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Louvre museum exhibits icons from Ukraine

Sabine Oelze
June 15, 2023

Sixteen Byzantine icons were evacuated from a Ukrainian museum under fire. They are among the most precious works in art history. Five of them are now on display at the Louvre in Paris.

Greek icon painting shows Saint Serge and Saint Bacchus.
A 6th-7th century iconographic representation of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai (Egypt)Image: Bohdan und Varvara Khanenko/Louvre/dpa/picture alliance

A new exhibition in the Parisian Louvre museum called "The Origins of the Sacred Image" will showcase five of 16 works that were rescued from war-torn Ukraine: four icons from the 6th and 7th century — encaustic paintings on wood from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt — and one micro-mosaic icon from the late 13th or early 14th century from Constantinople, with a lavish gold frame.

Icons are portraits of holy persons in the Christian Orthodox faith. They are predominantly found in Eastern European churches. The oldest surviving examples date from the 6th-7th centuries, such as the icons that will be on display in the Louvre museum. They are considered major milestones in the history of art.

"Since the start of the war, like other museums, we have been concerned to see how we can support our Ukrainian colleagues. In the autumn, faced with the intensity of the conflict, we decided to carry out this rescue," Louvre president Laurence des Cars told press agency AFP. "It's not much in a sea of sadness and desolation, but it's a symbol," she added.

She said the Louvre was particularly concerned by the risk of theft and illicit trafficking that could have affected artworks and relics if they had stayed in Ukraine. 

Iconografic depiction of a saint with a golden frame
Micro-mosaic icon: An extraordinary technique developed by workshops in Constantinople in the second half of the 12th centuryImage: musée Khanenko

Rescued icons are scientifically studied

Eleven other works, "among the most emblematic and most fragile" from the Ukrainian collection, will be housed in the Louvre's reserves "until the situation improves," according to the Paris museum.

The icons, representing both the foundations of Byzantine civilization and its innovative relationship to images, hold numerous mysteries yet to be unraveled. This is why the Louvre has created an international committee, consisting of Ukrainian scientists and renowned specialists in the field, to conduct in-depth analysis and study, shedding light on the significance of these works. 

The art treasures were brought to France via Poland and Germany on May 10 under military escort and with help of the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH).

Icon shows a man and a woman, probably the saints Plato and Glycera, holding a cross in their hands.
Presumably St. Plato and St. Glyceria: The cross they hold in their hands marks them as martyrsImage: musée Khanenko

Bombs hit near the museum

Earlier this month, a rocket landed near the Khanenko Museum, blowing out the windows. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, its collection has been moved to safety and the building is currently empty.

Already in October 2022, the historic building and its interior decorations were damaged by a missile strike. The remaining artworks are now at risk from temperature variations caused by power cuts. 

The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum encompasses some 25,000 works of ancient art, Byzantine, European and Asian art. 

Its collection owes its origin to the vision and passion of Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko, two 19th-century Ukrainian entrepreneurs, art lovers and philanthropists.

Wooden panel shows a Madonna with child.
This wooden panel shows a Madonna with a child. It is a 6th-century icon from the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai (Egypt)Image: musée Khanenko

The couple enriched their collection over the course of four decades, traveling around the world. They made their first purchases during their honeymoon in Italy in 1874. From the very start, their desire was to assemble an eclectic collection for themselves, driven by the ultimate goal of making it accessible to as many people as possible.

Having survived the First and Second World Wars, the Khanenko Museum is now experiencing the third war in its history.

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This article was originally written in German.