By Elizabeth Lev
When visiting the Roman church of San Luigi dei Francesi, I often show a black and white photo of Caravaggio’s “St. Matthew and the Angel,” and see the horror in people’s eyes when I tell them the painting was destroyed during the Second World War.
That altarpiece is but one of a long list of artistic casualties caused by armed conflict.
At Reims Cathedral in France, the smiling angel on its façade became the symbol of art’s precarious fate during war, having survived the 1914 bombing that destroyed the apse. Loss and looting form a legacy of artistic trauma perpetrated by battle going back even further than Emperor Titus’ destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Art has long been a victim of war, and there is no reason to expect a gentler treatment of Ukraine’s art.
Amid bombs and skirmishes, art professionals, students, and aficionados wait in trepidation to see which Ukrainian works will wind up as a photograph and a memory.
It may seem frivolous to talk about art during such a grave humanitarian crisis, but art is an essential part of the humanity of a culture, exploited by invaders and destroyed by barbarians to strike at the heart of a people’s identity.
As the Ukrainians fight to retain their national sovereignty, their art — their unique expressions of creativity — is an integral part of that identity.
Much like the flag that rallies citizens to the defense of a nation, Ukrainian art is a beacon to recall the Ukraine that was, and to spotlight the Ukrainian people that will be, no matter the outcome of Putin’s war, provided the populace can cling to their national identity.
The artistic treasures of Kyiv, Lviv and other cities are too numerous to list, but a few masterpieces boast aesthetic significance, and at the same time reveal some of the travailed history of Ukrainian national sovereignty.
Perhaps it speaks to the centuries of invasions that the most significant works of art in Ukraine are churches: places of gathering, of worship, where the Ukrainian people forged their identity before God.
Most distinguished among these are the churches and monasteries built from the 10th to 12th centuries during the Princely era, the Golden Age of Ukrainian art, that took place shortly after the country’s conversion to Catholicism.
This was the era when wooden folk buildings gave way to great stone constructions like St. Sophia in Kyiv, begun by Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise 1037. Modeled after the Justinian’s Basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, its symphony of domes crowned with golden lanterns rises like a pyramid towards the heavens.
The interior of St. Sophia pioneered a new decorative style of frescoed walls leading to dazzling apse mosaics that would become common in Ukrainian churches.
Alongside the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, a stunning monastery that began as a series of underground caves and mushroomed into Baroque splendor, St. Sophia is a magnificent document of the architectural history of Ukraine.
The museum of micro miniatures in the 1,000-year-old cave monastery is a wonder to behold, with tiny carved objects like a convoy of camels parading through the eye of a needle.
More churches sprouted in the wake of St. Sophia: the Dormition Cathedral rose atop the Cave Monastery 1078, followed by Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery (1108) and then Church of Saint Cyril’s Monastery (1146).
The churches are still standing today, but their structures recount the tale of Ukraine’s sorrows.
St. Cyril’s monastery was transformed into an insane asylum by the tsars, St. Michael’s Church was bulldozed by the Soviets in 1936, while the Dormition Cathedral was destroyed by mines during the Soviet retreat in 1941.
All three were rebuilt by the indefatigable Ukrainians and the few fragments of frescoes and ornaments that cling to the walls link the modern structures to the ancient faith.
The city of Chernihiv contains more treasures from Ukraine’s artistic apex. The luminous Cathedral of the Transfiguration, built in 1034, features the careful craftsmanship of man-made bricks intertwined with natural stone and contains an amazing array of frescoes, gilt carvings and princely tombs.
Lviv was the epicenter of the Ukrainian Renaissance. The interesting Italo/Ukraine hybrid of the Dormition Church in Lviv, built in the 17th century, fuses bulbous Eastern domes around stern Roman arches: the solid Renaissance order serving as a foundation for the billowing cupolas, symbols of the spiritual.
Religious Renaissance art is best seen in Lviv’s Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum, founded by the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1905.
The museum holds the largest collection the world of Ukrainian ecclesiastical art spanning the 12th–18th centuries, in particular its priceless collection of over 4,000 icons. This treasure of Ukrainian heritage is being hastily packed away for safekeeping in the face of the Russians advance. Not only are these venerable works under threat, but the thriving schools keeping the icon-writing tradition alive today are menaced by the invasion.
Sheptsky’s neighbor, the National Art Museum of Lviv, is Ukraine’s largest art museum, and suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets, who in their determination to eradicate symbols of national identity arrested and murdered its director in 1946.
During its head-spinning series of invasions over the last 200 years, Ukraine has produced compelling modern art.
The Ukrainian avant garde movement produced painting and sculpture during the era of Soviet censorship to exalt their national identity. The movement was led by artists like Alexander Archipenko, and Kazimir Malevich, the latter officially banned by Stalin from making art.
By contrast to those artists, the work of Maria Prymachenko (1907–1999) extolled the folk traditions of Ukraine: her bright colors and cheerful patterns celebrated Ukrainian identity without overtly contesting the Soviet regime.
Her works, salvaged last week from a fire caused by Russian bombing in her native region of Ivankiv, are growing into a global symbol for the call for peace.
One might wonder whether it makes sense to worry about these small remnants of an artistic tradition that has been decimated time and time again, but these works speak of a people whose very identity has been repeatedly challenged and yet through fracture and destruction has held together.
St. John Paul II emphasized the importance of art as a foundation of cultural identity. in his 2005 memoir, “Memory and Identity.”
Recalling his own experience in Poland, whose neighbors, he wrote, “have condemned [it] to death several times but which has survived and remained itself. It has kept its identity, and it has kept, in spite of partitions and foreign occupations, its national sovereignty, not by relying on the resources of physical power, but solely by relying on its culture.”
Ukraine’s culture is essential to the future of the nation, no matter the outcome of the invasion.
“A nation exists,” said Pope John Paul II to UNESCO in 1980, “‘through’ culture and ‘for’ culture, and it is therefore the great educator of men in order that they may ‘be more’ in the community.”
Ukraine’s ever-dwindling trove of art attests to John Paul II’s words.
Perhaps the most important work of art in Ukraine sits inside St. Sophia, the icon of the “unbreakable wall,” an 18-foot-tall mosaic of the Mother of God, hands raised in prayer. She has withstood centuries of raids, fires and bombing, unshaken and unharmed.
The inscription next to her is from Psalm 46: “God is in her midst and does not move.” She invites believers to invoke the Lord in this difficult hour, “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Elizabeth Lev is an art historian living in Rome. This article was originally published on The Pillar.