"If God gives you some talent, you have an obligation to use it."

6 May 2008, 16:22 | Events & people | view photo | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Volodymyr SvietlohorskyiArtist Volodymyr Svietlohorskyi, official iconographer of the Old Believers’ Eparchy in Ukraine, speaks with Yurii CHORNEI, RISU’s correspondent in southwestern Ukraine’s Chernivtsi Region.

RISU’s Ukrainian-language site posted the text on 6 May 2008, excerpts from which follow.

A resident of Chernivtsi since birth, a Russian noble by origin, Volodymyr Svietlohorskyi wrote (painted) his first icon of the savior when he was barely 20 years old. The future iconographer took his first steps on the road to recognizing the word of God when taking advantage of Bible quotes found in a Soviet atheist dictionary. But he came to “the true Orthodox faith,” as he calls the Old Believers’ Church, only at an advanced age, managing by this time to paint countless landscapes, icons, and three churches.

-- [Chornei] Do you feel more like an iconographer or an artist?

-- [Svietlohorskyi] I’m more an iconographer… Once I had exhibits of secular works. While studying at the institute I was particularly enthusiastic about landscapes, which also came out not badly for me. But now I’m no longer interested in this. So I left secular painting. And among my classmates there are really honored artists and even higher…



-- Is it correct to call you Volodymyr the iconographer?

-- Yes! What is more, I have the blessing of Bishop Savatii of Kyiv and All Rus-Ukraine of the Orthodox Old Believers’ Church to open an iconography workshop, and another decree from the eparchy designating me as the eparchial iconographer. Right now we have one bishop and all the priests subject to him. So now I am involved not only with the churches of Bila Krynytsia but also the rest of our churches through all Ukraine. Unfortunately, there is not one Old Believers’ church from which a minimum of 30 to 40 icons have not been stolen. So in recent years I have traveled often and replaced what is missing from icon-screens. On the other hand, I have had the opportunity to visit many churches of Ukraine. I have the right to go on the altar; the bishop allows this. When I touch such masterpieces, the spirit seizes me. All this gives me the opportunity to work as is necessary.

-- Though you were born in Chernivtsi, you have a last name very uncharacteristic for this region.

-- On my father’s side I am really an ethnic Russian. My grandfather was a nobleman and perished in the communist terror… After World War II mom and dad moved to Chernivtsi, where I was born. My parents were not Old Believers, but as far as I have been able to investigate, there were some old roots in the family tree. So, though I was not born into the old faith, I found it in time…



-- Do you manage to do it all yourself, or do you have helpers?

--So far I manage to do it alone. But when we open the workshop in Chernivtsi, then we’ll see what happens…



-- After your first icon, were there many icons?

-- The Lord gently made me fall in love with this matter. Finally, life forced me to open a workshop for working with wood. And I often asked myself: Why did I study painting so long only to end up being involved with the production of exclusive doors? And then one time I ended up making an icon from wood. So the Lord showed me what I should be involved in and why I was doing wood work. In Soviet times I also managed to paint three churches. In the village of Tysovets, the church that I spent two years painting is still standing after 20 years. This is a beautiful church; I used the image of a Chernivtsi Easter egg when I was painting it. Inside it turned out as pretty as an Easter egg. But the style there is not Byzantine but Italian or, as we say, Latin. So woodwork is for the support of economic circumstances but my main task is the rebirth of Bila Krynytsia [a major center for the Old Believers—editor’s note].

-- You said that you came to the old faith, but were not born in it. How did this happen?

-- Exactly 33 years after we graduated from the vocational school in Vyzhnytske, during Lent itself, the phone in my house rang twice. I picked up the receiver and heard the voice of my classmate, Stepan… “I know where you live. I’ll come there now,” he said. In a little while a car drove up and a man in black bishop’s vestment stepped out of it. In our circles earlier there was a rumor that Stepan had become a priest in the Chernivtsi Region. But, really, we didn’t know that he had become Bishop Savatii of Kyiv and all Rus-Ukraine of the Orthodox Old Believers’ Church. His Grace and I did not see each other even once after we graduated from vocational school. That evening we quickly called everyone we could and gathered five of our classmates. His Grace talked about his ministry, I listened and looked, and the Lord revealed to me what I needed to do…



-- I was particularly impressed by your tolerant attitude towards representatives of other Orthodox churches, though sometimes among Old Believers there could be some historical pretensions towards them…

-- The 17th century is to the present a bleeding wound which we can in no way heal. Patriarch Alexis [II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church] himself admits this. We also understand all this: it is very difficult to turn around the awareness and subconscious of people in one day. We are waiting for people to go this path that they have already begun to walk. When I meet with priests of other Orthodox denominations—we live in one world—they admit that the Old Believers left books for them and something for them to think about. And there are many who think. Thank God, there are already many who are starting to become interested in these things. Priest Mykhailo from the Chernivtsi Church of Peter and Paul together with his wife and a whole class of children traveled on excursion to Bila Krynytsia. And we, in our turn, hope that all our brothers will be saved. Personally I very much hope that all my acquaintances from my earlier life—priests and laypeople—go this path quickly and receive the chance to be saved.



--Is there something that distinguishes Old Believers’ icons from other Orthodox icons?

-- Of course! First of all, on our icons you will nowhere see [saints making the sign of the cross] with three fingers. We [make it with] two fingers. You all know this very well. For example, one of the saints most popular among the people, Nicholas the Wonder-Worker, on the majority of icons is shown giving a blessing with two fingers. Only in the 18th-19th centuries did his fingers start to separate, the middle finger joined the index finger. But this cannot be the case with us. Second of all, an Old Believer icon rejects what you would call a “painting-style” representation of the saint, characteristic for secular painting and some newer icons.



-- How long does it take to write an average icon?

-- In general, this depends on its size and other current matters. And I also keep on doing woodworking projects and this also takes some time. So, sometimes it happens that you prepare for a long time to write an icon, and you write it very quickly.

-- Do you write with some special paint?

-- I write with tempera, generally of two types: German and St. Petersburg. For the rest, everything that works: the foundation is lime. I also do all the preparations with my own hands.



--Could you do the work all by yourself?

-- This question has already been discussed with the bishop, and I’m ready even now to do the work. As for the painting, I don’t need anything, no salary, no money. The Lord always gives me money, so I’m ready to choose masters, to take students and in a few years to work nicely there. But for the general building work, materials, renovation inside the church, scaffolding, some funds are necessary. You need to pay the specialists who carry out the general building work. We have already taken a good look at how to economize on this. For example, to put up portable scaffolding: at first on one side, and then on the other. Though from the point of view of writing icons this is not very convenient. You finish on one side and then you could with this paint go over to the other, but we are ready for this inconvenience. However, the question of where to get 3 to 5 million hryvnias [up to US $ 1 million] still and all remains open. When President Yushchenko visited the cathedral last year, we touched on this theme. Though no one asked him about this, Yushchenko even promised to take up his hat and “shake down” some rich people in Kyiv, to find a couple hryvnias for the restoration of the Church of the Dormition. My spiritual father, a friend of the bishop, and I, we both hope that Yushchenko sometime will remember that he said he would help… By the way, somewhere there in the Rublov Museum they should have kept sketches done by Vasnietsovyi specially for the painting of the Dormition Church.



[Svietlohorskyi talked about the situation with a church in Kyiv and the money that a certain Ukrainian politician spent for a flight to France.]

--And how do you know about the exploits of politicians?

-- We are not allowed to watch television, but my spiritual father forgives me for this. I have to receive information from somewhere. We live in a world in which we have to know something. If I became a monk, then, no doubt, I wouldn’t look at the television. But while I’m involved in woodworking, I have to know about the course of events.

--And how did you happen to meet the president?

-- I traveled to Bila Krynytsia, not knowing that the president would be there. I just needed to measure a frame for the entrance icon of the Dormition Church. And here Yushchenko just arrived at the airport. I thought that the head of the government didn’t just come to Bila Krynytsia for no reason. This was very symbolic; respecting the past, he well understands that there are our roots, our faith is preserved there in an untouched appearance. All the more that the Jerusalem of Old Believers remains within Kyivan Rus, on the territory of modern Ukraine.

-- What else did Yushchenko say, except for promising to “shake down” the oligarchs?

--We generally discussed icons. I showed him the icon-screens in three presently operating churches in Bila Krynytsia. He looked at everything in silence, and when he went up to the icon of the Last Judgment in the Church of Cosmas and Damian, he simply repeated quietly: “Fantastic, fantastic, this is the cosmos!” And again he promised to think over the proposition of the pastor of one of the churches, Fr. Serhii, to invite the presidents of Russia, Romania, and Moldova for the centennial of the Dormition Church, which will be celebrated in fall 2008. The conversation in that direction didn’t go any further, though it would have been desirable if it had.



-- And finally: what does all this burden mean to you personally?

-- An older lady once told me that the human person has only two paths. One is to destruction, the other to salvation. And you should always choose between them. If this is the way of salvation, then you should go on it. Second, if God gives you some talent, you have an obligation to use it. Otherwise at the Last Judgment God will ask you why you did not do this. Because of ignorance people think that they are all-powerful, but, really, people are small creatures and their lives are very short. So they need to live worthily and for the glory of God.

Related RISU materials:


• http://www.risu.org.ua/eng/major.religions/old_believers/

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