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Angela Tilby: Icon is pawn in President Putin’s game

02 June 2023


Patriarch Kirill and President Putin on a tour of the Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow, in 2021

Patriarch Kirill and President Putin on a tour of the Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow, in 2021

PRESIDENT PUTIN, with the apparent agreement of the Russian Orthodox leadership, has decided to move the famous Rublev icon of the Trinity from the Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow, to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

This is a potentially hazardous procedure, which could expose the fragile icon to harmful changes of temperature and humidity. There have been protests from scholars and art conservators. Last summer, when the icon was briefly moved from the protection of the gallery to its original home, the Lavra of St Sergius, it came back with 61 signs of damage.

President Putin needs the moral and spiritual support of the Orthodox Church. It feeds his message that the military operation in Ukraine is part of a spiritual mission to confront the West with true Christianity. For him and many of his Christian supporters, this is the faith that came from Byzantium and was adopted by the Russian people on the orders of Prince Vladimir in the mass baptism of 998 in Kyiv. The baptism of Kievan Rus is the basis of Putin’s claim that the Russian and Ukrainian people are one, a major step towards the re-establishing the empire tragically lost, in Putin’s view, at the end of the Cold War.

The Trinity icon is the most celebrated of Russian works of art, and is well known in the West through the epic film made about its creation by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in 1966. The icon was even reproduced as an Athena print in the 1970s, when it found its way into British student bedrooms, mine included. For me, it was an inkling of a way of looking at the Trinity through a completely unfamiliar set of lenses: not the Western way of dogmatics, but by way of biblical typology. The three divine Persons are depicted as the angels who visited Abraham, their positions and the colours of their robes signifying their shared divinity and their particular personhood.

Perhaps it is not so extraordinary that President Putin should risk damaging this most precious artefact as part of his propaganda war. Look at the thousands upon thousands of Russian soldiers killed in the “meat grinder” of Ukraine, the indifference to civilian life, the contempt for opponents which has been expressed, the threats, the poisonings, the bodies mysteriously thrown off buildings.

There is an unattractive absolutism that runs through Russian history, an indifference to personal suffering, a constant valorisation of sacrifice. The Russian Church under Patriarch Kirill seems at ease with all this, condoning, if not colluding. But then it is always worth remembering that, even in the era of atheist Communism, links between the KGB and the Orthodox hierarchy were strong and well-established. Risking damage to Russia’s most valuable and precious icon goes along with that. As long as there is ultimate victory, who cares?

Read Sister Teresa FCJ’s article on Rublev’s icon here

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