The golden age of belarusian icon painting. the 17th century

The golden age of belarusian icon painting. the 17th century

The National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus Main building

The sacred artistic heritage of the 17th century is Belarusian icons displayed for the first time in such a major exhibition project.

More than 120 works are from four Belarusian museums such as the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, the Museum of Ancient Belarusian Culture of the Center for Research of Belarusian Culture, Language and Literature of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus and the Mahilioŭ Regional Museum of Local Lore named after E. R. Romanov. There are well-known masterpieces, as well as a significant number of icons previously unknown to viewers. They are icons which have been recently cleared of inscriptions by Belarusian restorers, and icons under restoration, as well as fragments of monuments. All of this is very important for the exhibition because they reveal its conceptual idea. These icons say about the development of a new style in Belarusian icon painting throughout the 17th century. The new artistic style appeared as a result of the reformation of the post-Byzantine artistic tradition common for Belarusian and Ukrainian icon painting of the past centuries. The rethinking of icon-painting canon on the basis of a new Renaissance worldview arose as a result of the local icon-painting tradition combined with formal borrowings from European, primarily German altar painting of the 17th century.

Belarusian icon painters created icons for Orthodox and Uniate churches in the 17th century. The displayed works definitely show that there were no differences between Orthodox and Uniate icons in Belarus in the 17th century. The spiritual wealth and artistic perfection of Belarusian icons were based on the efforts of all Belarusian art centers, Orthodox and Uniate monasteries, churches of Brest, Pinsk, Dzisna, Druja, Mahilioŭ, Sluсk and David-Haradok, as well as the efforts of Belarusian theologists, talented icon painters and anonymous masters. This gives reason to consider the 17th century Belarusian icons as one of the remarkable acquisitions for the Belarusian artistic heritage. It was the Belarusians’ contribution to the world cultural treasure. The 17th century became the ‘golden age’ of Belarusian literature, printing, arts, and, of course, icon painting.

The exhibition organizers wanted to present the diversity and originality of Belarusian icon painting. They tried to make the exposition closer to the church space in which large church icons existed. The canonical structure of icons in churches was based on the Eastern Christian Church over the centuries. It reached its full flowering in the 17th century. There was the system of many-tier iconostases, equally important both for Orthodox and Uniate churches. In this regard, the exhibition widely presents the memorial and church icons of the Veneration tier of the lost iconostases.

The two important icons of the Veneration tier are the image of Christ the Savior and the icon of the Mother of God with the Child. There were the royal doors between these two icons.

The features of the deesis (apostolic) tiers of the iconostasis in Belarusian churches in the 17th century are seen in some surviving fragments of full-height icons of the apostles.

The icons of the Feasts tier are rare preserved icons dedicated to important Christian holidays. These small icons come from the churches of Brest, Sluck and Mahilioŭ. The Feasts tier preserved icons of the Belarusian iconostasis is a complex of the Feasts icons (24 pieces) from the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Šarašova (the north-west of Brest Region). The study of archival documents and stylistic analysis made it possible to date the Šarašova iconostasis from the last quarter of the 17th – the first quarter of the 18th century. With icon restoration and scientific research, the previously adopted dating of a number of other icons was also changed. The four museums which took part in the exhibition collected and displayed the works from the same church, and they were made by the same master. They were brought to different churches in the following centuries. They became a part of collections in different museums later.

The exhibition has four sections. The first section introduces the genesis and evolution of the Belarusian icon painting style in the 17th century, and also the variation of types of Belarusian icons. A number of 16th-century icons from Brest Paliessie and Galicia start the exposition in order to demonstrate some important stylistic changes that took place in the Belarusian icon painting at the turn of the 16th–17th centuries.

The next exhibition section (the second hall) introduces the heritage of Mahilioŭ and Sluck as the most significant Belarusian art centers in the 17th century. The artistic heritage of Sluck is special with the original iconographic type and high mastery of icons. The earlier icons of the early – the first third of the 17th century demonstrate the new Renaissance style for Belarusian icon painting. They were made in Sluck. The earlier pieces of Mahilioŭ icon painting have not been preserved. The Mahilioŭ icons of the mid – the late 17th century demonstrate some hallmarks of Mahilioŭ icon painters’ style and their high skills in painting. The icons of Mścisláŭ-Kryčaŭ Region, (the east of Belarus) are also close to Mahilioŭ icon painting.

The third hall displays the icons of Brest, Paharyńnie and David-Haradok. The icons by ‘Malaryta’ master, one of the leading icon painters in Brest in the mid-17th century, are exhibited here. He created a large number of icons for Brest churches, for Orthodox Brest monasteries, for many churches of Brest Paliessie and Volynia. The Brest (Malaryta) master created the icon ‘Holy Protection’ in 1649. It is made in honor of Athanasius of Brest, the holy martyr of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. There are some works by another talented and unknown master in the same showroom. He is called ‘Ruchča’ or ‘Stolin master’ who worked in the 1640s.

The final exhibition section is devoted to the icons of the last third of the 17th century, and to the revival of Belarusian icon painting stopped by the Cossack wars, the Moscow and Swedish invasions. The masters of Šarašova iconostasis carefully preserve the icon painting tradition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Belarusian and Ukrainian lands in the second quarter of the 17th century. The heritage of Pinsk includes the works by master Georgius. His icons of the Savior and Odigitria are similar to portrait painting. The complex of icons displays the iconostasis of the Western Paliessie Church in the late 17th – early 18th centuries. It describes some features of the icon painting in David-Haradok and Stolin Regions. These icons are different with simplicity and graphic linearity with the lapidary power of an expressive image.

The exposition is completed by five icons of the iconostasis from the Dormition Church in the Žyrovičy Monastery. They were made by an unknown Vilna or Gdansk master in the last quarter of the 17th century. There is the icon-painting tradition of the Eastern Christian Church combined with Catholic altar painting traditions in his creativities. The Žyrovičy iconostasis icons are extremely important for the history of Belarusian art. They are in the museum collection with the blessing of the Exarch of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan of Minsk and Sluck Filaret (1935–2021). The exposition is dedicated to his blessed memory.

The exhibition is prepared by the Ancient Belarusian Art Department. Aliena Karpienka and Liubou Sysojeva are the exhibition curators.

Its idea, scientific and artistic concepts are by Juryj Piskun.