March 30, 2023

The Bode Museum is one of the most beautiful and underrated museums in the German capital. It stands on the Museum Island, in the place where the Spree splits into two branches, as if growing out of the river, its round dome makes it look like a temple. The museum houses a unique collection of medieval sculptures and Byzantine rarities – numerous images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints carved from wood, sometimes entire altar compositions.

This is a very atmospheric place with spacious, sun-drenched rooms with incredibly high ceilings, but there are usually few visitors here. Medieval sculpture does not arouse such interest as the bust of Nefertiti located in neighboring buildings or the Pergamon altar.

Bode Museum with exhibition poster
Bode Museum with exhibition posterPhoto: Dmitry Vachedin/DW

Medieval “doubles” found for Ukrainian art

A year ago, a month after the start of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the museum (like many other museums in Germany) hired an employee from Ukraine. The appearance in the museum of art critic Olesya Sobkovich, who curated a number of exhibitions in Kyiv, including those on current political topics (for example, about the children of Donbass), gave the museum a new impetus. The appearance of the specialist coincided with the desire of the museum to speak out on the topic of the ongoing war – which is not so easy if you only have medieval sculptures at your disposal.

The solution was found in creating a non-standard combination – modern ukrainian art on the theme of war, usually created by Ukrainian artists in the first months after the invasion, were placed right among the medieval exhibits.

Curator Olesya Sobkovich
Curator Olesya Sobkovich at the exhibitionPhoto: Dmitry Vachedin/DW

For each modern object, a “double” was found from Middle Ages – an exhibit expressing a similar emotion – after which these two exhibits were simply placed side by side. That is, Ukrainian art was not hung in a separate room, but distributed pointwise throughout the museum among the already existing exposition. The main find of the exhibition “Timeless. Contemporary Ukrainian Art in Times of War”, which opened on March 17, is in those unexpected feelings that arise when you simultaneously look at medieval European and modern Ukrainian art. Despite the fact that the works were created with a distance of hundreds of years, these emotions are similar, if not identical.

“Suffering Middle Ages” and the sad present

In Russian, thanks to the appearance of ironic topics in social networks, the expression “suffering Middle Ages” has spread – however, it is true, according to Paul Hoffmann, who heads the sculpture department at the museum, medieval art worked primarily with difficult topics – fear, trauma , sadness, confusion and loss. “We wanted to show what the experience of the war in Ukraine does to all of us. But for this it is enough to look at our exhibits, which have one important feature – they exist outside of time,” he said at the opening of the exhibition. And a selection of Ukrainian art was prepared by a new employee of the museum, Olesya Sobkovich. Moreover, she selected the works of not only established artists, but also popular works by little-known authors that were distributed on Instagram and supported Ukrainians in difficult days.

Painting by Alisa Lozhkina
Painting by Alisa Lozhkina “Flight to Egypt” and a 15th-century bas-relief by an unknown author with the same motifPhoto: Dmitry Vachedin/DW

The combination of digital art with medieval sculpture is a revolutionary and risky project for the Bode Museum, which became possible only after the appearance of the Olesya Sobkovich Museum on the staff. The project for the employment of Ukrainian specialists who had to leave the country because of the war was partly paid for by the Ernst von Siemens Foundation. “This is not a charity project, Ukrainian specialists in some respects turned out to be much more advanced than us. For example, in the field of digital art and digital technologies in general,” Martin Hoernes, head of the foundation, admitted at the opening of the exhibition.

“Kyiv Madonna”

The way an exhibition works is best explained with one specific example. On February 25, 2022, on the second day of the invasion, the Hungarian journalist Andras Feldes took a photograph in the Kiev metro, where the people of Kiev were fleeing from shelling, he took a picture of a young woman who was breastfeeding a child. The journalist posted a photo on his Instagram, where she became instantly famous. Dnipro-based illustrator Marina Solomennikova used this photo to create her painting Kiev Madonna. “All the puzzles of what I saw and read immediately formed in my head – this woman with a child was a symbol of all Ukrainian mothers who must hide from Russian weapons in bomb shelters,” Marina says in an interview with the BBC.

“Kiev Madonna” Solomennikova scattered across social networks and not only – her copy serves as an icon in one of the temples of Naples. Now she has reached Berlin. Curator Olesya Sobkovich and the organizers of the exhibition have placed this work next to a very rare image of the Mother of God nursing a baby, dated to the 4th-5th century AD, which was discovered in Egypt. In the coming months, two nursing mothers, created with a distance of more than one and a half thousand years, can be seen in the Bode Museum – and, for example, feel that not so much has changed during this time.

See also:

UNESCO Monuments: Museum Island in Berlin

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