The Louvre showcases rare artworks from its secret operation safeguarding Ukraine’s heritage

It’s been over a year since the Russia-Ukraine war began back in February 2022 when Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. From 24 February 2022 to 21 May 2023, the ongoing war has caused the death of 8,895 civilians and 15,117 injured, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The actual figures are believed to be considerably higher.

The war is not only a humanitarian crisis but also a serious threat to the museums and heritage in Ukraine. To contribute to the protection of these Ukrainian treasures, The Louvre in Paris has been involved in a secret operation with the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv since December 2022. Sixteen precious artworks were evacuated from the Ukrainian national collection and discreetly transferred to France.

The Louvre in Paris secretly evacuated sixteen precious artworks from the Ukrainian national collection

Five of sixteen works are now on display in The Louvre’s exhibition The Origins of the Sacred Image: Icons from the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv. The show takes place from 14 June to 6 November 2023, offering viewers a unique chance to appreciate these rare cultural objects from Ukraine.

The five artworks exhibited include four icons from the 6th and 7th centuries, encaustic paintings on wood from Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai, and one micro-mosaic icon from the late 13th or early 14th century from Constantinople, with a remarkable gold frame. The show is both a vibrant manifesto of the force of images in Byzantine art and an emphatic tribute to the richness of Ukraine’s national collections.

Byzantine art is famous for its religious imagery, particularly mosaics, and paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. It originated and evolved from the Christianized Greek culture of the Eastern Roman Empire.

By the end of the Byzantine era with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453,  the Byzantine cultural heritage had been widely diffused to Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Russia, thanks to the spread of Orthodox Christianity. Russia even became the centre of the Orthodox world following the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.

The influence of Byzantine art can be seen in Russian icon painting, which began by entirely adopting and imitating Byzantine art.

The five icons on display at The louvre illustrate the classical heritage at the foundation of Byzantine civilization. Icons are painted portraits depicting figures of saints in Eastern Christianity. The earliest surviving examples date from the 6th-7th centuries, as with the four icons from the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv, considered foundational works in the art history of painting.

Founded under the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian (527-565 B.C.) in the mid-6th century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery is among the oldest Christian monasteries still operating and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It houses one of the world’s largest and most celebrated collections of Byzantine icons, thanks to its uninterrupted history and the watchful care of the monks.

Some scholars have put forth the hypothesis that the icons were sent to Sinai for safekeeping during the period known as the Iconoclastic Controversy or ‘quarrel of images’ (730-843 B.C.), which deeply shook the Byzantine Empire and led to extensive destruction.

The pre-iconoclastic icons may have survived due to the fact that during this period, Sinai was already under Arab Muslim domination, beyond the reach of iconoclastic Byzantine emperors.

Exhibited artworks:

Micro-Mosaic Icon Depicting Saint Nicholas, 14th-century gold frameByzantine Empire (Constantinople?), Late 13th or early 14th century ©Khanenko Museum

This precious icon illustrates a particularly meticulous technique initially developed by workshops in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) in the second half of the 12th century. This production subsequently thrived in the 13th and 14th centuries under the Palaeologus dynasty. Only some fifty examples remain today, two of which are at the Louvre.

Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra (Turkey) in the 4th century, is depicted in half-length, with a halo and pontifical vestments: a cope (phelonion) and band decorated with crosses (omophorion). He bestows a blessing with his right hand and holds the Scriptures in his left. In keeping with his traditional depiction in Byzantine art, he has a protruding forehead and a heavy beard.

Saint Plato and Saint Glyceria, Encaustic painting on wood panel | 6th-7th century, from Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai (Egypt) ©Khanenko Museum

These half-length figures, cross in hand characterizing them as martyrs, are positioned side by side facing the viewer; the colours create some variety in this rather symmetrical composition. They are identified as Saint Plato and Saint Glyceria from a few white letters from a highly fragmentary inscription on the dark blue strip on top.

The combination of name and image strengthens the holy nature of the icon, intended for worship and intercession through Christian prayer.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Encaustic painting on wood panel | 6th–7th century, from Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai (Egypt) ©Khanenko Museum

Saint Sergius and Bacchus are depicted in half-length and in fully frontal view. Their juvenile features, crowned with a large circular gilded halo, and gilded clothing, practically identical, accentuate the hieratic nature of the depiction.

Both hold up a cross, symbolizing their martyrdom and wear a large golden torque (maniakion) around their necks adorned with cabochons, which is a mark of their rank. This trait, often specific to them in Byzantine iconography, thus identifies them and distinguishes them from many other military saints.

Virgin and Child, Encaustic painting on wood panel | 6th century. From Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai (Egypt) ©Khanenko Museum

The subject of the Virgin and Child is central to Byzantine art. Here it is treated in an unusual fashion: the Virgin holds the Christ Child against her left shoulder and both face right, towards the Child’s open, outstretched hand, more in a gesture of greeting than of blessing to viewers.

This composition is likely inspired by an Adoration of the Magi. Furthermore, the Virgin’s slight movement indicates a period in which the hieratic character specific to Byzantine art was not yet standardized. The facial expressions are tender, showing a slight smile.

Saint John the Baptist, Encaustic painting on wood panel | 6th century, From Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai (Egypt) ©Khanenko Museum

Saint John the Baptist is depicted full-length and in frontal view, hips slightly to the side, wearing simple sandals with straps. Between the tunic adjusted with a belt and the mantle (himation), a section of which is thrown over his shoulder, he wears a melote, a sort of sheepskin cape, painted quite realistically, knotted across the chest, and hanging freely down the back. The melote and belt are the traditional attributes of desert hermits.

The ascetic character of this slender figure is also expressed through his drawn facial features, drooping moustache, beard, and long hair. His right-hand shows Christ, and his left-hand holds a scroll on which a few letters are still legible, composing his prophecy announcing the Messiah: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ (Gospel of John 1:29).

The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv

The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv is the most important Ukrainian institution dedicated to universal art history. It encompasses some 25,000 works of ancient art, Byzantine, European and Asian art. The museum’s collection owes its origin to the Ukrainian entrepreneurs, art lovers, and philanthropists, Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko.

The Khanenko Museum has survived two wars in the 20th century and is now enduring its third one. At the start of the Russian invasion, its collections were hidden and the building is currently empty. In October 2022, the historical building and its interiors were damaged by a missile strike forty metres from its walls. International support is important more than ever to preserve these valuable artworks, as well as to bring these rare treasures to the public eye.

Exhibition details:

Title: The Origins of the Sacred Image: Icons from the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv
Venue: Denon wing, room 173, The Louvre, Paris, France
Date: 14 June - 6 November 2023
Opening hours:

  • Daily, except Tuesdays, from 9 am to 6 pm, and until 9:45 pm on Fridays

*Booking a timeslot is recommended