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Monthly Archives: March 2013

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Richard Davies’ Wooden Churches of North Russia (click this to link to website)

In the summer of 1902 Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876 – 1942) the well known artist, stage designer and illustrator of Russian Folk Tales travelled to the Vologda Province in the North of Russia. During the summers of 1903 and 1904 he was sent by the Russian Museum in St Petersburg to the Vologda, Archangel and Olonets Provinces to collect works of folk art, which subsequently formed the basis of the museum’s Ethnographic Department.

Many of the photographs taken on these trips were used as illustrations in Bilibin’s article of 1904 in the World of Art Magazine entitled Folk Art of the Russian North. The article drew attention to the condition of the wooden churches: “the state of the churches is most lamentable. In the hands of uncivilized people, they are being vandalised to the point of destruction or are ruined with ‘restoration’ to the point of being unrecognisable”.

In 1911 The Society of the St Eugenia Community published ten of Bilibin’s photographs of the churches as a set of postcards sold to raise money to support its charitable work.Seeing these beautiful postcards inspired Richard Davies to travel to the Russian North in 2002 to find out which churches had survived.  Many churches have been lost: some have been left to rot; some have been destroyed by lightning; countless others by ignorance, spite and neglect. Last year, one church was hit by a reversing tractor – it tumbled like a pack of cards.

There is however much to celebrate. The integrity between the landscape and the architecture of this wooden world is as striking to us today as it was to Bilibin. The basic simplicity of the log cabin construction and the extravagant fantasies superimposed on it are just as startling. Although the churches that remain are in varying states of decay and despite their neglect and the wrecking of their interiors, these extraordinary structures have a spiritual presence which commands respect even in the absence of their gilded icons.