By Nazar Kozak | National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine
The 17th-century iconostasis from the church of the Dormition of the Mother of God in Lviv has an eventful and complex history. In 1616, the Lviv Stavropigiia Brotherhood, the most prominent Ruthenian Orthodox layman organization in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, provided finances to Fedir Senkovych (? –1631), a renowned Lviv icon painter who worked both for Orthodox and Latin donors, to paint icons for the Dormition church. Unfortunately, the artist's house and workshop were destroyed by fire in 1623, and probably the initial set of icons was destroyed then, too. Senkovych had to restart his project from scratch. The work was completed by the year 1630 when the iconostasis was assembled inside the church. Yet again, soon after the installation, lightning hit the iconstasis through the window and all the icons were blackened. The restoration was carried out by Senkovych’s students and helpers apparently without any participation from the master, who died the following year. In 1637–38, the most prominent of Senkovych’s students and his successor as the workshop leader and owner Mykola Petrakhnovych Morokhovsky (ca. 1600– after 1666), supplemented the initial structure with an additional set of images.
In the next century, the new church authorities decided to replace the “high” iconostasis painted by Senkovych and Petrakhnovych Morokhovsky with a lower and more “transparent” templon. Thus, in 1767, the iconostasis was sold to the nearby village of Velyki Hrybovychi. The major part of the iconostasis is still there, awaiting the much needed restoration. The Passions scenes, however, remained in the Dormition Church in Lviv. They were rearranged into two vertical sets and hung near the edges of the sanctuary’s wall. Several icons from the iconostasis also found their way into museum collections. For instance, the images of St. John Chrysostomos and St. Basil the Great are now exhibited in Andrei Sheptytskyi National Museum in Lviv.
As proposed reconstructions of the iconostasis suggest, it consisted of five tiers. The lower or the so-called namisnyi (sovereign) tier featured the icons of Christ Pantokrator and the Virgin Hodegetria, as well as the Nativity and the Dormition of the Mother of God. This set of four icons was interrupted by three doors lavishly adorned with floral ornaments and miniature icons depictihng the scene of Annunciation and figures of four Evangelists. The next two tiers featured two sets of icons illustrating the main feast of the Christian calendar and the Passions of Christ correspondingly. The largest tier of the iconostasis — the so-called Deësis — included the full-scale images of the twelve Apostles headed by the images of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist next to the central figure of Christ. Above the Apostles, one can still see medallions with the images of Old Testament Prophets. The iconostasis was topped by a Crucifixion consisting of cutout figures of Christ on the cross, the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, John the Evangelist, and St. Longinus. If Senkovych has painted icons for the three tiers — the sovereign, the Feasts, and the Prophets — Petrakhnovych Morokhovsky supplemented these with two additional tries of the Passions and the Deësis, which were placed above the Feasts and below the Prophets.
The iconostasis from the Dormition church offers several interesting puzzles to be solved. First, since it was disassembled and displaced and its icons are distributed between different locations, debates have arisen over its original layout. Although scholars were consonant about the arrangement of the icons between the tiers, the exact placement of some individual icons on each of the tiers remains doubtful. Another problem is identification of authorship. The majority of the icons are preserved under layers of later overpainting, so their restoration could bring a more nuanced understanding of how the work was distributed between Senkovych and Petraknovych. Finally, besides these connoisseurship issues, the iconostasis is also important from the standpoint of social art history given the complexity of the context in which it was created.
As the central element in the decoration of the main church of the Lviv Orthodox Eparchy, this iconostasis was important not just for liturgical use but for its ideological significance related to the process of confessionalization that was taking place in the region in the 16th and the 17th centuries. It was an era of polemical literature, of acute conflict over questions of Faith. After the Union of Brest in 1596, the Kyivan Metropolitanate broke away from the Patriarchate of Constantinople and united with the See of Rome. The Eparchy of Lviv was one of those few Kyivan church's units that rejected the Union of Brest. This put it at the forefront of the struggle for its confessional identity against the power of the Uniat Metropolitan and the Polish-Lithuania authorities. The Lviv Stavropigiia Brotherhood fostered this struggle by all possible means including visual arts. The Dormition church and its iconostasis became a central project that was carried through decades as a way to reassert Orthodoxy into the Latin-dominated landscape of Lviv. To achieve this, they needed to win a competition with the art of the Latins.
Contemporaries characterized Senkovych's manner of icon-painting as “tender,” meaning a special sensuality of his images produced by an innovative combination of tempera with oil painting as well as Byzantine iconography with an increased three-dimensionality of human bodies. Petrachnovych Morohowsky went even further borrowing the compositional layouts for his Passion scenes from the engravings of a Wierix family (active in the late 16th and early 17th centuries) and informing the images of the Apostles with a deep physiological characterization reminiscent of the Renaissance and Mannerist paintings.
Seen through the lens of the contemporary religious controversy, this new eclectic style of the iconostasis brought together Byzantine and Western elements, emerging as a way for donors and artist to reinvent Orthodox art in the early modern contemporaneity complicated by the need for flexibility in the face of religious and political controversies. This new stylistic trend had not begun with this iconostasis from the Dormition church in Lviv, but that iconostasis became its major achievement and a model for later major artworks in the region of the Ruthenian Galicia such as iconostases in the St. Paraskevy church in Lviv (ca. 1645), the Holy Spirit Church in Rohatyn (ca. 1650), and many others.
Miliaeva, Lada and Maria Helytovych. The Ukrainian Icon of the 11th-18th Centuries. Kyiv: Derzhavni Zibrannia Ukrainy, 2007.
Although the iconostasis is just one of the many artworks discussed in this book, this is the most expanded discussion of it in English that summarizes the main debates about its structure and its place in the regional artistic milieu.
Gębarowicz,Mieczysław. Najstarszy ikonostas cerkwi wołoskiej we Lwowie. Dzieje zabytku oraz jego znaczenie w rozwoju malarstwa cerkiewnego i sztuki ukraińskie. W opracowaniu Agnieszki Gronek. Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Ossolineum, 2016.
This monograph presents the most comprehensive description of the iconostasis history, its layout, and the manner of its artists. Although written in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, it was published only recently in Poland.
This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.