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'Madonna of Kyiv' celebrated in Berlin exhibition

Verena Greb
March 23, 2023

Berlin's Bode Museum is juxtaposing sculptures from the Middle Ages with contemporary Ukrainian art — including an image of a mother and her child taking refuge from war.

An artwork showing a young woman wearing a robe and a white scarf over her head nursing a child
The 'Madonna of Kyiv'Image: Maryna Solomennykova/Ukrainian Madonna/2022. Digital

On February 25, 2022, the second day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian journalist Andras Foldes photographed a young mother nursing her child in the Kyiv subway. The underground stations had become a refuge for residents of the city. Foldes posted the photo of the mother and her child on Instagram, and within hours it went viral.

The photo was used by the artist Maryna Solomennykova, who lives in the southern city of Dnipro, to create her work "Madonna of Kyiv." Solomennykova said the woman with her child symbolized all Ukrainian mothers who were hiding in bunkers to save themselves from Russia's attacks.

The "Madonna of Kyiv" received even more attention than the photograph that inspired it. One copy of the painting hangs in a church in Naples, and the original can be seen in the exhibition "Timeless. Ukrainian Contemporary Art in Times of War" at the Bode Museum in Berlin.

The curator, Olesia Sobkovych, is also from Ukraine and chose the creation for the exhibition together with dozens of other contemporary Ukrainian artworks.

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Modern Ukrainian art meets the Middle Ages

Located on Museum Island, the domed Bode Museum is a tempel-like buildin hhousing a globally renowned collection of sculptures from the Middle Ages and treasures from the Byzantine Empire.

Over a year ago, shortly before the beginning of the invasion by Russia, the museum appointed the Ukrainian art historian and critic Olesia Sobkovych as curator. Sobkovych had overseen many exhibitions in her role at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War, Kyiv.

The appointment of the new art historian matched the wishes of the museum's heads, who wanted to engage with the subject of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The challenge, however, was to juxtapose contemporary Ukrainian art, with its focus on the first year of war, with centuries-old artifacts kept in the permanent collection.

This curatorial structure is made more concrete by the fact that every modern art object has a "double" from the Middle Ages — an artifact that evokes a similar emotion.

Women wears blazer in front of a sculpture depicting Mary holding her robe over children
Sobkovych amid the contemporary and middle age works on show at the Bode MuseumImage: Dmitry Vachedin/DW

In the Middle Ages, art objects often evoked "fear, despair, sorrow and death," said Paul Hoffman, head of the museum's sculpture collection, feelings that Ukrainians now experience through a brutal ongoing war. 

Ukraine's 'Madonna' safe for now

Sobkovych made authenticity a key criteria for choosing the Ukrainian artworks. She not only thought of established artists but also brought in works by lesser-known creatives, including Maryna Solomennykova.

It is risky to combine art that goes viral on social media with a wooden carving from the Middle Ages. But curator Sobokovych was up to the challenge.

A wooden carving showing Joseph leading a donkey with Mary sitting on it
A 15th-century wooden sculpture set beside a painting by Ukrainian artist Alisa LozhkinaImage: Dmitry Vachedin/DW

In the "Timeless" exhibition, the "Madonna of Kyiv" enters into dialogue with a rare finding from Egypt: a tombstone with the image of a breastfeeding woman from the fourth or fifth century. It is an image that is beyond time. 

The real "Madonna," a woman named Tetyana Blizniak, reached a safe place in western Ukraine a couple of days after Foldes took her picture in the Kyiv metro.

"Timeless. Contemporary Ukrainian Art in Times of War" runs through March 17, 2024 at the Bode Museum in Berlin 

This article was originally written in German.

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