Putin now orders return of Russia’s most precious icon to the church

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the handover of Russia’s most famous icon and work of art, Andrei Rublev’s 15th-century Trinity, from the State Tretyakov Gallery to the Russian Orthodox Church, raising fears among conservationists that the fragile artefact will be irrevocably damaged.

The move, following the weekend announcement that the Hermitage is returning to the church the sarcophagus of the medieval warrior saint Alexander Nevsky is widely seen as a gesture of thanks for Patriarch Kirill I’s vocal support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and as a sign of superstitious beliefs among Russia’s elites that the icon can bring battlefield victory. It also opens the door to a flood of restitution claims by the church based on a 2010 law allowing religious organisations to claim all property that had been seized by the Soviet state.

The icon, which depicts three angels visiting the Prophet Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, as described in the Book of Genesis, is regarded as one of the greatest visual representations of Trinitarian unity, and had been kept at the monastery until it was taken by the Soviet state. It was protected under order of Ivan the Terrible with a golden covering known as a “riza” that remained in place until 1904, leaving only the faces and hands of the angels visible. When the full icon was revealed it had a revolutionary impact on both art and spirituality, influencing the Russian avant-garde.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on 16 May about the Trinity’s transfer that formally it is “the prerogative of the ministry of culture” and “without a doubt was coordinated with the head of state.” The impending transfer was first reported on 15 May on the website of the Moscow Patriarchate as Putin’s “response to the numerous requests of Orthodox believers” for the return of “the wonder-working icon.”

In a thank-you letter to Putin posted on 17 May, Patriarch Kirill wrote: “During the era of persecution of the Church, many Orthodox shrines were destroyed by the enemies of God, and a significant part of the objects of our spiritual and cultural heritage ended up in museums, abroad or in private collections. It is deeply symbolic that the restoration of historical justice takes place in the fateful period of the existence of Russia as a state.”

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Patriarch Kirill has made numerous statements justifying Russia’s aggression and supporting its fighters, among them that military duty “washes away all sins” of soldiers.

The ministry’s press service confirmed that the icon would be transported to Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, the site of Pussy Riot’s 2012 “punk prayer” against Putin and Patriarch Kirill, in time for services marking Pentecost, which is celebrated this year by the Russian Orthodox Church on 4 June. It is to be followed, according to the ministry, by a “scheduled restoration” before being moved to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, a Unesco World Heritage site near Moscow. After the icon was taken there last summer, restorers reported 61 “significant changes” to its condition.

Experts warned that the Trinity might not survive being transported and kept in churches full of worshippers and candles. The art historian Aleksei Lidov told The Insider, an investigative publication: “All professional restorers unanimously say that the condition of the Trinity plaque is such that any movement of it, even for a short distance, is fraught with danger and the icon may simply [be destroyed].”

Andrei Kuraev, a dissident cleric who was defrocked by a church court in April wrote in a blog post that the icon was being mobilised for “the commander in chief” since “the situation on the front is close to panic”.

Elizaveta Likhacheva, appointed in March to head the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, is the only major Russian museum director to warn against moving the Trinity.

“It could simply be lost; it could disintegrate into several pieces. It consists of three plates that are not very securely attached to each other,” she told the official Tass news agency. “This icon has never been considered to be one that produced miracles. The Holy Trinity icon is Russia’s main contribution to Christian iconography, [and the main thing about it] is not its religious significance, but its importance for the field of art history.”

State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who had previously spoken out against the wholesale transfer of museum works to the church, has become a vocal supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and lauded the handover of the Nevsky sarcophagus.

Elena Pronicheva, who replaced Zelfira Tregulova as director of the Tretyakov in February and whose father had served as a top official of the Federal Security Service (FSB) under Putin, has not commented. The Tretyakov’s official Telegram social media channel reported on 17 May that the museum was awaiting official documents from the ministry on moving the icon.

Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov, who chairs the Patriarchal Commission on Culture and is reportedly close to Putin, told Tass that the sarcophagus and icon “will be stored according to the requirements that the Hermitage and the Tretyakov Gallery will present to us.”

A capsule for transporting the icon last year was reported to be substandard and experts say that ensuring the proper climate control and other conditions at such short notice was impossible.

Father Leonid Kalinin, a member of the patriarchal cultural commission, described the icon to Tass as “a kind of focus of our faith, it is a world shrine,” that in the hands of the church will strengthen “both our people, and our soldiers, and those who in Ukraine have not fallen away from God and from Orthodoxy.”

Russian media reported in April that when Putin visited troops in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, he had given them copies of an icon of Christ that had belonged to a 19th-century tsarist military commander. In early May, as Russia awaited the launch of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Tass reported that one of the icons was being taken around Russian military units.

Xenia Loutchenko, a religious affairs commentator who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine wrote in the Russian-language edition of The Moscow Times that superstitious officials are handing over the icon to the church with great expectations.

“The fact that the hierarchy was able to take possession of it, to break the longstanding resistance of the museum community by force, is evidence of power, a claim to a monopoly in the production of miracles; they are now especially expected from the Orthodox Church, as always happens in troubled times,” Loutchenko wrote.

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