The Louvre exhibits extremely rare icons, exfiltrated from Ukraine

“Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus” (6th-7th centuries).  Comes from Saint Catherine's Monastery of Mount Sinai (Egypt).  Kyiv, Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts.

Between Russia and Ukraine, the war is also waged on the heritage front, its preservation, and, even more, the symbolic meaning given to it. In May, when President Vladimir Putin decided, in defiance of basic conservation rules, to remove from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow an important icon painted by the monk Andrei Rublev to install it in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and to flatter the Orthodox hierarchy in passing, the Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum in Kiev made a heartbreaking but responsible choice: to exfiltrate to the Louvre sixteen works among the most fragile of its collections, including five precious Byzantine icons that the Parisian institution will be exhibiting from June 13 until the beginning of November.

As soon as the war broke out in February 2022, the president of the Louvre Laurence des Cars asked her Ukrainian colleagues about their immediate needs. Everyone had then asked him for protective equipment, which was delivered to them in several convoys. At this stage, his colleagues were not ready to accept his proposal to house part of their collections in the reserves of the Louvre.

The situation changed when Laurence des Cars received a delegation of Ukrainian counterparts on October 26, including the director of the Khanenko museum. The mines are serious, the situation alarming. Unesco has identified 240 sites damaged by Russian bombs. The inventory of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture is even more distressing: 468 cultural sites are damaged or destroyed, including 35 museums.

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On October 10, 2022, a rocket fell ten meters from the Khanenko Museum, blowing out the windows of this splendid building, which before the invasion housed a fine collection of old paintings. Luckily, the whole team had put everything under cover, with the exception of the monumental paintings, which were impossible to move.

Choice of works to be evacuated in priority

From now on, the works hidden in secret reserves are confronted with other threats: the drop in temperatures and the regular power cuts which weaken the wooden panels. “I took a punch in the stomach”recalls Laurence des Cars, who reiterates his proposal to keep their most precious works until the end of the conflict.

The Ukrainian museum holds in particular some very precious icons, the presentation of which could announce the new department of arts of Byzantium and Christianity in the East, which should open to the public in 2027. “When we announced the creation of this department, we did not know that there was going to be a war in Europe, in the heart of the Orthodox world.recalls Laurence des Cars. But it is impossible to think about it today without taking this conflict into account. »

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