Four icons at the Khanenko Museum, Kyiv, Ukraine

The current events in Ukraine have endangered both human life and that nation’s significant cultural heritage. Key monuments, museums, and archives are on the verge of destruction due to the ongoing conflict. On February 28, 2022, for example, Russian forces set on fire the Museum of Local History in Ivankiv, destroying an outstanding collection of paintings by folk artist Maria Prymachenko. Some of the artist’s other works, thankfully, are still to be found in the collection of the National Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art in Kyiv. That institution is also under threat, as are other significant sites and museums in the city and surrounding areas.

Among those cultural treasures is the large collection of The Khanenko Museum — home to invaluable objects that span the history of art from antiquity to the modern era. The museum was established between 1918 and 1919 around the personal art collection of philanthropists Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko. Their private collection became a public institution in the early twentieth century, akin to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

In the heart of Kyiv, The Khanenko Museum is now the custodian of four icons that journeyed to Kyiv in the mid-nineteenth century from the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai in Egypt. The monastery, which dates to the sixth century and is one of the oldest Christian monastic communities in use to this day, has impressive holdings of religious objects and texts, as well as archives of thousands of documents. 

The four icons in question are:

  1. An icon of the Virgin and Child from the sixth century, executed using the encaustic painting technique on larch wood, with gold leaf used for the haloes of the figures.   
  2. An icon of Saint John the Baptist with busts of Christ and the Virgin Mary in roundels at the top. Dating to the sixth century, the icon was executed in the encaustic technique on beech wood.
  3. An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus with Christ’s visage in a roundel at the center. Dating to the seventh century, the icon was created using the encaustic painting technique on pine wood, with gold leaf reserved for the halos of the holy figures and key highlights of their garments and attributes.   
  4. An icon showing a male and female martyr, dated to the seventh century and executed using the encaustic painting technique on lime wood.

These four icons all pre-date the Iconoclastic period in Byzantium, during which the function of images in Christian worship was intensely debated. This controversy had wide religious, social, and political implications. The two key periods of Iconoclasm lasted from 726 to 787 and from 814 to 843. During this time, figural religious images were routinely destroyed. Icons were burned, and image cycles in churches were removed and replaced with Christian symbols, like the cross. The Church of Hagia Irene in Constantinople/Istanbul, for example, retains the large cross set up in the apse during the first Iconoclastic era.  

Few examples of icons survive from the pre-Iconoclastic period in the Eastern Christian cultural sphere. Like the icons now in Kyiv, the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai preserves several other examples dated to the sixth and seventh centuries. Most notable among them are the icon of Christ Patrokrator, the icon of the Virgin with Child among saints and angels, and the icon of Saint Peter. These examples share similarities in composition, technique, and details with the icons now in Kyiv. 

Icons at the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt

Thankfully, the digital files of these images are maintained in the Sinai Digital Archive (launched in 2018). This archive, which is regularly updated, makes available in Open Access the field notes and photographic material gathered during the so-called Michigan-Princeton-Alexandria expeditions to Sinai organized during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These efforts attempted to photograph and record the site and its impressive icons, manuscripts, and liturgical objects, preserving the material evidence and enabling its study in the wider scholarly community.  

So how did the four icons mentioned above journey from Sinai to Kyiv? It is known that Archimandrite Porphyrius Uspensky (1804-1885) took the icons from the monastery and brought them initially to the Ecclesiastic Academy of Kyiv, where they resided until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Then, they were moved to the Kyiv Central Antireligious Museum and finally transferred to The Khanenko Museum. 

Why these specific icons were removed from Sinai and brought to Kyiv remains open to speculation. This transfer could have coincided with the period in early 1865 (February 14) when Archimandrite Porphyrius was consecrated Bishop of Chigirin and appointed the first vicar of the Eparchy of Kyiv. He held this position under his former tutor from the seminary in Kostroma, Metropolitan Arseny (Moskvin). These early icons, thus, would have helped reestablish and legitimize a spiritual connection between Kyiv and Byzantium — a connection first established in the late tenth century with the conversion of Prince Vladimir the Great (r. 980-1015) to Eastern Orthodoxy. 

What is currently at stake is the fate of these important early Byzantine icons, along with the lives of the people of Ukraine and their cultural heritage. The images of these icons are preserved in the Sinai Digital Archive, the digital collection of The Khanenko Museum in Kyiv, and in other publications. These records are important in sustaining a memory of this heritage. The images of these icons, however, do not capture the physical aura of the work of art. One cannot fully grasp from images alone the size, dimensions, quality of materials, as well as the intricacy and details of the execution. Only the physical objects can reveal such nuances. The visual, physical, and spiritual power of the icon cannot be replicated in two dimensions.  

The Sinai icons now in Kyiv have already survived so much, including a critical period of destruction in Christian history during the Iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries. May we hope that they survive this moment of intense pain, suffering, and destruction as well!  

Alice Isabella Sullivan, Assistant Professor of Medieval Art and Architecture at Tufts University, is an award-winning author and co-founder of North of Byzantium.