Exhibition in Kuopio, Finland

Icons and People in the War Years

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Thursday 5 March 2009, by Icon Network

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Icon Network exhibition 2009-2010

An Exhibition arranged by the Valamo Art Conservation Institute at the Orthodox Church Museum (Kuopio) from January 28th to 30th April 2009 and at the National Museum of Finland (Helsinki) from from June 12th to 31st January 2010. This exhibition has also been shown at the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, Nantes History Museum, France, the 6th March 2009. A video of the exhibition is available on this web site: Icon-People-Video.html.

See press release

- The Second War in Finland
- The worship items’ rescue
- Sakari Pälsi and the begining of an inventory
- Today, the remains

“Icons and People in the War Years” has been arranged within the framework of the Icon Network Project with the support of the 2007-2013 Cultural Program of the European Commission. The exhibition and the accompanying book with the same title have also received financial support from the Finnish Ministry of Education and the Church Administration of the Orthodox Church of Finland.

The Second War in Finland

Most of the icons preserved in Finland have been closely linked with the changing historical circumstances of Karelia, a large multi-ethnic territory which has always been divided between Russia and its northwestern neighbor, namely the Kingdom of Sweden until 1809 and thereafter Finland. This exhibition serves the purpose of presenting icons which, while being venerated as sacred objects and admired as art works, have sometimes also acted as powerful reminders of specific historical events. Its main emphasis lies on the years 1939-1940 and 1941-1944, during which Finland fought two wars with the Soviet Union. These wars meant irreparable losses to people living on both sides of the border, and to their institutions, including Karelia’s Orthodox monasteries, churches and icons.

As a result of these two wars, vast territories in southeastern and eastern Finland – the heartlands of the Orthodox Finns – were ceded to the USSR. A large quantity of sacred objects was rescued from the war, mainly by the Finnish army.

At the beginning of hostilities in 1939, the Orthodox Chuch of Finland had not made any specific plans to evacuate the churches’ property. As a result, in some areas nothing was salvaged. In others, church priests hastily packed archives and some items, and these reached safety via official routes. However, the vicar of the Vyborg parish was able to save the objects of five churches of his parish, about forty boxes of icons, objects of worship and textiles.

Two portable icons depicting the Transfiguration and the Nativity once belonged to the largest of the Orthodox churches in Vyborg.

All four Orthodox monasteries were in the war zone. From the monasteries of Valamo (in Russian Valaám) and Konevets a considerable number of ecclesiastical objects and icons were transferred, while the sisters of the Lintula Convent were unable to rescue more than a few objects. The most valuable items of the Pechenga Monastery were brought to safety to Kuopio during the Continuation War (1941-1944), and they are today an important part of the collection of the Orthodox Church Museum in Kuopio.

The monks who in 1939 had been evacuated from Valamo Monastery on the island of Valaám in Lake Ladoga, found a safe haven in 1940 in humble quarters at the New Valamo Monastery in Heinävesi. Three interior photographs show how the low wooden building constructed in 1940-1941 at New Valamo was transformed into a church. The icons transferred from the island of Valaám in Lake Ladoga were displayed in the low wooden church, as well as in other buildings that the monks of New Valamo used as chapels. In a matter of a few years during the post-war diaspora, the cherished objects found their way to extant or newly constructed churches. In 1957, the Orthodox Church Museum was founded in Kuopio, where at first, during a period ranging from 1957 to 1969, the most prominent liturgical vessels, books, garments and images were displayed in the four small rooms of an apartment in Kuopio.

The worship items’ rescue

So many items were rescued during the Winter War in 1939-1940 that some of them still remained in the warehouses of the Finnish Orthodox Church as late the 1980s.

Only very few of the people who, in 1939, were evacuated from Finnish Karelia, were able to rescue their private icons. The few images which, nevertheless, found their way to the West often came to be seen as reminders of losses experienced on a personal level. One such was the icon of the Virgin “Guide of those who have gone astray,” which was brought from Valaám in 1940 by Hieromonk Paavali, the future Archbishop of the Finnish Orthodox Church.

During the 1941-1944 Continuation War, part of Soviet Karelia was occupied by the Finnish army. In the wake of the much-debated intrusion of Finnish troops into the Pomórye and Ólonets regions, various campaigns were launched to chart the cultural heritage of those areas. These campaigns introduced many non-Orthodox Finns to icons and even led to the rise of scientific and aesthetic interest among mainstream Finns who had not previously known — or cared — much about Eastern Christianity.

Before gaining independence in 1917, Finland was a grand duchy within the Russian Empire, and travelling in Karelia was unrestricted. During those times a number of artists and scholars of folklore and culture roamed the area, for even then it was a unique cultural entity. With the creation of the Soviet Union, the border with Finland was closed, and it wasn’t until the Continuation War that access to Karelia became possible as the Finnish troops advanced eastward. Researchers in a variety of disciplines were sent to Eastern Karelia. Among them were some women, including Helmi Helminen and Tyyni Vahter, who studied the interiors and the handicrafts tradition of the area and collected some samples. One of the first to document the Orthodox churches was Lauri Santtu, albeit without formal education in the subject. Olavi Paavolainen, a writer sent to produce war propaganda, also wrote literary articles about Eastern Karelia.

Sakari Pälsi and the begining of an inventory

Sakari Pälsi, an explorer and ethnologist, was among the first to express concern about the fate of the churches and about the looting that accompanied the hostilities. Already in the fall of 1941 Pälsi and Paavolainen described the furore of collecting "souvenirs," which was especially intense In the now empty Soviet villages in Viena and Aunus.

Second Lieutenant Lasse Viitanen gathered a few icons from around Aunus and Syvärinkaupunki in his soldier’s backpack during the attack phase. He kept the icons in his backpack, where they were found after his death in 2004. The most systematic research work was done by an art historian, Second Lieutenant Lars Pettersson, who documented 242 churches, 32 of which are still standing today.

Pälsi and Paavolainen accumulated icons for the Finnish National Board of Antiquities in the autumn of 1941, while the artist Lauri Santtu and Lars Pettersson were recruited to save churches and wooden chapels from looting.

The field notes of Lauri Santtu, dating from the first half of 1942, are brief and casual, written without any apparent interest. His actual challenge lay in the encounter with vandalized shrines wrecked during the campaigns of “Militant Atheism,” and, sometimes, desecrated by turning the churches into Red clubhouses, dance halls, shops, or, worse still, privies. In 1942, Santtu cleaned up the chapel at Vorobja. This chapel was documented and photographed later during the campaign of Lars Pettersson. In the middle of March 1944 the little, marvellously preserved shrine at Seletskoye was studied by Lars Pettersson

In this room, an entire wall has been covered with a heterogeneous mixture of icons. These are among the icons gathered by two famous enthusiasts — both amateurs in the field — the ethnographer Sakari Pälsi and the writer Olavi Paavolainen. When the intrusion into the USSR was well under way in 1941, these two men spontaneously adopted the role of “cultural emissaries,” as Pälsi actually explains in a letter which he addressed in October 1942 to C.A. Nordman, the chief of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities. Practically all of the displayed icons are mentioned in the letter, as well as in an article that Pälsi published in 1942 in a book with the patriotic title Voittajien jäljissä (In the Footsteps of Victors). This book contains a famous photograph of Paavolainen meditating upon an icon. This portrait and a passage in which he muses about an icon of the Virgin of Kazan (and which he erroneously identifies as “The Black Madonna”), were also published in Synkkä yksinpuhelu (The Dark Monologue), Paavolainen’s famous and widely debated book, which appeared in 1946.

The collections accumulated by Pälsi and Paavolainen stand in interesting contrast with those of their Scandinavian contemporaries, who, as wholehearted modernists, tended to prefer archaic, primitive and rustic icons to later, hybrid forms of Eastern and Western traditions. But despite his apparently tolerant attitude towards diversity, Pälsi, the Finnish ethnographer, may not have been quite as objective and unprejudiced as it first might seem. In fact, he declared that diversity, in this case, implies bad taste and should be seen as typically Russian, while the “real”, non-Russian inhabitants of Karelian were still faithful to the authentic old art of the icon.

The icons collected by Pälsi, forty in all, were forgotten in Finland when most of them were returned to the Soviet Union. The icons spent years in storage and are today in the care of the National Museum of Finland. Some of the icons exhibited here have never been shown to the public in Finland.

Lauri Santtu and, after him, Lars Pettersson, who were in charge of safeguarding isolated and damaged churches and chapels, organized the transfer of worn-out sacred objects into solid buildings. They were stored in a near-by village or in Petrozavodsk. During the first half of 1942, only scanty information about the icons was collected, but in autumn Pettersson, with the assistance of his tutors, worked out a system of recording the provenance of the most important items.

In October 1942, on the basis of meticulous field work, Pettersson set out to chart the development of wooden churches in villages lying to the south and northeast of Petrozavodsk. Among his tutors were Leo Kasanko (in 1957-1969 the curator of the Orthodox Church Museum) and Bertel Hintze, the curator of the Helsinki Kunsthalle.

The situation on the Eastern front started to change in 1943, and large collections of evacuated icons started to be sent to various shelters in Finland.

With the help of Hintze, Pettersson set out to study the art of the icon. Eventually, in 1942-1945, he wrote a series of small articles which were dedicated to the pictorial heritage of Ólonets, and, more specifically, of the Kizhi region. Particularly worth mentioning is Pettersson´s interest in the work of Ivan Abramov, an old handicraft producer of sacred images, who was living in the village of Kosmózero. Together with the artist Oiva Helenius, Pettersson documented the house and former workshop of the old master. For example, they published popular and scientific articles on Abramov´s working methods as well as on his collection of tracings, or model drawings, which once had belonged to Mihei Abramov, Ivan Miheyevitch´s father, and his predecessors. Two icons, the “Apparition of the Holy Trinity to St. Alexander of Svir,” and “St. Mathew, Apostle,” were bought by Pettersson in 1942 and 1943 in Zaonéžye.

Today, the remains

In the autumn of 1943, Hintze and Pettersson sorted out icons for an exhibition to be held at the Helsinki Kunsthalle. This event, however, was unexpectedly cancelled by order of Marshal Mannerheim, who did not wish to risk provoking the USSR at a time when secret negotiations between Finland and the USSR had already started. Pettersson continued his studies in architectural history and published his doctoral thesis on the Zaonézhye churches in 1950.

The icons of the Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi were transferred to Petrozavodsk early in 1943 and later to Finland. The large, heavy panels depicting the Heavens never left Petrozavodsk.

Hundreds of icons which had been transported to Finland in 1943 were returned to the USSR in October 1944.

In addition to the Pälsi collection, about ten images remained in Finland, some of them small and others enormous. They were later discovered in a forgotten shelter in the Turku Castle. “The Last Judgement,” originating from the village of Sheglovo, had suffered severe water damage, and beginning in 1957 what was left of the work was restored at the National Museum in Helsinki. Another “Last Judgement” from Voznesenja, and a “Resurrection” from Klimetskoi, as well as the rest of the rediscovered Ólonets icons, languished in Turku until the 1980s. Since 1989 they have been preserved in the Central Depository of the National Board of Antiquities.

In 1945, two Moscow specialists, Nadezhda Mnyova and Vera Svetlichnaya, arrived at Petrozavodsk in the footsteps of the Red Army. They studied and catalogued the icons that had been returned from Finland and which, in a matter of years, were displayed at the Art Museum of Petrozavodsk as well as at Kizhi. Much to their disappointment, the experts discovered that the desperately freezing, uninitiated re-conquerors had already found use for the Kizhi “Heavens.” This work was burnt in ovens to provide heat.

The media publicity that accompanied the founding of the Orthodox Church Museum in 1957 may have encouraged people who had brought an icon from the occupied territories to send it as a donation to the new museum. In 1957-1969, the museum housed a chapel with an iconostasis into which a set of East-Karelian works was mounted. In fact, all the large icons in shining metal covers originated from Finnish Karelia, while seven small images, all displayed on a shelf on top of the iconostasis, came from Soviet Karelia.

Donations are still being made to parishes and monasteries. The icon of Zosima and Savvati was donated in the 1950s, and icons of the Mother of God and Christ were donated in the 2000s. On the back of an icon of the Mother of God there is a poignant note: "Exchanged for a loaf of bread from an old woman."