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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Unknown portrait of Volodymyr the Great

3 March, 2009 - 00:00

We see Volodymyr the Great (a.k.a. Prince Volodymyr or St. Volodymyr) every day on the one-hryvnia banknote. This is his conjectural, yet the most popular portrait. It has been circulated in Ukraine in millions of copies. The second most popular image is immortalized in bronze on top of Volodymyr Hill in downtown Kyiv.

Until now it was generally believed that that the only lifetime image of Prince Volodymyr the Great was on his gold and silver coins: a hatchet face with a dimple in the strong, projecting jaw. Scholars agree that this was Volodymyr the Great’s main facial feature. Not so Dr. Nadia NIKITENKO, Ph.D. (History), head of the Department of Historical Research at the Kyiv Sophia National Preserve. She is sure that she has discovered a fresco portrait of the Kyivan prince made by an unknown artist during his lifetime. Dr. Nikitenko readily admits that finding Volodymyr’s portrait was not the initial goal of her research. Her objective was to study, with her colleague Viacheslav Korniienko. the history of St. Sophia Cathedral and its murals. Their study produced sensational discoveries, including the date of St. Sophia’s construction and a lifetime portrait of Prince Volodymyr the Great.

Dr. Nikitenko, many people think that searching for a lifetime portrait of Prince Volodymyr now, in the 21st century, is something akin to science fiction, even given that we know his main facial features.

“There is a picture of a princely family in St. Sophia’s central nave dating from the 11th century. While studying this fresco, I proposed my own interpretation of the picture. I believe that it portrays Volodymyr’s family. This contradicts the traditional concept that the fresco was created in the 1040s as a portrait of Prince Yaroslav the Wise and his family. This concept is based on an entry in the chronicles, to the effect that Yaroslav founded the cathedral in 1037. Yet the graffiti we have discovered on the frescos over the past two years indicate earlier dates: 1022, 1033, and 1036. These dates were written by the people who made the graffiti.

“There is also a graffito that we dated as being made in 1019 because it mentions a number of historical figures, including Prince Sviatopolk’s mother and sons. The prince died in 1019. In other words, the cathedral was already there before 1019–22, and was embellished with mosaics and frescos. I mean whoever wrote these graffiti confirmed my idea that St. Sophia Cathedral was built during the rule of Prince Volodymyr and that it was completed under Prince Yaroslav the Wise. I believe that the construction was started in 1011 and completed 1018.”

For me scratching inscriptions on frescos is now an act of vandalism, and even more so in the 11th century. These graffiti spoiled the frescos, didn’t they? Why did they make them? Who allowed this? Couldn’t they put guards in the main temple of Kyivan Rus’?

“The thing is that these inscriptions that we now call graffiti were not regarded as such in the old times. They were not the result of irresponsible spontaneous reflections, even less so acts of vandalism, unlike modern graffiti. These inscriptions are solemn and often contain coded messages. But there is no denying the fact that they damaged the frescos to some extent, and so Prince Volodymyr Sviatoslavych envisaged a severe punishment in his codex for those who “carve on the walls.” People, however, made graffiti because they believed in the sacral strength of words. That was why the church censors who regularly checked these inscriptions did not cross out sacral texts. Those that sounded too secular to them or, perhaps, were even banned by the church as sinful, were thoroughly crossed out. You can see quite a few such frescos in St. Sophia. However, most inscriptions were left intact.”

So whoever wrote them did a good thing?

“Paradoxically, they did. These graffiti constitute a unique historical source. The written sources that have survived to this day are copies made of the original texts several times over. Chronicles were written to please those who commissioned them and were later edited to please new moneyed customers. Graffiti, however, are the original authentic texts. We now see them precisely the way they were made centuries ago. These are autographs of people who lived in the early 11th century.

“Researchers have relied on entries in the chronicles about St. Sophia being created by Yaroslav the Wise. When this portrait of a prince was discovered, everybody decided that it was a portrait of the nobleman who commissioned it, namely Prince Yaroslav and his family. This conclusion has never been called into question. Yet the graffiti contradict the chronicles, and the graffiti are the living voice of the people who witnessed the foundation of St. Sophia Cathedral. Whom should we trust then?”

Supposing that Prince Yaroslav completed the construction of St. Sophia, couldn’t he have commissioned a fresco portrait of his family? After all, the interior of a temple is painted after its construction is completed.

“The fresco images cannot represent Yaroslav’s children because they were born after the cathedral was built. His eldest son Volodymyr was born in 1020, while his daughters were born some time in 1030–32. Here in this fresco we see grown-up children. The eldest daughter wears a shawl under her princely hat, which means that she is a married woman. So this picture actually depicts Prince Volodymyr’s family, including his eldest daughter Feofana, who was given in marriage to Ostromir, the vicegerent of Novgorod. She is mentioned in the Ostromir Gospel. Her image follows that of Anna, who is placed in the center of the portrait, together with her husband Volodymyr. Interestingly, both Volodymyr and Anna are clad in royal attire, as on coins and in miniatures. Yaroslav and Iryna did not have this status.”

The fresco images of the prince and princes have not survived the ravages of time, but the Dutch artist Abraham van Westerfeld copied the prince’s portrait from the restored fresco in the mid-17th century. How authentic do you think Westerfeld’s portrait is?

“Restoration was commissioned by Metropolitan Petro Mohyla and the work was done in a very careful way. The artist hardly touched the prince’s face or attire. The images of Volodymyr and his wife obviously resemble the prince’s portrait on the coins and Anna’s image in a fresco in St. Sophia’s northern tower. However, this fresco is not the main source in identifying them.

“Whenever I want to figure out some or other subject matter, I refer to Old Rus’ literary sources because literature and art mirrored each other. Whom did Old Rus’ authors compare Prince Volodymyr to? To such holy kings as David, Constantine the Great, and Israel’s leaders Moses and Joshua.”

I can understand the comparison to the kings, particularly Constantine. Volodymyr, like this Byzantine emperor, made Christianity the state religion. But why Moses and Joshua?

“Just like Moses and Joshua, Volodymyr led his people to their Promised Land, i.e., Christianity. Moses took his people as far as the Promised Land but died on its threshold. Joshua was Moses’ follower and successor who actually led the Jews into the Promised Land. He was a great biblical military leader, so in the Middle Ages statesmen who defeated barbarians and especially those who introduced Christianity were compared to him. Before he conquered Canaan, Joshua was visited upon by Archangel Michael, and this scene is represented in a fresco in St. Sophia. It was there that I saw Volodymyr in the image of Joshua.”

Dr. Nikitenko, do Volodymyr’s main features in the fresco coincide with those on his coins?

“Absolutely! We have his profile in the fresco. Interestingly, his browridges stand out a bit, his aquiline nose isn’t long, and he has a strong lower jaw with a prominent dimpled chin. The overall image is very much like that on the coins.”

Could this be a coincidence?

“No. In the canonical art that was widespread in the Middle Ages Joshua is usually portrayed as having Semitic features. In our fresco he represents a totally different anthropological type than the accompanying characters. As befits the subject matter, he stands surrounded by Israelites. He is dressed like a military leader and wears a leather helmet. Yet his face is vastly different from the faces of the Israelite warriors under his command. Joshua’s face is anything but Semitic. We see a Varangian hero with Nordic features, while all his soldiers are obviously Semitic with the characteristic ethnic features. The man we see is Prince Volodymyr of the Riuryk dynasty that originated in Scandinavia (as evidenced by modern studies of the Riuryk genotype). I am sure that the image of Joshua is actually a lifetime portrait of Prince Volodymyr.”

Does history know any pictures of medieval military leaders portrayed as Joshua, or is Volodymyr the Great the only one?

“I have been intrigued by this fresco for a long time. I was struck by this unusual portrayal of Joshua, but I had no right to make my conjecture public until I found precedents in Byzantine art. I’ve had to study a great many sources and research papers. Was any Byzantine emperor portrayed as this saint? The answer is yes, and not only in Byzantine but also in Bulgarian and Serbian art were leaders often depicted as Constantine and Joshua because they were righteous rulers and military leaders who led their people to salvation. This is not my invention but a fact that has scholarly proof.”

Why “superimpose” the image of Prince Volodymyr the Great on that of Joshua? Was it an attempt to simply glorify the prince?

“There is more to it than glorification. The thing is that in medieval mentality an ideal statesman plays the role assigned him by God. Volodymyr was destined to follow in the footsteps of Moses and Joshua, and he did lead his people to their Promised Land.

“In other words, Volodymyr brilliantly carried out the mission assigned him by the Lord. It was the greatest spiritual accomplishment of the prince and all of Rus’, which he personified. He commissioned this fresco and wanted to be portrayed as Joshua — not to increase his own glory, although this did make sense at the time, but mostly to put the history of Rus’ in the context of Holy History. I see this as an aspiration to lend Christian legitimacy to Rus’, because even in the late 10th century Byzantines referred to our forefathers as savages. This legitimacy was of utmost importance for newly converted Rus’. It meant Christian legitimization of the young Riuryk dynasty, which was heathen prior to that. That was why the princely family of Christianizers was glorified.”

Does this mean that Volodymyr started his own canonization?

“All interior decorations it St. Sophia Cathedral testify that the images of Volodymyr and Anna were being prepared for canonization even during their lifetime. I might as well point out that this desire to be canonized had parallels in Byzantium. The baptizers of Rus’ had the right to claim this status because they had performed actions that were equal in their importance to the acts of the apostles. The church did canonize Volodymyr and grant him the equal-to-the-apostle status, whereas Anna had somehow sunk into oblivion. Honestly, even the people have all but forgotten about Volodymyr, considering that he was placed 16th in the TV project “Great Ukrainians.” The first place went to Yaroslav the Wise, who actually capitalized on his father’s achievements. It’s a shame because Volodymyr, rather than Yaroslav, is the true creator of our state and our people. Our history knows no other leader of such caliber.”

What is going to happen to this previously unknown portrait of Volodymyr the Great?

“The Kyiv Sophia Preserve plans to create the first historically authentic sculptural portraits of Volodymyr and Anna and put them on display. Of course, we will ask anthropologists and forensic experts to lend us a hand. This scholarly reconstruction project will be based solely on authentic images. This will be an act of historical justice. We will get in touch with philanthropists and pass the hat around because this project is going to be a costly affair. Yet it is our joint project, one that involves the whole nation.”


Dr. Dmytro STEPOVYK, Ph.D. (Art, Theology, and Philosophy):

“Certain individuals are known to have been often portrayed as characters of the Old and New Testaments. Making portraits implies painting from nature, meaning that the artist has to keep seeing the model’s face, even changes in its expression, and capture its characteristic features.

“The Baptizer of Rus’ is depicted in the iconostasis of St. Volodymyr Cathedral as man with a gray beard. Volodymyr may have grown a beard or it may have been Nesterov’s imagination (he painted the icons for the iconostasis) and whoever did the wall decorations. However, it is quite possible that even after the adoption of Christianity Volodymyr had no beard in keeping with the tradition prevalent in Rus’-Ukraine before Christianization. Anyway, that’s how he is portrayed on the coins.

“Therefore, I think that Dr. Nikitenko is right to assume — I’m not saying ‘state with 100 percent certainty’ — that the image of Joshua [in the fresco] is actually that of Prince Volodymyr. After all, their accomplishments are similar. Joshua led the Israelites from Egyptian captivity and into the Promised Land, while Volodymyr brought his people from heathenism into the true faith.”

Rev. Vitalii KLOS, Ph.D. (Theology), lecturer, Kyiv Theological Seminary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate:

“If the image of Prince St. Volodymyr is reconstructed with scholarly authenticity, I do not think that this will contradict any church canons regarding his image. In my opinion, we must clearly realize that the images displayed in our temples are important not only from the standpoint of authenticity. What matters in the first place is what these people did at one time or another. Naturally, before the images of Prince Volodymyr were displayed in the temples, information was obtained from sources we know, as well as from other sources that remain unknown to our scholars. Therefore, it is possible to assume that these images have authenticity. In other words, the images in the temples bear some resemblance to what Prince Volodymyr really was as a personality and man.

“Dr. Nikitenko is an expert in her field, so she may make another discovery in this matter if she continues her research.”

By Serhii BRATISHKO, documentarian