February 03, 2019

Christ in the Dungeon

Christ in the Dungeon
(c) Mike Vilchuk / Manege

This fascinating exhibition is running in St. Petersburg through Feb. 10. It presents wooden religious sculpture drawn from collections of 14 museums throughout Russia. All the sculptures are of a rare, but significant, subject in Russian Orthodox iconography – “Christ in the Dungeon” (“Midnight Savior”) – the depiction of Jesus Christ imprisoned, subjected to desecration and awaiting his ascent to Calvary on the first stop of the Via Dolorosa. For those who cannot visit, we offer a photo feature and notes from the curator.

The days of my early youth fell in the beginning of the last quarter of the twentieth century. It was the time of censorship and restrictions, when a book was believed to be the best gift. It was then when I received a small album Perm Wooden Sculpture as a present.

On the book's cover was an image of Christ seated with a palm against his cheek: one sculpture, another one, the third, the fourth, and somewhere in the distance a small fifth one. I was surprised by the Savior’s unusual posture, the strange gesture and the face with intense features, especially wide Asian cheekbones. The figures were naked and sat one behind another, which made a really strong impression.

Later, when I saw the sculptures in person, I was stunned. I was struck by the corporality and physicality of the figures: bones, muscles, skin folds, even blood stains, and particularly the faces that express so much suffering, humility and sacrifice...

In the museum exhibition in Perm (for which the book/album was created), the so-called “Perm gods” sat on some kind of awkward pedestals: cubes with a step. In storage they were placed on a shelf or against a wall — some were seated on chairs or in armchairs, which was even more absurd. They had tags with inventory numbers on their feet, similar to those they put on newborns in maternity homes. Interestingly, almost none of the sculptures have an identified artist, although there are those which were made very skillfully; others are carved in a coarser, more primitive, almost grotesque manner. The icons also rarely bear the names of their creators, but there are well-known painters who became famous for their craft.

There has always been a problem with sculptures in Orthodox churches. Sculpture came to Russia from the West, and allegedly, Belarusian carvers who worked for Patriarch Nikon crafted the first sculptural images of Christ in the Dungeon. In the Resurrection Cathedral of the New Jerusalem Monastery near Moscow, which was created in the fashion of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a “dungeon” was made next to the Golgotha side-chapel, where a sculpture of this kind was placed.

More than once, in the seventeenth, in the eighteenth, and in the nineteenth centuries “icons carved, chiseled or sculptured” compromised by paganism were banned. And if Calvary with crucified Christ became an integral part of an Orthodox church, the Midnight Savior was never widely accepted. And the narrow “dungeons”, which were an essential part of the sculptures and reminded of the imprisonment of Christ, are extremely rare even in museum collections.

As it turns out, the sculptures of Christ in the dungeon could find a well-deserved place neither in the churches, nor in the museum — as if they were castaways in both. The place that icons occupy in churches is clear, as is how to exhibit them in museums. But there is an obvious uncertainty in this case.

These sculptures survived for several reasons. First, they were located far from big cities where a censor’s hand might reach them. Second, in the post-revolutionary years, the “Perm gods” (the definition belongs to People’s Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky) interested local historians, enthusiasts and educators who managed to collect and preserve these amazing items. Among them are Nikolay Serebrennikov, son of a priest, who traveled many miles in search of Perm wooden sculptures and published a wonderful book about them in 1928; Alexander Lebedev and professor Pavel Bogoslovsky, both Directors of the Perm Museum. Lebedev was executed, and Bogoslovsky spent five years in labor camps. These circumstances bring additional meaning to this exposition.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split
– Matthew 27:51

At first, for this exhibition, we wanted to make free-standing podiums that would be low or inclined and uncomfortable for sitting. Deliberately uncomfortable, so that a viewer would have an existential choice, a temptation that is best neglected. But Anton Gorlanov, who was working on the exposition, proposed a motif of a grid, behind which prisoners languish both in a real confinement and in a symbolic “dungeon”. 

Also, the Manege space is in darkness, because that is the only way to experience the drama of the subject: it is the Midnight Savior after all. In the ante-room we placed a video of a gloomy forest and swaying trees, which the sculptures were carved from. On the first floor there are sculptures on lattice pedestals filled with stones, with felt cloths the background. Upstairs is a large square of lattice labyrinth with a symbolic courtyard, where the “dungeon” with the Savior’s figure is placed. He is literally “behind bars.”

When we started this project, there certainly was the temptation to present a wide variety of Russian wooden sculptures with impressive subjects and powerful images. But in order to avoid redundancy and allow visitors to reflect on essential things, we focused on one image only: Christ in the Dungeon.

The exhibit, Christ in the Dungeon runs through February 10 at St. Petersburg's Manege Exhibition Hall, located at Isaakevskaya Ploshchad 1.

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