March 26th — Dante’s Kyiv; Chernihiv in the Crosshairs

In light of the ongoing bombardment of the Ukrainian capital, the Kyiv city administration has moved to protect monuments in central areas that haven’t yet been targeted. Public monuments, such as the iconic statue of St. Vladimir on Vladimir hill, have been covered in improvised blast shielding.

Other memorials and public sculptures — the monument to Dante Alighieri, for instance — have been piled high with sandbags.

The situation in Chernihiv, a city 150 kilometers north of Kyiv, has become much more alarming. Some military analysts are predicting that it could become the “next Mariupol.” The city is now under constant shelling and bombardment. On the nights of March 22nd and March 23rd, Russian bombs destroyed the nearby bridge over the river Desna, cutting the route for supplies to the city. Now, several days later, there is still no heat or electricity in Chernihiv.

Thankfully, most of the critical architectural landmarks in the city center have yet to be seriously damaged. (This is in stark contrast to the situation on the city’s outskirts, which we described in our March 12th post.)

One sad exception is the Yelets Dormition Monastery. Built in 1060 and razed during a Mongol invasion in 1239, the monastery was reconstructed in 1623 and then renovated in the style of the Ukrainian Baroque in 1669-1688. The monastery stood undisturbed through the intervening centuries until this week, when Russian shells damaged its walls, gates, bell tower, and the domes of the Dormition Cathedral, which was erected between the Twelfth and Seventeenth Centuries.

Yelets Dormition Monastery
The monastery walls after shelling

Chernihiv’s museums are currently in grave danger, as well. One of them is the is Hryhorii Galagan Regional Art Museum, which houses more than five thousand artworks of various Western European, Ukrainian, and Russian schools.

Hryhorii Galagan Regional Art Museum

The core of the museum’s collection was amassed by Hryhorii Galagan (1819-1888), the scion of an aristocratic Cossack family, who was a dedicated philanthropist and patron of arts. The Galagan treasures are unique in having survived to the present day intact, despite their aristocratic lineage. Before the revolution, the collection was housed in the Galagan palace, Sokyryntsi, which is nearly 200 kilometers from Chernihiv. Sokyryntsi was the only large country estate in the area that was spared looting and general destruction — an indication of the high esteem felt by local peasants for the family that owned it.

During the 1920s, the Galagan collection was moved to Chernihiv. Its current home was established in 1983. Among the highlights of the European paintings in the collection is “The Concert,” by the Dutch painter Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588–1629).

“The Concert,” Hendrick ter Brugghen (1626)

The Dutch school is also represented by “Vanitas,” by Godfried Schalcken (1643–November 1706).

“Vanitas,” Godfried Schalcken (Late 17th Century)

The museum also houses paintings that belonged to the Princely House of the Yusupovs, including a portrait of Prince Boris Yusupov (1794-1894). In it, Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), the famous French painter, depicted the young prince as Cupid.

“Cupid,” Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1790)

The museum’s greatest artistic and historical trove is the Galagan family portrait gallery, which includes paintings that span the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

“Portrait of Hryhorii Galagan,” Vasiliy Serebriakov (1843)

The highlight of the collection of Ukrainian paintings is an Eighteenth Century canvas by an anonymous painter depicting the Cossack Mamai, a hero of Ukrainian folk songs.

“Cossak Mamai,” Anonymous (Eighteenth Century)

Hryhorii Galagan was a patron of Ivan Shapovalenko, a Ukrainian painter he encountered in Rome in the latter half of the 1930s. Chernihiv’s art museum has the only painting of this important artist in a major Ukrainian collection. The painting is titled, “Portrait of an Italian Woman,” and depicts Vittoria Candida Rosa Caldoni, the famous Roman model.

“Portrait of Italian Woman,” Ivan Shapovalenko (1851)

Galagan also supported Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900), the Russian seascape painter, by purchasing one of his earliest works.

“Storm at Sea,” Ivan Aivazovsky (1840-1842)

Unfortunately, there’s scant information on the current status of the collection. We wonder: what will be the fate of these great art treasures in a city under constant bombardment? We hope for the safe evacuation of at least a part of the collection. Bombs aren’t the only peril these paintings face; in a city that lacks heat and electricity, uncontrolled humidity can be just as destructive.

Here’s hoping that Chernihiv and its splendid art museum manage to escape the dreaded title of the “next Mariupol.”