ALONG THE ROAD INTO TOWN from the sleek new glass-sheathed terminal of Lviv International Airport, a finger-wagging Uncle Sam recruits residents for a high-end housing complex with the Cyrillic-lettered appeal, AMERICA AWAITS YOU. On other signs, long-legged models hugging pink pool inflatables remind you of the seemingly self-evident truth (in English) SHOPPING IS FUN. In the city center, the fin-de-siècle façade of the Theater of Opera and Ballet displays the banner of a local hotelier welcoming you to LUXURY IN THE HEART OF LVIV.
This Ukrainian metropolis of 730,000, located some forty-five miles from the country’s border with Poland, may not be the faux-western consumer paradise of its hard-selling advertisements, but it has certainly undergone an eye-popping makeover from the drab late-communist city I first visited in June 1990 as a Moscow-based correspondent chronicling the breakup of the Soviet empire. There are more types of beer now on the menu of the Pravda Beer Theatre microbrewery on Market Square (including a Trump blonde ale) than could be found then in all of Ukraine.
Such trendy watering holes in the Old Town draw tourists as well as techies from the over two hundred IT service companies (with cheeky names like GeeksForLess) that have turned Lviv into Ukraine’s Silicon Valley. Its architecture largely untouched by the world wars, this city of baroque churches is poised to become the new Prague for travelers seeking unspoiled destinations once behind the Iron Curtain. Visitors could easily forget Ukraine’s continuing conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic some 650 miles to the east, were it not for the toilet paper bearing Vladimir Putin’s portrait in souvenir-shop windows.
In this age of new freedoms, the church scene in Lviv is an especially varied mix of Roman Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyivan Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Apostolic Armenians, to say nothing of numerous Protestant and nondenominational faith communities. In the twenty-five years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, new sanctuaries, many looking quite literally like mushrooms, have sprung up in the once religion-free communist-era housing developments surrounding the historic city center.
Delineating the border between East and West may be something of a cliché of historiography, but if any place can claim to lie on this quasi-mystical line of demarcation, it is certainly Lviv, a city that has found itself more than once (under various names) on opposite sides of the great divide between the Latin culture of the West and the Byzantine culture of the East.
Founded in the thirteenth century by a prince of Kievan Rus’ who named the settlement after his son, Lev, it passed into Polish hands a century later as Lwow. When Poland was partitioned off the map of Europe in the late eighteenth century, Lwow was rechristened Lemberg, capital of the Austrian kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Tsarist Russian troops held Lemberg for less than a year at the beginning of World War I, and with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918, the city was fleetingly capital of a West Ukrainian People’s Republic until a newly restored Poland took it back. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lwow passed to the Soviet Union as the Russified Lvov under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and was then occupied by the Germans in 1941. The Red Army reentered the city in 1944, and Lvov was firmly fixed in the Soviet Empire for most of the next half-century. The city became Lviv after Ukraine declared independence in 1991.
The old Eastern Bloc penchant for renaming cities and thoroughfares has been taken to hilarious extremes by local cinema buffs, who have turned one unprepossessing Old Town side street into the junction of Hollywood and Cannes. What was probably the original metal sign identifies the roadway as Yuri Ilyenko Street, honoring a Soviet Ukrainian film director. Six other markers in different lettering and alphabets, attached higgledy-piggledy to the same corner building, also proclaim it be S. Parajanov Street, F. Fellini Street, Francois Truffaut Street, An. Tarkovsky Street, Charles Spencer Chaplin Street, and I. Bergman Street.
Despite the constant traffic through this cultural crossroads, Lviv has preserved enough striking examples of Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, Vienna secessionist, art nouveau, art deco, and early modernist architecture to earn its historic center a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but the diverse mix of peoples who gave this melting-pot metropolis its cosmopolitan flavor is gone. In 1939, Poles were the largest ethnic group in the city, with Jews representing a third of the population. Ukrainians made up a substantial minority along with smaller Armenian and German communities. The ethnic cleansings of Hitler and Stalin turned Lviv into a homogeneously Ukrainian city.
In front of the gutted remains of the late-sixteenth-century Golden Rose Synagogue, a row of irregular dark stone slabs etched with grainy photographs and quotations from onetime Jewish residents evokes a confining cityscape and a densely packed graveyard. Dedicated in 2016, the “Perpetuation” monument to Lviv’s annihilated Jewish community is a belated gesture of reconciliation by post-communist city officials. It comes at a time when the anti-Semitic, ultra-nationalist World War II leader Stepan Bandera, a onetime ally and later prisoner of the Nazis, has been lionized by the younger generation as a hero of the anti-Moscow underground, fighting for an independent Ukraine.
The only historical markers I can find of the almost 140,000 ethnic Poles forcibly “depatriated” from Lviv to former German territories in the West during the Soviet Union’s redrawing of boundaries after World War II are the hand-painted signs of former Polish shops whose black Latin lettering still bleeds through postwar whitewashings. Enjoying a more robust economy than those living on this side of the Stalin-imposed border, Poles on tourist excursions bump elbows in the narrow streets of the Old Town that was once theirs, shopping for cheap cigarettes to take home at the end of a day’s outing .
Ukrainians are also counted among the victims in the middle-European vale of sorrow running from the Baltic to the Black Seas. As many as ten million perished in the great Holodomor (death by hunger), a famine engineered by the Kremlin during its brutal campaign to collectivize farming in 1932 and ’33. A generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and artists was wiped out in the Stalinist years in what has come to be known as the Executed Renaissance. Soviet repression came later to Lviv, but most families in the city have stories to tell of a great-grandfather sent to Siberia for supporting anti-communist partisans or a great-uncle schoolteacher denounced for keeping a home library of Ukrainian literature.
Strings of white origami doves in a side aisle of the seventeenth-century Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church in the Old Town turn gently in the air above a makeshift memorial to those who gave their lives in what Ukrainians consider to be contemporary battles in their centuries-long struggle to break free of Russian domination. A poster of headshots honors the “Heavenly Hundred” protestors who died in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv that ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych. Pictures newly pulled from photo albums on another bulletin board remember soldiers killed in the bloody civil war in the eastern borderlands.
Past and present history press heavily on you in Lviv. I have to remind myself that I have come back to the city not as a journalist but as a collector of contemporary sacred art. I am in search of a new kind of icon I discovered while hunting for modern Madonnas on the internet. The website of the Iconart Contemporary Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv popped up, displaying intriguing new variations on traditional tempera-painted holy images. There were also sacred art pieces on unusual grounds like glass, found materials, and steel-and-copper-wire tapestry, all in an eclectic mix of abstract, neo-Byzantine, and Ukrainian folk art styles. A large number of artists in the listings were women.
Christ Ruler of All by Lviv artist Lyuba Yatskiv epitomized what was new in these icons [see Plate 8]. Frontal portraits of Christ, who offers a blessing with his right hand and holds the closed book of the Gospels in his left, can be found in thirteenth-century mosaics in the Hagia Sophia church museum in Istanbul and on modern icons in Orthodox homes. In Yatskiv’s distinctive variation, warm earth and fire tones replace the conventional palette of reds and blues. Christ still engages you with his eyes, but he is turned in three-quarter profile, his hair numinously wind-blown. The subtle changes invest the static prototype with palpable emotive energy.
Icons have long been the special patrimony of Eastern Orthodoxy, where they function in personal prayer and corporate worship as “windows into heaven,” material manifestations of the spiritual beings they depict. One fascinating recent development in ecumenism is the way icons have crossed over into Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other liturgical communities. Even emerging church groups have found a place for them in their selective borrowings from Christian tradition. Innovations in this sacred art form based on the copying of time-honored prototypes can only broaden their appeal for the universal church. This was something I wanted to see for myself.
A bit of research revealed that Iconart had begun as the thesis project of local businessman Kostyantyn Shumsky, who had enrolled in the business school of Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University to get an MBA degree after more than a decade in the clothing trade. Shumsky wanted to buy a contemporary Greek Catholic icon, found none to his liking, and consulted theologian and art historian Markiyan Filevych. They both saw the potential in opening a niche gallery devoted to modern sacred art, defined more broadly than traditional church images. The idea became a reality in 2010, when Iconart opened its doors with Shumsky as owner and Filevych as curator.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic connection was particularly interesting for me. My father was baptized in Saint Mary’s Greek Byzantine Catholic Church in Cambria City, Pennsylvania, in 1920, a first-generation American whose parents were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a heritage I share with Andy Warhol). We never really talked about that side of the family. Orphaned in his teens, my father was “born again” into fundamentalist Protestantism, married my Scottish Presbyterian mother, and raised me in Baptist Sunday schools. I must have sensed some call of the blood, since I came to journalism by way of Slavic languages and literatures.
Greek (Byzantine) Catholics straddle the East-West divide, claiming allegiance to the Holy See in Rome, while worshipping in the Orthodox way. The Ruthenian Uniate Church, as it was originally known, was born in the late sixteenth century out of political expediency, to shore up the threatened social standing of Orthodox bishops in Polish territories caught up in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Membership in this hybrid confessional group ultimately became a key marker of ethnic identity for stateless Slavs like my grandparents in borderlands ruled by Orthodox Russia or the Catholic nations of Poland, Austria, and Hungary.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholics were a special case. Stalin may have dismissed the pope for having no military divisions, but the Kremlin was suspicious of this “Latinized” Orthodox faith community in the west Ukrainian regions it annexed after World War II. It orchestrated a one-sided merger of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches in 1946 with Ukrainian property passing to the Moscow Patriarchate. The outlawed church managed to function underground for close to forty-five years, regaining its legal status only in 1989 in Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign to liberalize the Soviet system.
During a heroic half-century in hiding, priests and deacons of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church learned the tricks of spy craft to conceal their clandestine worship services. Firemen proved especially suitable candidates for ordination, since their work schedules afforded blocks of free time to study in secret seminaries. The church’s sacred art holdings had been confiscated, and aesthetic issues were not on the curriculum. As I would hear during my time in Lviv: “When you are struggling to keep an accident victim alive you don’t fuss over how they look.”
The rehabilitation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church sparked a conflict over confiscated property. Ground zero was Lviv’s landmark Saint George’s Cathedral, the mother church of Greek Catholics, reconsecrated by the Russian Orthodox. I had gotten an earful from an embittered band of Greek Catholic babushkas encamped in protest outside the church on my first visit to the city. It was returned to them. As the new majority faith in Lviv, Greek Catholics also took over historic Roman Catholic sanctuaries—once warehouses, state archives, and a museum of atheism—with Counter-Reformation decor not entirely suited to Orthodox worship.
Soon after arriving in Lviv, I wander into the former Bernardine Church, now the Church of Saint Andrew of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Order of Saint Basil. Saints, angels, and precariously perched putti struggle for cloud space in a trompe-l’oeil ceiling fresco of the kind you would expect in a baroque interior. Then, I spy something new and disturbingly out of place on a huge pilaster to the left of the altar: a framed, tri-color Saint Faustina Christ of Mercy reproduction print and, just below it, a white porcelain Madonna encircled by blue and yellow day-glo lights. The mass-market artifacts are in such appallingly bad taste I feel an odd compulsion to revisit them, like the scene of a horrible traffic accident.
Located a short walk from Market Square in the old Armenian quarter of Lviv, the two small storefront rooms of the Iconart gallery become my congenial home base for exploring the sacred art scene. Iconart is the primary venue in Lviv for the new style of iconography, having hosted close to ninety shows in eight years. Exhibitions like Unfading Flower: The Folk Tradition in Modern Iconography have combined the old and the new. Others are quirky and modern. The Light in the Darkness show invited visitors to view icons in a darkened room with flashlights. I have arrived just in time for the opening of the solo exhibit of Natalya Rusetska, one of the icon-makers whose works I have admired online.
I need answers, first about all the Latin Catholic kitsch art I see in Greek Catholic churches. Ivanka Krypyakevych-Dymyd, a contemporary icon-maker whose solo show launched the Iconart gallery, pours me a bracing glass of red wine (newly arrived in a plastic jug from Odessa) and goes off to find a family heirloom in her attic studio that will explain everything. The photo album she shows me once belonged to her grandfather, a priest in the underground church. It is filled with dozens of holy cards of first communions, good shepherds, and sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary in such a syrupy-sentimental, Saint-Sulpice style that I am relieved to see at least one bad reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.
For a faith community in hiding, these small-format, mass-produced religious images—passed from hand to hand, slipped into pockets, and concealed between book pages—filled in for lost icons and served as documents of baptisms and funerals. Krypyakevych-Dymyd was fortunate to have a Soviet-era art teacher who treated iconography as a historic school of art to be studied and reworked in drawing assignments. Such encounters with lost sacred imagery were rare in the underground years. Two generations of clandestine Greek Catholics entered freedom largely ignorant of their cultural heritage and emotionally bonded to bad art.
As I listen to Krypyakevych-Dymyd retell recent history, the epigraph to a favorite novel, E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, comes to mind: “Only connect.” A faith as rooted in tradition as Ukrainian Greek Catholicism cannot move forward without looking back to its past, but when historical ties have been as ruthlessly cut as they were in the Soviet period, the search for connecting links among the frayed loose ends can be done in a deliberate and selective way. Perhaps, contemporary Greek Catholics now have the rarest of all historical opportunities—a chance to recreate a different kind of sacred art for themselves. This must surely be the mission of the new iconographers.
I try out my theory in Iconart circles during my week in Lviv, experiencing again the kitchen-table conversation culture I had enjoyed as a Moscow journalist in the perestroika years, when impassioned debates on the future of reform were always fueled by food and drink. Talk is served up this time with stuffed cabbage and flavored vodka in an old monastery beer cellar, and with finger food and village moonshine at the backyard screening of photos from a local installation artist’s recent visit to the Venice Biennale. A few of my hosts insist, at first, on speaking broken English or Ukrainian in translation, but our lingua franca soon becomes Russian.
All agree that something must be done. “We are Catholic but not Roman, Orthodox but not Russian” seems to be the consensus view of where to set new sacred cultural boundaries. Some consider the fifteenth century to be the golden age of their inherited Byzantine tradition. Others think contemporary icon-makers should pay less attention to copy books and historical prototypes and work with the earliest Christian symbols of the catacombs. Taras Lozynsky, an art collector who paints icons on glass, talks about “going all the way back to the Gospels” to ensure that any new visual aesthetic is grounded in the Christian faith of its art-makers.
This is heady stuff for a visitor from a world where religious images are largely treated as fashion accessories, decorative but not essential to church life. I also need to be reminded that icons are not just beautiful objects for a collection. Trained as a watercolorist, iconographer Ulyana Tomkevych makes sacred images with a subtle, pleasing color palette, neither fifteenth-century nor ultramodern in style, incorporating details from Ukrainian folk art. Her rule of thumb in icon-making is whether she can pray before her finished pieces. “Icons fulfill a function,” she tells me. “You can design a beautiful chair but you have to be able to sit in it.”
Holy images in a uniform style line the walls of the art studio at the seminary campus of the Ukrainian Catholic University, where Solomia Tymo directs the Radruzh Icon Painting School. She explains how the chemical analysis of pigments in fifteenth-century icons has helped modern iconographers to revive a national style of sacred art-making characterized by bright colors and “the joy of Christian living.” Students work from photo enlargements of historic prototypes, beginning with studies of angels. Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a Vatican visitor interested in an icon. There is no need for me to ask Tymo what she thinks of holy images that can be recognized as the work of individual artists who sign their panels.
To learn about the new iconography, I go to the Lviv National Academy of Arts, making my way along dimly lit Soviet-era corridors with squeaking wooden slats to the sacral art department, where the director (and icon-maker), Roman Vasylyk, ushers me into a room filled floor to ceiling with year-end student art projects in an anything but standardized style. The six-year study program, begun in 1995, ensures that future sacred-art makers graduate with a hands-on knowledge of traditional icon painting with tempera on wood, life drawing and plein air painting, fresco and graffito work on plaster, encaustic painting, mosaics, stained glass, and iconostasis design.
The brother of a Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop, Vasylyk taught himself iconography and made antimins for the underground church out of silk printed with images of the descent from the cross. These consecrated panels of cloth served in place of altars in clandestine celebrations of the Eucharist. The work was so secret that he could not even tell his wife. Vasylyk and his onetime teacher, Ukrainian modernist Karlo Zvirynsky, recognized the crisis that would come for Greek Catholics in the visual arts once the church was legalized. They pushed the new sacral art project through the Kyiv bureaucracy, where leftover communist apparatchiki kept wondering why a religious art program was necessary “to learn how to draw heads.”
Vasylyk and I meet again at the Iconart gallery for the opening of the Rusetska solo show, where he has a few congratulatory words for this 2008 graduate of his department. In Agape: From Creation to Salvation, Rusetska depicts the first six days of creation on muted panels of geometric shapes and delicately sketched figurative forms. The seventh day is illustrated by an ethereally refined icon of Christ in glory, leading to imagery of the passion. The twinned themes of Christ as maker and redeemer of the universe come together in a crucifixion scene set among the wonders of creation [see Plate 10]. Her seemingly weightless images combine the intimate mark-making of manuscript miniatures with the abstract iconography of Polish modernist Jerzy Nowosielski [see Image issue 61].
Tram no. 8 takes me southeast from the city center to the Soviet-era residential district of Sykhiv in my search for a church building which by all accounts is the best example of new Greek Catholic architecture in Lviv. With its five gilded domes and pure-white walls, the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos stands out against a backdrop of matchbox-modernist housing blocks that are prime examples of how less is often just less. Canadian-Ukrainian architect Radoslav Zuk has combined variations on the egg, the cube, and the tube in an understated contemporary church design whose dimensions conform to the ancient golden ratio. Theology meets geometry in contours both strange and familiar [see Plate 12].
Iconographer Sviatoslav Vladyka waits by the entrance under a plaque commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit to the newly built church in 2001. He guides me through the wall paintings and mosaics he designed for the interior [see Plate 13]. Looking up at three tiers of images on the sanctuary walls—Christ and the angels, the apostles and prophets, and the festival days of the church calendar—I am enveloped in diffused light that is channeled down rectangular tower wells from slit windows and clerestories under the five domes. It reflects off countless golden tesserae in the mosaics of the apse and the ovoid-shaped cupolas. Their placement, Vladyka tells me, was calibrated with state-of-the-art computer imaging.
Behind the altar, Vladyka placed a red-and-gold mosaic of the Mother of God with hands raised in prayer, an homage to the eleventh-century Virgin Orans in the mother of all Ukrainian churches, the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv. His wall paintings in understated tones of gray, blue, coral, and gold are pure art deco in their streamlined forms, easy to read from ground level while remaining visually harmonious. The onetime student of the National Academy’s sacral art department reserves more radical holy imagery for individual icons like his minimalist King of Glory, where the features of the suffering Christ appear as a photonegative imprint on what might be a Kazimir Malevich geometric study in black, white, and red [see Plate 11].
Lyuba Yatskiv, the maker of the modern icon that brought me to Lviv, is now working on the interior decoration of the Holy Wisdom Church on the new campus of the Ukrainian Catholic University, another important commission for the new iconographers. We talk about the ancient theme of Sophia (Greek for wisdom) depicted in one of her icons in my collection [see Plate 9]. Holy Wisdom often takes feminine form in sacred art. In Yatskiv’s version, Sophia is a crowned angel with the features of a woman, encountering Christ at the Eucharistic table. For Yatskiv, the sacred pair embody the male and female dimensions of God, who, as creator of the cosmos made humans “in the image of God…male and female he created them.”
Yatskiv believes this is one icon “women will understand.” The high proportion of women in the Iconart listings led me to wonder if there might be a feminist school of iconography emerging in Lviv. There is certainly a gender gap in student enrollment in the National Academy’s sacral art department and Radruzh Icon Painting School, with women outnumbering men. The reason I am given has a decidedly patriarchal clang. Women follow sacred art “vocations,” while men pursue careers in digital design. The new freedom to develop individual styles and sign finished pieces has given women who were always anonymous icon-makers the chance to come out of the shadows and be recognized.
Innovations on historic prototypes, like Yatskiv’s Holy Wisdom icon, are welcome at the Iconart gallery, but not always so well received by conservative Greek Catholics who prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic kitsch. As a founding mother of the new iconography, Krypyakevych-Dymyd met head-on the first wave of hostility from post-underground faith communities who dismantled her icon screens because the images were considered too different, rejections she describes as “my wounds.” Acceptance is coming with time, but Yatskiv is criticized for her unconventional use of color and dynamic depictions of holy beings who, it is thought, ought to be presented as eternally unchanging.
I was not surprised to learn that Russian bloggers launched an internet attack against the Yatskiv icon of the Mother of God with prophets given by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Paris to Notre Dame Cathedral in 2013. It hangs side by side with a modern copy of the historic Virgin of Vladimir presented by Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church. One self-styled art critic claimed that in contrast to the serene Vladimir Virgin the “infernal” color palette and expressionistic manipulation of figures in the Ukrainian icon incited violence! While the battle of the Blessed Mothers may rage in cyberspace, the Yatskiv icon has already won acceptance by the people of Paris, as witnessed by the signs of wear from the touch of praying pilgrims.
Ivanka Demchuk, a promising twenty-something iconographer, and her husband, Arsen Bereza, who makes sacred art from found objects, stop by Iconart when I am there. Demchuk has brought a painted panel showing Christ before Pilate [see Plate 14]. It was supposed to be the first image in a Stations of the Cross cycle commissioned by a Roman Catholic community in Poland, but was rejected by the parish priest as “too Orthodox.” The painting is astonishing in its sense of transcendence. The mockers of Christ occupy a sepia-toned moment of sacred history, torn like a scroll to reveal the eternal whiteness of divine purpose underlying human affairs. Prejudice is alive and well, it seems, on both sides of the great divide. What is unwelcome in Warsaw will find a worthy place in my collection.
One person who can put art and religion in present day Lviv into proper perspective for me is Myroslav Marynovych, a Soviet-era human rights activist once sentenced to seven years of hard labor and the grandson of a Greek Catholic priest. Now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Marynovych believes the initial shock of freedom for the underground church was followed by a time of triumphalism, when post-communist civil liberties were viewed as a means of defending “us from them.” When the now toppled pro-Moscow government in Kyiv showed favoritism to the Russian Orthodox Church, other confessional groups rallied together in support of the Revolution of Dignity, realizing that religious pluralism protected the interests of all.
As we sip coffee in the new university campus cafeteria with its wall of windowpanes, I look out at the new Holy Wisdom Church in the inner courtyard, where Yatskiv is now working on the interior art. I wonder how she will get on. To my eyes, the building is a disappointing pastiche of traditional onion-domed Orthodox sanctuaries with a nod to rural Ukrainian wooden churches. Marynovych was a member of the committee that approved the final design. He tells me they began with a very modern concept. Once everyone in the group had removed all the features in the original plan they did not like, they ended with what he wryly terms “the golden mean of all our preferences.”
Marynovych compares the process of change in post-communist Ukraine to the biblical story of the wandering of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, where entry into the promised land was only granted to a generation that had not sojourned in Egypt. “We have passed twenty years,” he says, “and we have another twenty years ahead of us.” He wonders as the country draws closer to the European Union whether the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy are sufficiently prepared to give moral guidance in dealing with conflicting western values without resorting to the harsh, defensive rhetoric they are hearing these days from their brethren in the Russian Church.
Ukrainian Greek Catholics can claim one truly exceptional cleric to serve as a moral compass in changing times. The son of Polonized Ukrainian aristocrats, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky guided the church for over forty years, through two World Wars and the Soviet and German occupations, dying after the Red Army entered Lviv for the second time in 1944. Drawing on his family wealth, the metropolitan founded a health clinic and hospital, a land mortgage bank, rural cultural education societies, and a museum and art school, enough accomplishments to fill a delightful A to я Sheptytsky alphabet book for Ukrainian schoolchildren.
Sheptytsky has one blot on his record. In the opening days of the Nazi invasion of 1941, he welcomed the Germans as liberators from the Soviets, who had slaughtered over four thousand political prisoners before abandoning Lviv. The metropolitan reversed his position when the new reign of terror began, pleading on behalf of Galicia’s Jews in letters to Hitler and Himmler and forbidding Greek Catholics to commit political murder in his 1942 pastoral epistle, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” With his brother Klementy, a Greek Catholic monk, Sheptytsky found safe havens for Jews in churches and monasteries. Klementy is counted with the “Righteous Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial; Andrey is not.
Pope Francis issued a “decree of heroic virtue” for Sheptytsky in 2015, opening his path to sainthood. In the words of Bishop Borys Gudziak, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparch of Paris, Sheptytsky lived in a house of the Lord with “a high roof, open doors, and open windows”—and plenty of art on the walls to inspire the new iconographers. He not only gathered together the icons, dating back to the twelfth century, that make up the core of the Ukrainian liturgical art collection at the Lviv National Museum, he also provided financial support for leading artists of his time, including the fin-de-siècle Viennese stylist Modest Sosenko; the art nouveau–influenced Petro Kholodny; the symbolist and Nabis disciple Oleksa Novakivsky; and Mykhailo Boichuk, a modernist, neo-Byzantine painter murdered in the Executed Renaissance.
The metropolitan is still a vital presence in Lviv’s art scene, peering out magisterially from a banner near Saint George’s Cathedral, announcing the plein air children’s art festival, Golden Easel: In the Footsteps of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. Over a hundred art-makers, aged under eighteen, gathered in the summer of 2017 in Lviv for what organizers described as a “monumental painting-praying” event. Each youth contributed an image to a canvas mural on the theme “Art Wave of Peace,” extending down a slope from the church to the city center. There are plenty of aspiring new iconographers among the youthful painters, judging from all the Madonnas, angels, churches, and religious processions I see. Such a public display of sacred imagery would provoke lawsuits in the US!
Seeking the assistance of saints through prayer with holy images comes naturally to Ukrainian Greek Catholics. I feel awkward at first when Krypyakevych-Dymyd tells me that as the son of a baptized Byzantine Catholic I should find myself an intercessor to help in my mission of collecting and promoting contemporary sacred art. Who, she says, could be a better mentor than the now Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky? On impulse, I cross some inner East-West border of my own and ask her to make me an icon of the metropolitan. Before I leave Lviv, we meet to look over sketches she has made from photos of Sheptytsky. Now I am committed.
Ukrainian Greek Catholics often feel impatient with the Vatican’s slow process of making saints. Soon after Pope John Paul II was canonized, sacral art department director Vasylyk made an icon of the pope, bordered by portraits of twenty-six Greek Catholics who gave their lives for the faith in the modern era, all beatified by the Polish pontiff on his 2001 visit. I was intrigued to learn that Vasylyk’s students are taught how to create icon-like images from live models. Ukrainian soldiers and the Heavenly Hundred protesters have already been incorporated into an icon above the altar in the Greek Catholic chapel of the Protection of the Mother of God where the owner of the Iconart gallery worships.
In this city that has passed between the powers-that-were seven times in recent history, there is a sign posted above an information board outside my favorite Catholic kitsch art church, where a map shows Russian tank and troop positions in the eastern war zone. The text, in Ukrainian and English on a blue-yellow background, reads: Pray for Ukraine. The urgent appeal for divine help resonates among all Ukrainian Greek Catholics (and their God-fearing friends), whether they seek the intercession of the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky through a contemporary icon, Saint George the Dragon Slayer through a copy of a fifteenth-century original, or the Virgin Mary through a day-glo-light-encircled ceramic statuette. They have more than enough modern martyrs to remember.
More contemporary Ukrainian icons are on the Iconart website: www.iconart.com.ua
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.