31 August 2015

Journeys in exile, through icons
paintings, poetry and imagination

Learning in Cambridge … books illustrate a hoarding on a building site near the railway station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

“Try not to be attached to any place, every place is for you little, every place is for you, there is a place of journey in you.” So Father Sergei Bulgakov wrote in his diary on 25 November 1924.

We were taken on a journey with Russian exiles through paintings and poetry, poetry and imagination, this afternoon at the second session of the IOCS summer conference in Cambridge when Dr Kateřina Bauerová (Charles University of Prague) spoke to us on “To Live Otherness: Sergei Bulgakov, Joanna Reitlinger and Maria Skobtsova in Exile.”

The conference is looking at “Christian Faith, Identity and Otherness,” and at the possibilities and limitations of dialogue in ecumenical and interfaith discourse.

Sister Joanna Reitlinger (1898-1988) (Julia Nikolaeyevna Reitlinger) was a Russian Orthodox nun and iconographer, who while in Paris was the spiritual child of Father Sergei Bulgakov and was present when he died after a stroke. Sister Joanna was one of three people who saw the divine light on Father Bulgakov’s face as he died.

Sister Joanna wrote dozens if not hundreds of icons in her life, including frescoes for the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius in London. She studied under the French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943), and she influenced modern iconographers such as Leonid Ouspensky and Father Gregory Krug.

After World War II, Sister Joanna went to England in 1946-1947 and created the frescoes and icons in the chapel of the Anglican-Orthodox Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius and a triptych for the Anglican Monastery of the Resurrection in Mirfield.

In 1947-1956, she decorated the east wall of the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius in Prague.

She returned to Soviet Russia in 1956, but was exiled to Tashkent with her sister, and there she supplemented her pension by decorating silk scarves. Sister Joanna gradually became reconciled with the Orthodox Church, and in 1974 a mutual friend introduced her to the enlightened and ecumenically-minded Russian Orthodox priest, Father Alexander Men (1935-1990).

She became the spiritual child of Father Alexander, and gave him Father Sergei Bulgakov’s vestments. Encouraged by Father Alexander, she returned to her icon writing at the age of 76, and once again produced palm-sized icons.

She had found a spiritual father who was completely in tune with the questing, intellectually outward-looking Orthodox tradition of her youth. He encouraged her to emerge from her reminiscences of turbulent times in émigré Orthodox theological circles in Paris, and to discuss Catholic and Protestant theology without any question of betraying their Orthodoxy.

Sister Joanna died in 1988 praising God to the end, dressed in the severest nun’s habit (the skhima). Despite her doubts and fears, and critics within the church of her free spirit, she is remembered as an artist of true merit and moral stature.

However, perhaps because of time, we never got to discuss Sister Maria Skobtsova of Paris (1891-1945), also known as Mother Maria of Paris. She was a Russian noblewoman, poet and nun who became part of the French Resistance in World War II, and she too had Father Sergei Bulgakov as her confessor.

In July, 1942, when the order requiring Jews to wear the yellow star was published, she wrote her poem Israel:

Two triangles, a star,
The shield of King David, our forefather.
This is election, not offence.
The great path and not an evil.
Once more in a term fulfilled,
Once more roars the trumpet of the end;
And the fate of a great people
Once more is by the prophet proclaimed.
Thou art persecuted again, O Israel,
But what can human malice mean to thee,
who have heard the thunder from Sinai?

Later, Mother Maria was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. There, on Holy Saturday 1945, she took the place of a Jewish woman who being sent to the gas chamber, and died in her place.

According to Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh: “Mother Maria is a saint of our day and for our day; a woman of flesh and blood possessed by the love of God, who stood face to face with the problems of this century.” She has been canonised a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Later in the afternoon, the Revd Prof Nikolaos Loudovikos (University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki) describes “The International Catholic / Orthodox academic dialogue in the Saint Irenaeus Group: Adventures of an Orthodox Secretary.”

The day concludes with Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College at 5.30 p.m. and dinner at 6.30 p.m.

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