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Ukraine: Artists Recreate Glories Of Kyiv Rus

Kyiv, 12 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - There is an ancient belief among Orthodox Christians in Kyiv that when Christ returns to Earth on judgment day, he will walk the route connecting the city's ancient Golden Gate built in the days of Kyiv Rus with St. Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael's Church of the Golden Domes.

On a crystal-clear summer morning, the Mikhailivsky bell tower looks fabulous enough for the belief to be true. It rises from the square like a blue and gold illusion; and to a certain extent it is. The walls are certainly solid, the gleam of the dome is genuine gold leaf. But the curling white moldings and little windows on the tower's facade are not real, they are painted trompe-l'oeil fantasies from the brushes of artists Serhy Bayandin and Yuri Huzenko.

The monastery of Mikhailivsky Zolotoverkhy, or St. Michael's of the Golden Domes, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1934 to make way for government buildings in the center of the city. It is now being rebuilt, with government money and donations. The church, which in its original, 12th-century incarnation took five years to build, is rising again at dream-like speed.

The 48-meter bell tower took six months to reconstruct, and artists are hurrying to complete the icons and frescos that adorn it in time for Ukrainian Independence day on August 24.

Huzenko and Bayandin, restorers and specialists in trompe-l'oeil, or art designed to give a three-dimensional illusion to a flat surface, were responsible for the tower's sky-blue exterior with its decorative trickery, and for icons over the entrance on east and west facade. The 16 panels of the 'drum' around the top of the dome depicting apostles and prophets are their work, and they are now completing sketches for a second 'drum' around the main dome of the church.

Neither Huzenko nor Bayandin profess any strong religious convictions, but for the past six months they have immersed themselves in Orthodox artistic traditions and history and "lived here like monks" in order to produce art that recreates in style and feeling the paintings of the destroyed original church. "Right now we are living and breathing this, so we have to know what we are painting," Huzenko told RFE/RL.

The artists, who teamed up seven years ago, have a repertoire of styles ranging from Byzantine to Baroque, Rococo to Realist. What they lack is a style of their own, but it is that which makes them so good as artist-restorers.

"We've studied so thoroughly and worked such a long time as restorers that we've already formed the mentality of the period we're working in, and when people see our work, the colors, composition, drawing, they think it was done not now but back then," says Huzenko. "Unlike most artists who are interested in self expression, we want to express the style and spirit of different epochs. We have a great commitment to making our work convincing."

The artists spend much of their time in libraries and museums researching their work, says Bayandin. For that reason they found it no problem to base as much of the bell tower designs as possible on pictures of what was there before.

Photographs of the original designs are few and poor quality, and at first artists drew up their own designs for the frescos on the walls on either side of the tower. The authorities deemed otherwise however, and now the scenes, depicting on one side the miracles of St. Barbara, are based on the hazy sepia photographs of the originals, transformed into limpid, fresh pinks, blues and yellows.

Although the outside of the bell tower matches the original plans and dimensions, inside, thanks to new building techniques allowing the walls to be less thick, builders created a chapel that was never there originally.

Built to commemorate the Triokhsvyatitelska church, which stood where then ministry of foreign affairs now looms, the little white chapel has a gilded iconostasis, also Bayandin and Huzenko's work.

For the iconostasis and icons on the bell tower facades and the domes, Huzenko and Bayandin drew on traditional images of saints and prophets. Their dusty workshop, right next to the canteen used by monks and seminary students, is stacked with drawing boards and the tall panels on which the figures for the cathedral dome's 'drum' will be painted.

Despite their dedication to accuracy, the two artists have stopped stop short of the painstaking processes undertaken by the original icon painters. Paints used to be mixed by hand from mineral and plant extracts, egg yolk and tree resin, while the panels had to be specially prepared from lime wood covered with layers of glaze made from fish glue and chalk.

Icon art originally demanded religious commitment from the painter, as every icon was an act of prayer. Bayandin and Huzenko relaxed that rule too.

"Earlier it was very strict - icon painters had to be religious believers," says Bayandin. "Now we need more faith in ourselves, that we can complete them. I don't specially go to church but I've tried to do my best through using my talents, so that people may use my icons for prayer. It's very pleasing when people approach them not merely as an artistic work but as icons, that's the best reward for my work."