Mosaics by Oleg Ulyanov in the chapel Redemptopris Mater in Vatican

In 1996, in the spirit of John Paul’s II awaiting close relations between Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches ( which was expressed in 1995 by the encyclical ‘Ut unum sint’), a decision was made about making a permanent symbol of this close relation in the very heart of the Holy See. The sign of it, to the personal wish of the Pope, was to be a new decoration of the private papal chapel devoted to the Redeemer’s Mother – Redemptoris Mater. Artistic works in the chapel were ordered to a Russian artist Oleg Ulyanov, supported in an organizational way by the Roman centre named Aletti. The orthodox artist was given an unusual task in the history of the Church: he had to make such a decoration in the chapel so that it would become - as John Paul II said about it hopefully – ‘a sign of unity of the Church and an important sign of presence of eastern tradition in Vatican’.

Heavenly Jerusalem – New Land

During a consultation, participated by theologians, orthodox and catholic priests, as well as art historians, Aleksander Kornoucho suggested a painting of the Holy City – Heavenly Jerusalem as the main motif of the altar wall; it is a symbol of God’s Kingdom and New Land. An inspiration for this presentation was a fragment of an icon of the Last Judgment from one of the Russian orthodox churches, on which saints, sitting in threes like the Holy Trinity, are participating with the Holy Trinity in a mystical feast in the Holy City. In the chapel Redemptoris Mater, what is particular significant is electing 36 Saints of the universal Church. Beside St. Francis and St. Clara – St. Seraph Sarowski, and beside St. Basil the Great and St. Sergius from Radoneż – St. Benedict. Also saint rulers from Slavic countries (Czech, Poland and Russ) – St. Wacław, St. Jadwiga and St. Włodzimierz are sitting at one table. The mosaic presents an unusual image full of harmony: one indivisible Church and the common presence of the saints of the East and the West in Heaven. In the middle of Heavenly Jerusalem, among the saints of the Church – God’s Mother sitting on the throne with young Christ, presented on the painting of early Christianity, widely popularized and worshipped in the Church of the first millennium. The mystical feast is presided over by the Holy Trinity in a symbolic image of three angels from an icon of Rublow.

Cross and Pantokrator – New Heaven

After finishing an eastern wall, the artist of the mosaic also made the vault of the chapel and gave it a form of a Greek cross leaning on the walls, in whose centre there is Christ Pantokrator, comprising the whole space with his eyes look. The image and Christ’s eye look reminds us of one of the oldest icons of Christ – from a monastery of St. Katherine on the Sinai mount. In the arms of the cross the author placed 4 important events in the history of salvation – Christmas, Lord’s Transfiguration, Crucifixion and Dormition of Mother of God. In the tone of Heaven – the white and the blue – an unusual image was created, harmonized with the image of Heavenly Jerusalem – New Land, full of peace, majesty and harmony – an image of New Heaven. Circles on the vault, creating space of alleged dome characteristic for the churches of Christian East, gave a hierarchy, order and solemnity to the whole inside; recalling the space, they draw our attention to Christ – Lord of Universe.

Art of indivisible Church

A thought about the unity of the whole Church, close to John Paul II, deeply inspired also Oleg Ulyanov and led him in searching for artistic ways towards the richness of art of the first Christianity Millennium. Through referring to mosaic art of Palestine, Jordan, Lower Asia, Greece and Italy, that is, places connected with Christ’s life and the history of Christianity of the first centuries, expressed his desire to remind and bring back the spirit and art of the first indivisible Church. Creating on the fundament of old Russian and Byzantium traditions, he found motifs and inspirations also in antique examples, in Roman catacombs and mosaics of the oldest basilicas of Rome, Ravenna and Milan. The genuine synthesis of many quotations and references to the early-Christian iconography and the richness of creation make the mosaics of Oleg Ulyanov belong to the most prominent works of Christian art of the 20th century.

New art which harmonizes with tradition

Oleg Ulyanov is astonishing not only because of references to traditions but also modern means of expression – natural stone, its raw facture and changeable size of elements and graphic contour drawing characteristic for art of the 20th century. He did not copy historic art, he avoided imitation of painting or photographic realism, resigned from excessive gilding or colourful glass; he used – particularly in the composition of the vault – ascetic economical usage of expression means. The restraint of expression means was used by him with moderation and sensitivity, he made them subordinated to the harmony and beauty of the whole composition and inscribed it into the priority aim: creating the atmosphere of soulfulness, solemnity, reflection and prayer. Oleg Ulyanov breathed life into the old Christian art and moved it into a new dimension. Thanks to his skilful usage of expression means close to the contemporary man and through genuine synthesis of elements enrooted in the tradition, he showed ‘new epiphany of beauty’ in art, so awaited by John Paul II.

What is the most important, is still alive

Unfortunately, the work by Oleg Ulyanov has not survived as a whole. After finishing the eastern wall by the artist, the vault and some parts of the side walls, the works were stopped. They were taken over by Fr. Marko Rupnik, who works in a completely different style. The mosaics of the vault was made compact, and the upper part of the composition of Heavenly Jerusalem and the beginnings of the Procession of Prophets and Martyrs on the side walls – were removed. Heavenly Jerusalem was surrounded by mosaics in the competitive spirit, and what survived are the remnants of the original thought composition. Despite the big loss and the experience so difficult for the artist, Oleg Ulyanov emphasizes that what is the most important in the plan of the chapel, survived and is still alive. The mosaics of the whole inside was thought as an image of the life of the great and one Church of deeply historic roots, without any time or space borders. As the artist of this work says, the ‘saved fragment of the mosaics still expresses this initial nostalgia for the fullness and the whole’.

The author thanks Mateusz Środoniow for valuable tips and help in editing the text.

Extra information: Konkoukhov A., ‘Istorija zhizni mozaik Kapello Redemptoris Mater wit parallel mestos’. Moscow, Omofor 2016


„Niedziela” 28/2019

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl