Secretly Evacuated From Ukraine, Rare Icons Now on View at the Louvre

Amid Russian attacks, Kyiv’s Khanenko Museum sent 16 precious artworks to Paris for safekeeping

Sergius and Bacchus
This icon featuring images of Saints Sergius and Bacchus is one of four encaustic paintings on display at the Louvre after being evacuated from Ukraine. Khanenko Museum

Last year, staff at the Louvre in Paris began to plan a clandestine operation. The mission: Remove 16 artworks from Ukraine amid Russia’s continuing attacks.

The artworks were originally housed in Kyiv's Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum, which hid its entire collection at the beginning of the Russian invasion. Still, a Russian missile attack in October damaged the building, and Ukrainian officials knew that the country’s cultural heritage was in danger. 

The artworks left Kyiv via a secret convoy, traveling through Poland and Germany before ultimately arriving in France. To ensure their safety, the fragile artifacts were placed in specially made air-conditioned boxes, reports France 24’s Benjamin Dodman.

Now, visitors to the Louvre can see 5 of the 16 rescued works in a new exhibition, “The Origins of the Sacred Image,” which opened this month. Of the other 11 works, 9 are currently at the Louvre Conservation Center in Liévin, a city about 100 miles north of Paris, and the 2 others are in storage awaiting scientific analysis, a Louvre representative tells Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar.

Icon of Saint John the Baptist
Teams from the Khanenko Museum and the Louvre worked together to safely transport the icons, including this depiction of Saint John the Baptist, to Paris in May. Khanenko Museum

Following the exhibition, the Louvre plans to perform an in-depth analysis of the works. And eventually, when the war ends, they will return to the Khanenko Museum.

“It’s a huge relief to have them here, in a safe environment, but very sad that they had to leave in the first place,” Olha Apenko-Kurovets, a curator from the Khanenko Museum currently working at the Louvre, tells France 24. “It is also a major opportunity: to spread knowledge about Ukraine’s art collections and cultural wealth, and raise awareness of the threat weighing on this heritage.”

The five pieces on view are all sacred Byzantine icons: Four are encaustic paintings—a form of painting where the paint is mixed with hot liquid wax—on wood from Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai that date to the sixth and seventh centuries. The fifth is a micro-mosaic of Saint Nicholas in a stunning gold frame from Constantinople that dates to the late 13th or early 14th century. 

“This set of five icons illustrates both the classical heritage at the foundation of Byzantine civilization and the highly original relationship to images that it introduced, which characterized artistic expression within Eastern Christianity,” writes the Louvre in a statement.

A micro-mosaic depicting Saint Nicholas on display at the exhibition Khanenko Museum

Having survived the destruction of icons that took place in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries, the icons on view are extremely rare. “There’s barely a dozen left in the world today, including the four that are now here at the Louvre,” Apenko-Kurovets tells France 24. “They’re not just Ukrainian treasures or Byzantine heritage. They are hugely important to world heritage, too.”

Since the war began, hundreds of museums, memorials, archives, libraries and other cultural sites have sustained damage. The Louvre transfer is the latest step in a broader effort to protect Ukrainian cultural heritage amid Russian attacks. 

“It’s a very symbolic and effective gesture of support for Ukrainian culture,” Oleksander Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture minister, told reporters at the Louvre, per Reuters’ Elizabeth Pineau and Antony Paone. “[The Russians] are stealing our artifacts, they ruined our cultural heritage sites and this shows how big and huge Ukrainian culture is.”

The Origins of the Sacred Image” is on view at the Louvre in Paris through November 6.

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