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Petrykivka art graces Kyiv’s St. Yuriy Church

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Sept. 20, 2012, 9:48 p.m. | About Kyiv — by Denis Rafalsky

The wooden temple of Saint Yuriy Orthodox Church near Mykhailivska Square is decorated with cheerful Petrykivka ornaments.
© Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Denis Rafalsky

In a city of golden domed cathedrals, the modern Saint Yuriy Orthodox Church is one of the best kept secrets. This unique wooden church, hidden in the shadow of the imposing Intercontinental Hotel on Mykhailivska Square, is remarkable for its Petrykivka paintings.

Petrykivka is an extremely colorful style of decoration hailing from a small region in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. The folk style of painting has a primitivist streak and relies heavily on floral motifs. Traditionally, flowers were painted onto whitewashed walls of wooden lodgings by the women of the household. The most beautiful ornaments were sometimes compared with church frescoes. 

Eventually, the use of this style spread to wooden utensils, plates, boxes, chests and light carriages.  Sold at fairs, the cheerful Petrykivka ornaments became famous throughout Ukraine and beyond.

Masters used cat-hair brushes to paint the finest elements, while matches wrapped in soft fabric or fingers were used to draw berries or flower petals. Painted with egg yolks mixed and natural dies like fruit and vegetable juices, the pictures were bright and colorful, much like an autumnal landscape around Petrykivka village.

Artists now use a wider range of factory-made paints, which stretches the life of the art work. Just as the technique developed from its simple roots, so did the ornaments, becoming one of the most distinctive styles of folk painting in the country. Officials want it to gain UNESCO cultural heritage status.

Flowers of the eternal summer of Petrykivka. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

It’s not usually seen in a church, but Saint Yuriy’s head priest Serhiy Stankevych says it’s quite fitting. Petrykivka paintings are a manifestation of the Ukrainians’ mystical understanding of life. 

He says the flower, which is the central element of Petrykivka painting style, stands for life, or – more specifically – its origins.

“A Petrykivka painter, whenthey paint, feel the joy of life, gratitude to life,” Stankevych says. “Not to use that in the Christian context is absolutely impossible.”

Head priest Serhiy Stankevych

Saint Yuriy’s, which stands close to the ruins of a Kyivan Rus monastery, opened in 2005. It was built in a traditional manner, with walls erected without the use of nails, using spruce from Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. A beautiful carved wooden iconostasis came from the same area in western Ukraine. 

The floral theme of eternal summer inspired 55-year old Stankevych to decorate the interior of the temple with Petrykivka paintings. The work was done by artist Halyna Nazarenko, a Petrykivka native.

The priest asked her to paint his church after seeing an exhibition of her work. Nazarenko told Kyiv Post she accepted the offer enthusiastically, but with due reverence: “To decorate the church is a big responsibility because paintings must follow church traditions, fit the canons.”

“As far as I know, we are the only temple in Ukraine that took the risk of showing off Petrykivka (paintings),” Stankevych says. “It seems to be a success.” 

Nazarenko, now 44, has been painting in this style since her childhood, a passion inherited from her mother. She counts 19 personal exhibitions  in Ukraine and abroad. She can paint on glass, wood, porcelain and fabric, and often wears clothes featuring her own paintings. 

The main parts took seven full days to paint. The artist worked well into the night, sleeping in the church. On some days Nazarenko got help from another painter from her village, Iryna Kibets.

“They have different characters: Halyna is like a volcano, and Iryna is more like a  gentle wind,” Stankevych says. “But they are both hugely talented, and they sing  in unison while painting.” 

Nazarenko has also painted a  three-meter wooden cross with vine and flowers, red guelder rose and grapes, which will soon be set outside the church.

Standing close to the ruins of a Kyivan Rus monastery, wooden Saint Yuriy’s was built in a traditional manner without the use of nails. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

The cross-beams of the church feature exquisite paintings of ears of wheat, tangled with bunches of grapes. Stankevych interprets it as reference to the bread and wine used during mass. Pictures of twelve apostles are surrounded by wreaths of flowers that Nazarenko copied from the ancient icon of Mother of God that used to belong to a Ukrainian Cossacks’ church.

Some work is still in progress, but most of the interior of Saint Yuriy Church has already been painted. Stankevych says he wants the altar section and the rood loft to be decorated by Petrykivka paintings in near the future. 

He also has artistic plans for the interior roof. “I want it to be the sky, not ordinary air, but the place where angels live,” says Stankevych. 

He compares the church to a “garden lit with candles.” He says Petrykivka decoration will give hope to praying people, who will be transformed by looking at this manmade beauty. 

“The prayer must be based on visuals,” says Stankevych.  

Kyiv Post staff writer Denis Rafalsky can be reached at rafalsky@kyivpost.com

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