Thursday’s post, “Stones That Sing” on the FraAngelico blogsite: http://fraangelicoinstitute.com/2012/05/10/stones-that-sing-the-photography-of-dennis-aubrey-and-pj-mckey/, about a lovely medieval church in France, stirred up memories of another church I had seen in Russia.
The Church of Our-Savior-on-the-Nereditsa was completed in the year 1198, near the northwestern Russian city-state of Novgorod. Some of the greatest icons ever created were written in Novgorod. It was a city of major importance, at one time the capital of the country, a center of learning and culture. It survived attacks by Vikings and Mongols. It was the Novgorod defenses that stopped the advance of the Mongols and halted their intended invasion of Europe. As the rest of Russia suffered under Mongol rule, the still-independent Novgorodians preserved ancient books, artwork, religion, and culture. In the 1400s, the first translation of the Bible into Russian was made here. Throughout the centuries, Novgorod was a center of learning and travel, with evidence of much cultural exchange. Magnificent churches were built to give glory and thanks to God.
The Church of Our Savior on the Nereditsa was built in a nearby town. The icons and frescos showed the influence of Serbian masters. The church was the center of town life and the people took great pride in its beauty. For 800 years they worshipped and prayed there. Even after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the church was cared for as a historic national treasure. Every square inch of it was photographed and mapped.
In 1941, the German army invaded and advanced, and laid siege to the town from across the river Nereditsa. The Russian government sent a request to the German government to please spare this ancient building, as a cultural treasure for the entire world. The Nazis responded by pulverizing it. By 1944, all that remained of the old building with its magnificent frescos of Christ and the saints was rubble. The icons and other portable artworks were looted and taken out of the country.
After the war, the townsfolk returned. Filled with grief, they began to pick up the shards of the Holy Images from the tall grass. They gathered pieces for years, working every summer and filling basket after basket with every fragment they could find. The pieces were brought to a museum and stored in the basement.
There, a woman and her 3 student assistants labor today in the dusty airless rooms, to restore the images. The old photographs taken decades before were translated by computer into actual-size line diagrams of the artwork to serve as guides. Piece by piece, like an astronomically mind-boggling puzzle, the fresco fragments are being fitted together on top of the computer drawings. One by one, they are being glued back together and repaired.
The church building itself has been rebuilt in the same location. The dream is to restore the Church of Our Savior-on-the-Nereditsa to magnificence, with as many of the original 12th Century frescos as possible.