the world after Italy and China.

Up until Sunday, none of these sites were located in the Spanish capital. The Madrid region, however, was home to three: El Escorial Monastery in Alcalá de Henares, the historical center of Aranjuez and the Montejo beech forest in Montejo de la Sierra.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez celebrated the news on Twitter, saying it was a “deserved recognition of a space in the capital that enriches our historical, artistic and cultural legacy.”

Retiro Park is a green refuge of 118 hectares in the center of the city of Madrid. Paseo del Prado boulevard is another icon of the capital, featuring six museums, major fountains such as the Fuente de Cibeles as well as the famous Plaza de Cibeles square.

For the sites to be granted World Heritage status, Spain needed the support of two-thirds of the UNESCO committee – 15 votes from 21 countries. The proposal was backed by Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Oman and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.
Statue of Apollo in Paseo del Prado.Víctor Sainz

Prior to the vote, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the organization that advises UNESCO, had argued against considering the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park as one site, and recommended that the latter be left out on the grounds that there were no “historic justifications” for the two to be paired.

This idea was strongly opposed by Spain’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andrés Perelló, who said: “What they are asking us to do is rip out a lung from Madrid. El Prado and El Retiro are a happy union, whose marriage is certified with a cartography more than three centuries old.” The origins of Paseo del Prado date back to 1565, while Retiro Park was first opened to the public during the Enlightenment.

Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado.
Pedestrians on Paseo del Prado. Víctor Sainz

The ICOMOS report also denounced the air pollution surrounding the site. To address these concerns, Madrid City Hall indicated it plans to reduce car traffic under its Madrid 360 initiative, which among other things is set to turn 10 kilometers of 48 streets into pedestrian areas, but is considered less ambitious than its predecessor Madrid Central.

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in the Chinese city of Fuzhou and was broadcast live at Madrid’s El Prado Museum. Perelló summed up the reasons to include Retiro Park and El Paseo de Prado in less than three minutes.

“When people say ‘from Madrid to heaven’ [the slogan of the Spanish capital] I ask myself why would you want to go to heaven when heaven is already in Madrid,” he told delegates at the event, which was scheduled to take place in 2020, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Every year, UNESCO evaluates 25 proposals for additions to the World Heritage List. In the case of the Paseo del Prado and Retiro Park, the site was judged on whether it evidenced an exchange of considerable architectural influences, was a representative example of a form of construction or complex and if it was associated with traditions that are still alive today. The famous park and boulevard sought to be inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1992, but its candidacy did not reach the final stage of the process.

Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).
Etching of Paseo del Prado from Cibeles fountain, by Isidro González Velázquez (1788).Biblioteca Nacional de España

The effort to win recognition for the sites’ outstanding universal value began again in 2014 under former Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), and was strengthed by her successor Manuela Carmena, of the leftist Ahora Madrid party, which was later renamed Más Madrid. An advisor from UNESCO visited the site in October 2019.

English version by Melissa Kitson.



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Ryanair reports €273m loss as passenger traffic rebounds

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Ryanair has reported a €273 million loss for its first quarter even as traffic rebounded during the period.

The carrier said it carried 8.1 million passengers in the three month period, which cover April to June. This compares to just 500,000 in the same period a year earlier.

Revenues increased 196 per cent from €125 million in the first quarter of 2020 to €371 million for the same quarter this year. Operation costs also rose however, jumping from €313 million to €675 million.

Net debt reduced by 27 per cent on the back of strong operating of €590 million.

“Covid-19 continued to wreak havoc on our business during the first quarter with most Easter flights cancelled and a slower than expected easing of EU travel restrictions into May and June,” said group chief executive Michael O’Leary.

“Based on current bookings, we expect traffic to rise from over five million in June to almost nine million in July, and over 10 million in August, as long as there are no further Covid setbacks in Europe,” he added.

Ryanair said the rollout of EU digital Covid certificates and the scrapping of quarantine for vaccinated arrivals to Britain from mid-July has led to a surge in bookings in recent week.

First quarter scheduled revenues increased 91 per cent to €192 million on the back of the rise in passenger traffic although this was offset by the cancellation of Easter traffic and a delay in the relaxation of travel restrictions.

Ancillary revenue generated approximately €22 per passenger the company said.

Mr O’Leary foresaw growth opportunities for the airline due to the collapse of many European airlines during the Covid crisis, and widespread capacity cuts at other carriers.

“We are encouraged by the high rate of vaccinations across Europe. If, as is presently predicted, most of Europe’s adult population is fully vaccinated by September., then we believe that we can look forward to a strong recovery in air travel for the second half of the fiscal year and well into 2022 – as is presently the case in domestic US air travel,” he said.

However, the airline warned the future remains challenging due to continued Covid restrictions and a lack of bookings and that this meant it was impossible to provided “meaningful” guidance at the time.

“We believe that full0year 2022 traffic has improved to a range of 90 million to 100 million (previously guided at the lower end of an 80 million to 120 million passenger range) and (cautiously) expect that the likely outcome for the year is somewhere between a small loss and breakeven. This is dependent on the continued rollout of vaccines this summer, and no adverse Covid variant developments,” said Mr O’Leary.

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Switzerland’s Credit Suisse settles with star banker over spying scandal

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CEO Tidjane Thiam was forced to resign in February 2020 after admitting the bank had hired investigators to follow Khan, head of international wealth management, because he had opted to move to arch-rival, UBS.

As well as sending shockwaves through banking circles, the case sparked a criminal probe in Switzerland.

“All parties involved have agreed to end the case,” Credit Suisse spokeswoman Simone Meier told NZZ am Sonntag, which revealed the agreement.

Meier declined to comment further when contacted by AFP.

The public prosecutor of the canton of Zurich has also ended his investigation, as the complaints have been withdrawn, NZZ am Sonntag reported.

Thiam’s resignation followed a torrid six-month scandal that began with revelations in the Swiss press that Khan had been shadowed by agents from a private detective company hired after he joined UBS. 

At one point, Khan physically confronted the people following him.

In October, chief operating officer Pierre-Olivier Bouee resigned, acknowledging at the end of an internal investigation that he “alone” had ordered the tailing without informing his superiors.

He had wanted to ensure that Khan was not trying to poach other employees, according to the internal investigation.

The case was reopened in December 2019 when the bank admitted to a second case of espionage, this time involving the former head of human resources, and then in February after media reports that the surveillance had also targeted the environmental organisation Greenpeace.



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