A brief note on Ukrainian Baroque frames

0 Cover

This is a very short and superficial reference to some of the striking work which emerged at the time when Ukraine itself was formed as a country. It is the product of western European Baroque influences and the strongly decorative strands of folk art in Ukraine operating together on a core of religious art: the icons and iconostases which had been the main expression of carved and painted art in the region for several centuries. Because the history of picture frames is an embryonic subject there, as still in some other countries, this brief piece is just a pointer towards a few of those works of art which have been endangered at various times in the past, and are once more under threat; the history and art of a country is the soul of its people, and needs to be recognized and recorded.

1 Royal Doors of an iconostasis mid C16 Volyn National KyivPechersk Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve

Royal Doors of an iconostasis, mid-16th century, from Volyn, National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical & Cultural Museum Reserve. Photo: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The iconostasis is the Orthodox Church’s equivalent to the painted rood screens and great wall-like polyptychs which characterized the mediaeval and early Renaissance periods in western Europe, and which endured longer in Spain and Portugal [1]. As with those polyptychs and screens, the woodwork is a structural, ornamental and often symbolic part of the whole, and Ukrainian wood-carving seems to have developed a high level of complexity and expertise in order to produce work which might glorify God in all its aspects. In modern museums, the constituent elements – painted panels separated from the iconostases which housed them, or doors like those above, which shut off the sacred area of the church from the space where the congregation worshipped – often have no frames at all, or partial mouldings which give little idea of the majestic structures of which they formed part. These particular doors are bordered with rope or cable mouldings, which act like gadrooning to provide a flicker of light around the paintings, highlighting and animating them, and providing focus within the great ornamental theatre of the iconostasis itself.

‘Lavra apprentices [i.e. students in the Lavra Icon-painting Workshop, founded in the early 18th century in Kyiv] were good ornamentalists; their works are decorated with ornamental motifs, borrowed from folk embroidery, wood carving, various projects of decorative cartouches, jewellery stamping’ [2].

1 Bernardo Daddi fl c1318to48 Madonna & Child enthroned with saints 2 Christies NY OMs Pt I 14Apr2016 Lot125

Bernardo Daddi (fl. c.1318-48), Madonna & Child enthroned with saints, Christie’s New York, Old Master Sale Part I, 14 Apr 2016, Lot 125

This intermarriage of folk art and fine art is true of the 17th century, too; for example, the decoration of gold grounds in Ukrainian religious art is quite different from that of Italian gold-ground paintings, where punchwork is used to decorate the friezes of frames, to outline haloes or to produce a subtle flicker of light on the damask-like patterns and borders around the painted figures.

2A St George & the dragon Death of John the Baptist Sacrifice of Isaac

2B St George & the dragon etc detail

Anon., 17th century Ukrainian School, panel with scenes showing St George & the dragon, the execution of John the Baptist, and Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and detail, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv

For example, in this 17th century Ukrainian triptych panel, painted around three centuries after Daddi’s small Gothic aedicule, the gold ground behind St George is a major symbolic as well as decorative feature. It sets the saint (an important figure in Ukraine and patron saint of Lviv) against a background of what look like engraved sunflowers, but are probably their smaller sisters, marigolds – one of the flowers associated with the Virgin Mary.  At that point, the sunflower was a newly-arrived species in Europe, which gradually spread eastwards, and was adopted as a folk art motif in Ukraine (where it grew abundantly from the early 19th century), only later becoming, fortuitously, the national flower of the country. Sunflowers, marigolds and the sun itself also acquired an association with Christ as the metaphorical sun of the world, perhaps subsuming an earlier association of Apollo as sun god.

In relation to this particular painting, the engraved flowers and leaves update the earlier use of punchwork, giving a more dynamic, Baroque cast to the work which reflects the progress away from the stylization of traditional Byzantine icons towards a more realistic treatment of figures and movement. The flowers also reflect the carved flowers in the spandrels. The canopy-like arch of egg-&-dart moulding applied perpendicularly to the panel is another feature of Ukrainian frames, combining classical architectural ornaments with a jutting sight edge which focuses the attention on the painted scene.

3 Anon Adoration of the Magi from Hłomcza near Lviv Ukraine

Anon., Adoration of the Magi, from Hłomcza, Lviv; Muzeum Historyczne, Sanok, Poland

Where the arch in the St George… panel rests on vestigial brackets attached to the sight edge of a conventional cassetta, this Adoration of the Magi has a complete architectural doorway opening (as if outwards from the church where the icon would hang) onto a landscape setting, with the Holy Family sitting outside their stable to receive the kings. The deep inner sides of the pilasters and arch are carved in shallow relief with scrolling foliage and flowers, and the outside edge of the arch with egg-&-dart, like the St George… – save here the eggs are painted alternately red and green, giving them the appearance of gems set into an early metalwork book binding. There are carved flowers in the spandrels, but these trail bunches of grapes instead of leaves, symbolizing the wine of the Eucharist. The gold ground of the panel is incised once more with marigolds, set into a sort of trellis between heaven and earth.

The depth of the arched doorway gives it a strikingly realistic effect, welcoming the worshipper into close proximity with the scene on the other side, where the figures seem to be posed barely across the threshold. They are figures which are still struggling out of the hieratic style of earlier icons into more anatomical naturalism, and this tension is echoed by the realism of the archway set against the flat, decorative elaboration of the gilded flowery sky.

4A Icon Museum of Sacred Art Saint Kazymyr Cathedral Lviv restored 1

Anon., 17th century Ukrainian School, Museum of Sacred Art, Lviv

The same type of deep, sculptural sight edge appears in this icon. It is one of more than four thousand owned by the Museum of Sacred Art in Lviv, Ukraine, which is housed in the former Cathedral of Saint Kazymyr. In 2008 a US fund made a grant to the museum, to conserve forty of its icons, including this one [3]; many of them had been rescued during various wars and periods of destruction, including the iconoclasm of the Soviet era, and had lost parts or all of their frames, or were unframed panels from larger iconostases.

Where the frames do survive, little comparative attention has been given to them in terms of historical research, although some of the beautifully carved frames of the major iconostases may well be signed, like their Greek cousins. This free-standing icon, although rather battered, is dated (1759), and its structure must have been influenced by the reforms introduced by Peter the Great, who wanted to westernize the customs and fashions of Russia [4]. The Ukrainian church had been more open to such reforms than the Russian church, and was evidently also affected by the work of the craftsmen brought in from the west by the Tsar.

4B Icon Museum of Sacred Art Saint Kazymyr Cathedral Lviv detail

Anon., 17th century Ukrainian School, detail

This particular frame has a vestigial aedicular form, with a cornice and capitals (which appear to have lost some attachment beneath: possibly bosses or small drops). The icon itself is shaped to echo eastern architectural forms, but the raised border at the sight edge reflects western Baroque ornament, with its cross-cut acanthus on a convex moulding. Like many icons, the frame is parcel-gilt and polychrome, with a crimson ground – like a regal carpet – behind the bottom run of acanthus, whilst the main ground is celestial blue, setting off the ‘sunflowers’ (probably marigolds, again) and the flowing leaves in the spandrels.

5A Madonna and Child ed

Anon., 17th century Ukrainian School, Madonna & Child, Museum of Sacred Art, Lviv

Another similar frame, this time with an arched sight edge bordered by the same distinctive acanthus ornament, illustrates the importance of polychromy in these frames; the acanthus is picked out in gold on a blue ground, and the lower mouldings around the inscribed predella panel are black and gold, contrasting with the strong red of the main frame structure.

The high point of Ukrainian carved frames, however (and it is an extremely high point), is the iconostasis itself: incorporating the same elements which appear in the small frames of individual panels, such as an aedicular structure, shallow relief carved ornament, gilding and polychromy, deep arches and inner frames with decorative friezes perpendicular to the picture plane, chased gold grounds, pastiglia; as well as pierced Baroque cartouches, salomonic columns, attached tondi and flying finials.

6A Yov Kondzelevych 1667to c1740 Bohorodchany iconostasis 1698to1705 National Museum Lviv

Pavlo Gabriiovych  (? carver) and Yov Kondzelevych (painter; 1667-c.1740), Bohorodchany Iconostasis, 1698-1705, lower tiers as on view in the National Art Museum, Lviv

The Bohorodchany Iconostasis is an astonishing and vast work of Baroque art, which was transferred to the National Museum of Lviv in 1924, having travelled to a number of locations from its original home in an Orthodox monastery, the Maniava Hermitage. It measures 1300 x 1100 cm., and is so huge that the top half of it hangs in various arrangements of separate panels around two other walls of its gallery in the Museum [5]. It was carved and painted by a team of craftsmen working with the artist-monk Yov Kondzelevych over a period of seven years, from 1698 to 1705, for the Orthodox monastery of the Maniava Hermitage (which was rebuilt in the 20th century, and now contains a copy of the whole iconostasis). Kondzelevych seems to have orchestrated the whole composition, painted a number of the largest panels himself, and is notable for pushing the style of icon painting towards a much greater realism in the faces and anatomy of the divine figures and saints.

6B Yov Kondzelevych Bohorodchany Iconostasis 1698to1705 National Museum Lviv Reconstruction

Reconstruction of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis in a 3D scan, enabling it to be seen in its entirety. Photo: Encyclopaedia of Ukraine

What is also extraordinary is the wooden framework, which is strikingly opulent, even in terms of the iconostasis generally. It was made in situ by the monks, who included joiners and carvers, although the name of the local carver and gilder Pavlo Gabriiovych is suggested as one of those who may have overseen its creation [6].

6C Yov Kondzelevych Bohorodchany Iconostasis National Museum Lviv Detail of Doors

Bohorodchany Iconostasis, detail of the Royal Doors

It is brilliantly painted in the characteristic colours of Ukrainian sacred art – blue, red and green – overlaid with low-relief spiralling grapevines, panels of scrolling foliage, Baroque pierced leaf frames, immense sculptural modillions with leaves and shells, small Rococo-like brackets, painted leatherwork cartouches, inner frames with garlands of cherubs and saints in textured and patterned borders, as well as the sacred double door with its small icon sunburst frames and vines.

It has been dismantled several times – when the monastery was closed in the 18th century, and it was taken to the place which gave it its name, Bohorodchany; during the First World War; when it was moved to the Museum in 1924; during the Second World War; and again under Soviet occupation. Now it has once more been taken apart, packed up, and moved to a place of safety.

7A Ivan Rutkovych Zhovkva Iconostasis c1697to99 Holy Trinity Church built 1720 Zhovka near Lviv

Ignatiy Stobenskyj (carver) and Ivan Rutkovych (painter; c. 1650s-post-1728) and workshop,  Zhovkva Iconostasis, 1728, Holy Trinity Church, 1720, Zhovka, Lviv

The Zhovkva Iconostasis, executed by a number of artists working with Ivan Rutkovych in 1728, is installed in the tiny wooden church of Holy Trinity (1720) in Zhovkva, near Lviv (one of sixteen wooden churches in the Carpathians on the UNESCO World Heritage list [7]). There seems to be little information, apart from his name, on the carver, Ignatiy Stobenskyj; his woodwork is a spectacular and overwhelming confection of pierced golden foliate ornament, aspiring in great flamelike tiers to the crucifix at the crown, and deserves as much attention, historical record and praise as any work by the master woodworkers of Renaissance Italy or the great maîtres-sculpteurs of 17th and 18th century France.

7B Zhovkva Iconostasis detail of lower tiers

Zhovkva Iconostasis, detail of lower tiers

The twisted salomonic columns, wreathed in Eucharistic grapevines and supported on curling vine-covered modillions, are striking enough themselves in their accommodation of ornament to  form: columns like this are usually seen in versions of the huge (66 feet high) salomonic supports of Bernini’s baldacchino in St Peter’s, Rome, where the decoration is proportionately a great deal smaller, consisting of delicate branches of bay leaves scattered with Barberini bees. The columns of the iconostasis, in contrast, seem to be nothing but grapevines, shaped into spiralling pillars of fruit and leaves, supporting foliate capitals, panels of carved acanthus and cherubs’ heads sprouting from sunflowers, and separating the painted panels which have their own scrolling leaf frames, set with more green and yellow emblematic sunflowers and lilies.

As Thanos Andronikos writes of the Greek iconostasis,

‘The task of the wood carver or stone mason who executes an iconostasis is to unite the earthly and the divine, so that the world he creates on his great wall of wood or marble is peopled by humans, saints and animals, existing in harmony amongst fruit, flowers and foliage, and in harmony with God. The liturgical subjects, themes and treatment required by the Church restrict his hand in many ways; yet in the design of the carved ornament which holds the icons in each tier, borders and twines about the dividing areas, and overflows onto the gates and their canopy, the craftsman’s imaginative and stylist freedom is uncontrolled. The divine mingles with naturalistic local detail, and blends the style of Byzantium with the Baroque or Rococo’ [8].

This powerful expression of the earthly and the divine in harmony is, however, a fragile thing, three centuries old, held in a small wooden building of the same age. Like the people it belongs to, it can be destroyed so easily, so randomly and so wastefully; war is a threat, not only to human lives, but to the objects which encapsulate their past.

8 MyDogSighs eyeukraine

MyDogSighs: a weeping eye for Ukraine, painted in Northcote Lane, Cardiff; March 2022


UKRAINE – Arts & Culture Under Threat: a pdf


[1] See Thanos Andronikos, ‘An introduction to Greek Orthodox iconostases’ for an explanation of the structure and meaning of the iconostasis

[2] Quoted from P. Zholtovskyi, Artistic life in Ukraine in the 16th-18th centuries, 1983, p. 7, in Maryna Boichenko, Andrii Nykyforov, et al., ‘Aesthetic and philosophical foundations of Ukrainian art education development in the late 17th – early 20th centuries’, Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 2004

[3] See ‘The US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation: Annual report, 2008-09

[4] See ‘Russian frames: an interview with Oksana Lysenko of the Russian Museum, St Petersburg

[5] The project of creating a 3D scan of the complete iconostasis can be found here

[6] Vasil Romanyuk, ‘History of the journeys of the Bohorodchany Iconostasis

[7] Unesco list here; the church can be seen here

[8] Andronikos, op. cit.