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Light of Russian icon: from Ustyuzhna to the Uffizi Gallery

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Light of Russian icon: from Ustyuzhna to the Uffizi Gallery


Sergey Vinogradov

As the Russkiy Mirreported, the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence will allocate four rooms for Russian icons. The masterpieces by Russian iconographers will be exhibited for the first time in a permanent exhibition and will be included in the main itinerary of one of the oldest museums in Europe. The exposition will include 78 icons that were brought to Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Experts believe that the most valuable icons from the Uffizi collection were painted by Kirill Ulanov, one of the most outstanding iconographers of the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries and the master of the Armoury Chamber, and his students. Residents and guests of Ustyuzhna, a small town in the Vologda Region, come to their Ulanov without directions or guide books. The artist’s three earliest icons have been placed in the iconostasis of the local church for more than three centuries - here they pray and conduct tours. All other icons of the master can be found in collections of Russias top museums.

Ustyuzhna. Photo credit:

Alongside Titian and da Vinci

Russian icons are highly appreciated in Europe and around the world; the greatest galleries and museums in the world consider it an honor to open exhibitions of Russian religious art. Lists of exhibition projects of Russian province museums that have a good collection of icons often include Paris, London, and even Vatican. But for the first time ever the large collection of Russian icons will be hosted as a permanent exhibition in the very center of Europe, in the museum with 400 years of history, next door to the rooms with works of Titian, da Vinci and Botticelli.

The collection of Russian icons will be placed in the Palazzo Pitti, the former residence of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. At the moment, the gallery is preparing four rooms on the ground floor of the building, which is well known by art lovers because of the 17th century frescoes. According to representatives of the Uffizi Gallery, all works are to be completed this year, and tourists who decide to spend the New Year and Christmas holidays in Florence will be able to see all 78 icons from the gallery collection for the first time.

The Palazzo Pitti. Photo credit:

It is believed that the works of Kirill Ulanov and other Russian iconographers were brought to Italy in the middle of the 18th century; and there is the evidence of that. Historians suggest that the icons were granted to Francesco II, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. However, researchers opinions as to the personality of the grantor vary - some believe that the Russian ambassador presented the icons aiming to encourage the duke to develop mutually beneficial relations. Others are convinced that the gift came from the Orthodox community of the Tuscan port city of Livorno, followers of which were rather great in number. In such a way believers thanked the duke for permission to build an Orthodox church in honor of the Holy Trinity, which was opened in 1760. During the rule of Mussolini the church was destroyed.

The fact that the collection of icons was presented as a gift is evidenced by the highest quality of painting and the icon frame of silver gilt. In the middle of the 18th century, when icons were brought to Italy, Kirill Ulanov had been dead for several decades, but he was still considered to be the greatest iconographer of that time. The icon with the image of Saint Catherine of Alexandria was allegedly painted by Ulanov in 1693 - 1694. This work is considered central to the entire collection, and it has taken a special position in the Uffizi Gallery for centuries. According to Aike Schmidt, the gallery director, opening of the Russian icon exposition will emphasize the historical connection between Russia and Italy, as well as between Moscow and Florence

The court painter

You might gallop three years away from here and reach nowhere,” says one of the characters of The Government Inspector by Gogol. It is believed that the case, which formed the basis of the play, happened in Ustyuzhna, and the character of Khlestakov was inspired by Platon Volkov. Actually, Ustyuzhna is known to many contemporaries by this very fact.

And in 16th century the town was considered to be on par with Pskov, Ryazan and Tver. Bog ore deposits attracted there masters from all over the country and made Ustyuzhna one of the centers of Russian metallurgy. In the 16th century, 77 forges worked here, almost three times more than in Tula. Ustyuzhna entered the 17th century having been worn out by the Oprichnina and the Polish-Lithuanian invasion, but it managed to recover and again became a noticeable town in northwestern Russia, thanks to favorable attitude of Peter the Great (a large arms factory was built here by the tsars order). However, when the Urals rose as a metallurgical center, Ustyuzhnas significance faded to the one of the regional center.

In 1689, when the consequences of the invasion were overcome, and the Ural factories had not yet completely squeezed Ustyuzhna out of metallurgy, the town could afford to order several icons from the young but already famous iconographer Kirill Ulanov. Two years before the Ustyuzhnas order, Ulanov, a native of Kostroma, joined the Moscow Armoury Chamber, the main art workshop of the Muscovite state. The young artist came to enquire about the job with an icon painted by him and was immediately accepted. He was not only given the most important orders, but also placed in charge of other artists.

Icon by Kirill Ulanov at the exhibition in

Historians believe that Kirill Ulanov and Ustyuzhna made friends through Mercury Gavrilovich, the confessor of Ivan V of Russia and Peter the Great, who was a native of Ustyuzhna. It was probably him who advised (and possibly helped pay the fee) his fellow countrymen to invite Kirill Ulanov. In 1689 and 1690, the iconographer painted three icons - the famous Trinity, Savior on the throne and The Almighty on the throne with the apostles Peter and John falling down. Ten years later, Ulanov painted several more icons for Ustyuzhna.

Here is Peter and John to the right of the Holy gates, says Natalya Ankudinova, the chief curator of the Ustyuzhna Museum of Local Lore, pointing to the iconostasis of the Nativity Cathedral. - We are sometimes asked: why such valuable exhibits are located in the iconostasis? Because it is their place historically. Kirill Ulanov painted these icons for this very iconostasis. Three of them are in the iconostasis, and two are in the collections - their condition does not allow exhibiting those works. We have secured them and hope to be able to give them for restoration.

Long-suffering Trinity

The Ustyuzhna Museum is proud of the iconostasis. It was created during construction of the Nativity Cathedral at the end of the 17th century; and it has been mostly preserved intact to this day. And if semi-mythical Platon Volkov, who pretended to be a governmental inspector, came here to pray for forgiveness (the temple is 50 meters from the hotel, where, according to legend, Ustyuzhna Khlestakov stayed), then he also saw "Peter and John" to the right of the Holy gates.

Nativity Cathedral in Ustyuzhna

The Ustyuzhna Museum of Local Lore has occupied the church building for many years. Some people are annoyed to see preserved bears, wolves and other species of local fauna in rooms neighboring with the unique iconostasis; however the simple truth is that moving in by the museum helped to preserve the cathedral and the historical iconostasis. Kirill Ulanov painted icons for two temples in Ustyuzhna. It is known that the Old Testament Trinity was created for the Holy gates of the Peter and Paul Church, which was closed in 1935 and later on destroyed during construction of the bridge. The unique icon was transferred to the museum.

Old Testament Trinity by Kirill Ulanov

We have been using the Nativity Cathedral together with the church for four years, Natalya Ankudinova continues. Just as before, we conduct tours; but at the same time the parish has been organized in the cathedral and worships are held. During the tours, emphasis is made on icons by Ulanov. Who are the visitors? They include locals, tourists, and foreigners, as well as researches from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Visitors are very surprised that the iconostasis is memorial and does not contain modern replica.

Old Testament Trinity, the fragment

There are still many visitors who read about Old Testament Trinity in the crime news. In 1994 it was stolen and taken away from Ustyuzhna for the first time in three hundred years. Seven years later, the icon was found at one of the German auctions and returned to its original iconostasis.

Its author left Moscow in the early 18th century, when construction of Saint Petersburg and new state policy brought another type of painting into fashion and the Armoury Chamber workshop was left without orders. Kirill Ulanovs name still resounded throughout Russian provinces, and he chose path of a peasant monk-iconographer. Ulanov could probably have ended up in Ustyuzhna, but he took the monastic vows under the name Korneliusz in the distant Trinity Krivoezerskaya monastery near the city of Yuryevets (now in the Ivanovo Region), and later became abbot of the monastery. In old age he took the vows of schema and painted icons until his death. It is still not clear if the fate of the master, who went from the royal iconographer to vows of schema in a remote temple, will be talked about in the Uffizi Gallery.

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