The ignorance of clergy disfigured an architectural masterpiece of national importance – the Saint Nicholas Monastery in Myltsi, Volyn region
A young woman in orange clothes tenderly and proudly holds a baby in her lap: Virgin Mary is presenting the Son of God to the world. This is a 16th-century fresco, tempera on lime plaster. Canonically, it is called the “Mother of God Holding the Baby” or “Mother of God on the Throne.” It has never been restored and appeals to us from the heart of the Middle Ages, and through it also our ancestors who sought its protection and eventually built this monastery in the middle of forests and marshes. They were highly skilled architects. For example, the window in the central apse is situated so that rays of sunlight entering it in December, on Saint Nicholas Day, cross the altar exactly in the middle making the cross shine and glitter.
AUTHENTIC UKRAINIAN GOTHIC ART
“We stumbled upon this fresco quite accidentally when we were studying the building in 1991 and 92,” says Yevhen Osadchy, architect and restorer in the Kyiv-based UkrNDIproektrestavratsia institute. “The icon of the Mother of God was hiding in a niche above the altar. It was bricked over, most likely in the early 18th century when this monastery, previously Orthodox, became the property of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1839, when the tsarist government banned the church in these lands, all authentic 16th-century murals in the Saint Nicholas Church were destroyed on the erroneous conviction that they were Greek Orthodox heritage. The ignorant clergy were not aware of the niche where this unique icon was, and so it survived to our day.”
The appearance of the monastery has changed several times in the course of its existence, but the edifice did not undergo any major reconstruction. The 16th-century Saint Nicholas Church remained intact, and it can be considered a true pearl of Ukrainian sacral architecture. Also preserved were a 19th-century belfry, two buildings with monastic cells (18th and 19th century) and the Transfiguration Church that united them. However, with the arrival of the Soviets virtually all of the Myltsi Monastery was barbarously defaced.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, as scientists studied the Saint Nicholas Church, they found that it was nearly the only case in which there was information about the church’s authentic look. In other words, they were able to say with 100% certainty that the 16th-century church was exactly the same as its restored model with its refined proportions of façades and interior forms intact. The remains of the chancel screen were also found at the time. The restorers were stunned by the surviving parts of murals in the apse: tempera frescoes in the ancient Rus’ tradition; saturated, vibrant colors – indigo, purple, emerald green, etc. Even the façade had fragments of a colored frieze in the form of a Renaissance-era “diamond” rustic work: it gave an illusion of volume through a geometric pattern of alternating blue and red. All of this created not the ascetic atmosphere of a Western European medieval church or the oppressive gloom of a modern provincial Orthodox church decorated by amateurish icon painters, but a life-asserting, multicolored environment. It reflected the worldview of a spiritually free man. Buildings as costly as the Saint Nicholas Church were not a common thing. Architecturally, it can be called Ukrainian Gothic, a style that absorbed the best achievements of medieval architecture.
"DISNEYLAND" IN A MONASTERY
In the early 1990s, UkrNDIproektrestavratsia was commissioned by the Volyn Region Directorate for City Planning and Architecture to develop a draft reconstruction plan for the Saint Nicholas Monastery. “Everything was ready to start a scientific restoration: we planned to restore the battle entrance with narrow loopholes and restore the top, because in Soviet times the communists pulled down the tholobate of the dome with a tractor. We sometimes have doubts, but not this time: we took down the roof and found an ancient drawing, right on the mortar, showing the plan of the ruined dome,” Osadchy recalls. “We even had an agreement with a local brickworks to have curved brick ready. But all of this was never to happen. It was the end of perestroika. The state handed over the monastery to the church and renounced any commitments to finance and control the construction work.”
Subsequently, the Moscow Patriarchate began building on the monastery’s territory at its own discretion, without involving specialists and failed to grasp the difference between scientific restoration and what they were doing. As a result of unprofessional remodelling, they both failed to restore the parts ruined under the Soviets and destroyed unique architectural details like the curved brick profiles of the windows, rustic works and fragments of authentic frescoes. “Now the Saint Nicholas Church can hardly be viewed as an architectural monument because it has been so horribly defaced,” Osadchy says. “We call it ‘romantic delirium’. In fact, it is reminiscent of Disneyland. To restore the original look, we would now have to peel off and take down all the things the priests have put up.”
“So an architectural monument of national importance which belongs to the people of Ukraine is now handled by someone who is not under any control, while the state is not a bit concerned. It’s like giving an ancient ornamental breastplate to a plumber and telling him to fix it up,” adds Mykola Tomchuk, former head of the Directorate for Architecture Protection and Restoration and now deputy chief architect in the Volyn region. “There are also pseudo-donors and local council members with the mentalities of barbarians who somehow obtain government financing, and do things like install sub-floor heating in a church. There is not one architectural monument in the Volyn region now where scientific restoration work is in progress.”
There is little chance anyone will take proper care of the nation's architectural treasures any time soon. On one hand, the state will not provide financing or supervision for scientific restoration, and on the other, there will be no occupants to maintain the restored buildings. Therefore, the only way to salvage church buildings is to reinstate the mandatory position of an eparchial architect who would take professional care of church buildings in a given eparchy. This is how such matters were handled before the October revolution in 1917.
THE MYLTSI MONASTERY
The Saint Nicholas Monastery by the Turia River was founded by the Sanguzhko family in the mid-15th century and took care of it throughout the 16th century. In 1707, it became the property of the Greek Orthodox Church, switching hands again in 1839 when it went to the Russian Orthodox Church. After the Second World War, its land was used for a nursing home, and the Saint Nicholas Church was turned into a canteen. The dome was ruined, and the entire upper part of the church building was defaced. After reconstruction, the monastery was given to the Moscow Patriarchate, and now 20 monks live there.
Viktor Vechersky, first deputy head of the State Service for National Cultural Heritage:
The state can have a real influence on the way restoration work is done only if it provides financing. If, however, it shows itself unable to finance the restoration of a specific building, religious organizations collect money wherever they can and do everything on their own. Take, for example, the Kyiv Cave Monastery. What the clergy did there 10 years ago is starting to fall apart now, and they have only now come to the realization that they should go about it in a scientific way rather than simply as they see fit. Our leverage includes legal provisions, appeals to the Prosecutor’s Office, and so on. We have not received any complaints from the local bodies that would have architectural monuments in their care with regard to Myltsi. Everyone is afraid to get involved in a confrontation with the clergy.
“MODERN-STYLE REMODELLING” INSTEAD OF SCIENTIFIC RESTORATION
Ukrainehas a law on the protection of [architectural] monuments and is signatory to countless international treaties regarding their preservation. The state has assumed specific commitments but fails to provide financing, so things are in miserable condition. No one is against it, everyone is for it, but nothing is being done. There is some movement, but only when something falls down or burns up. Otherwise, what they do instead of scientific restoration is “modern-style remodelling”: they essentially ruin what has survived through the years. UkrNDIproektrestavratsia is Ukraine’s chief institute [in this area], but we receive virtually no commissions now: no-one is ready to pay for truly scientific restoration. Even when there are projects, we cannot control the way work is done – we are not invited to provide supervision. This year our institute scaled down to one working day per week in order to keep our unique staff together in at least some manner. We had some small orders later, so we switched to three working days, but I don’t know what lies ahead. I see no prospects at all; it is a real disaster.
NO GUIDING BEACONS
Oleksandr Kashchenko, dean, Faculty of Architecture, Kyiv National Construction and Architecture University:
Regarding contemporary sacral architecture, I have the impression that it is nonexistent in Ukraine. The first reason is the absence of the concept of style and, hence, its development. Also lacking are concepts of the contemporary and the national. Our historians still cannot agree on how Ukraine’s architecture took shape and what influences it experienced. This determines where we go in the future; it’s the impetus, the forecast. The second reason is that unfortunately clients and investors, who typically lack any specialized knowledge or aesthetic taste, dictate what they want – just like everything was dictated by the party’s ideology before. So what we see all around us, and not only in sacral architecture, are poor copies.