Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lviv and church art, Ukraine, summer 2006

Ukraine is a country with a weird problem: Russians. No that's not fair. Ukraine is a country split down the middle. In its eastern half, everyone speaks Russian. In its western half, everyone speaks Ukrainian. Should the country be European or Russian? It's a big question, as exhibited by that famous Orange Revolution.

The city of Lviv has been known as L'vov, Lwow, and Lemberg in its history, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and German. Lviv is the big city in the far west of the country, having even been part of Poland before the Second World War, and is sometimes called Ukraine's Western Capital. Everyone speaks Ukrainian there, which was strange for us, because Russian is quite commonplace in Kyiv, is the overly dominant language in Crimea, was the defacto common language of the Camp, and is the one of the two languages that Dick speaks. When Yulian gave sermons at Camp, Dick had to guess at the meaning, because Yulian is from Lviv and only speaks Ukrainian.

We went to Lviv for a day, by train of course, with Vera and Tanya, who had never been to Lviv themselves. Yulian met us at the train station, later rendezvousing with his mother, who then proceeded to give us a tour of the city. Yulian's mom was really happy to have foreigners to take around and show her city to, and was probably more excited about the whole thing than we were at some points. Her narration was delivered in Ukrainian, and Yulian would translate into broken-English, or Dick would guess at the meaning, or maybe Vera and Tanya would do some Ukrainian->Russian translation and then Dick would translate to English. I'm not sure which of those methods took place, but we got the basic information well enough.

Yulian's mom took us to a lot of churches. I mean, yes, we saw the Opera House, and, for some unknown reason, a pharmaceutical museum, but I mostly just remember churches. Ukraine is, as you might expect, mostly East Orthodox. They actually have two rival churches, one loyal to the Moscow Patriarch, and one not, and it only gets messier from there. Yulian himself is a deacon, at least I think that's what you might call a priest-in-training, in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As best as I understand, the "Ukrainian" means that it's centered in Ukraine, and "Greek Catholic" means that it's in full communion with the Pope (You know, the Bishop of Rome) but with Eastern style rites, not Western like most Catholic Churches. It's quite the mouthful of a name.

Anyway, the first church we saw was St. George's Cathedral, a very important church in the UGCC (as Wikipedia so handily abbreviates it). Architecturally and art-wise it was a bit much for my tastes, with a lot of gold and stuff, but that's often the way it goes over there. Inside they have one of the few official copies of the Shroud of Turin, so that was cool to see, whether or not I'm convinced on the Shroud's authenticity, which I sometimes am. I do not know what order we saw things after that. We saw the exterior of another big Catholic church, which had a plaque in Latin, Ukrainian and Polish commemorating when Pope John Paul II came and visited. We went to an Orthodox church which, instead of having lots of fancy carvings, had been painted to look as if it had fancy carvings everywhere. We also saw an Armenian church, whose murals, while all over every possible surface as in other churches, were noticeably darker than others we had seen. Adding to this the Protestant church in Kyiv, the Lavra, St. Andrew's, the really old church in Kyiv, the little chapel on the mountainside on the way back from Yalta, the big one in Sevastopol by the Roman ruins of Chersonesos and the Protestant church meeting in the former-Soviet-school in Sevastopol, and I think it can be said that we saw a lot of churches in Ukraine.

Orthodox churches have a lot of thin candles on circular wooden holders, and people light these as they pray. Sometimes they require pants for men, skirts and head-coverings for women, and sometimes they don't. They seem to understand that tourists want to see these things, so they tolerate us, but they don't let you take pictures. This makes me sad, even though I guess I understand, because the art is beautiful. Adding the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, and a monastery near Melnik (but not the really famous one), both in Bulgaria, and I've seen quite a lot of Eastern-style Church Art, and I am thankful. This is an art that never went through the Renaissance, so even though the artists, at least at the rebuilt and restored cathedrals, probably know how to paint photo-realistically, they do not. Common things to paint included the Trinity, the Apostles, the Gospel Writers, Archangels, and Seraphim. God the Father was depicted as a stern looking old man with a tremendous white beard. God the Son, Jesus, sometimes had his cross with him. God the Spirit was generally shown as a dove, I think. Sometimes the gospel writers had their traditional symbols with them, sometimes not. My favorite was the Seraphim, shown as six magnificent wings, two stretched upwards, two inward over the center of the hidden figure, two downwards over the hidden feet, and sometimes a face might peek out. I am sure I am not going to be able to convey this fully, but entering a church and seeing all these things painted on the ceiling and walls is incredible. I am definitely against the veneration of icons, because I fail to grasp how that isn't worship and thus idolatry, but at the same time I can see how the beauty of these paintings surrounding you reminds you of the beauty and majesty of God.

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