Art and Faith

Monday, 24 November 2008

Reaching for the Light in Hamburg

The Orthodox parish of St John of Kronshtadt in Hamburg is one of the newest and fastest-growing Russian Orthodox communities in Germany. In decorating its church-building, which combines several styles of Christian architecture, the parish is trying to find a happy medium between the Eastern and Western traditions of painting and d├ęcor, using both the most ancient techniques and the most up-to-date technologies to do so.

The church-building of the St John of Kronshtadt parish was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the neo-Romanesque style, an architectural motif going back to the period before the separation of the Churches, as can be seen in the patterns of Georgian and Armenian church architecture.

This is a building that is flooded with light as the nave is illuminated by enormous windows. Therefore, a classical Russian iconostas would not be suitable, as the icons would appear as dark silhouettes on a gold background. Therefore, Aleksandr Nikolaevich Soldatov, the master-iconographer in charge of creating the iconostas, decided to base his work on fresco technique instead.

The art of fresco painting, that is, to paint on a damp plaster background, is very ancient; it predates the appearance of Christianity. Indeed, it was used some 2,000 to 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. It is both simple in conception and complex in execution. Therefore, the artists working at the parish are doing their best to replicate the techniques and approach of the old masters.

The architect in charge of the reconstruction did his best to locate the iconostas naturally in the space of the church-building. Romanesque motifs are clearly used in its conception; it is somewhat triangular, surmounted by a large cross. Besides attempting to harmonise the iconostas with the general pattern of the building, the master-iconographer, remembering the historical connections of Old Russia with the West in the times of Grand Prince St Vladimir, plans to use artistic themes and techniques of the Russian north, quite similar to those found in architecture of medieval Novgorod Veliki.

To paint the frescoes, the artists mostly used the same kind of pigments as the medieval iconographers used, prepared in the same manner as in the past.

Natural materials were bought in Russia, and they were processed using traditional processes to obtain the necessary pigments.

The longevity of a fresco is connected with the fact that the paint, after coming into contact with the wet plaster, is absorbed by the wet plaster; after a number of hours, the plaster dries and reacts with the air. It is this chemical reaction which fixes the pigment particles in the plaster. Because of this protective film, frescoes are long-lasting; the painted areas can even be washed.

Unfortunately, where it is necessary to paint directly on the concrete, it is impossible to use traditional pigments, therefore, the cross and ornaments are painted using contemporary chemical pigments.

The intention of the designer is for the cross surmounting the iconostas to appear as if it were floating in the air.

It goes without saying that this beauty created by contemporary architects, designers, and painters can lead people into the church-building. However, there is no question that the main thing is that faith and love for Christ shall continue to burn in the heart of man, in the same way that it did in the life of the great Russian pastor, St John of Kronshtadt.

An interior shot of the church showing the new iconostas.

A shot of the nave of St John of Kronshtadt parish in Hamburg in northern Germany.

20 June 2008

Pomoshchnik i Pokrovitel (Helper and Protector) (in Russian)

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