by Riikka Köngäs, Head conservator
Valamo Art Conservation Institute
On June 9, 2010, thieves broke into the Finnish Orthodox Church’s Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki, the largest Russian Orthodox Church in Western Europe. The alarm went off at 2.16 a.m. By the time security arrived at the cathedral less than 15 minutes later, the thieves were gone, along with one of the spiritual treasures of the Finnish Orthodox Church, the icon of the Mother of God of Kozeltshan and pearls and other jewels worshippers had gratefully draped around the icon in gratitude for answers prayers.
Early in the 20th century, St. John of Kronstadt in St. Petersburg had given this icon of Panagia to a wealthy Russian family in Finland who told them to say a prayer in front of the icon for their daughter’s recovery from an illness. When the miracle of health occurred, the girl’s mother donated the icon to a church and the continued decoration of precious jewels signified additional miracles.
Thieves had also damaged another icon, breaking the protective glass around it, tearing away the decoration made of pearls, throwing them on the floor, and stealing its metal halo with precious stones. Apparently this icon was saved because of its size; it must have been too large for thieves to take with them.
The damaged icon of St. Barbara was brought to me for conservation treatment few days later. Luckily, the damages were not too serious, but the halo was missing.
Police were very doubtful that the icon of Mother of God of Kozeltshan could ever be found, assuming it had been taken away from the country immediately.
In the autumn of 2010, the Uspenski Cathedral had unpleasant visitors again. Due to fast action by the police and security, this time the thieves were caught before they could steal anything. Later, one of these men, a Romanian, was found guilty in the June theft and sentenced to prison for two and half years and required to pay compensation of 180,000 euro. Months later, he decided to confess what he had done with the icon. The police said he must have had a bad conscience, since his confession would not reduce his sentence.
On Monday, February 8, 2011, I received a phone call that nearly threw me off my chair. The police told me confidentially that they knew the location of an icon that had been stolen eight months earlier. They asked for advice on how to treat the icon, since it is likely buried in the ground. I could hardly believe what they told me, advised them on how to handle the icon, and received a promise that they would let me know what happened as soon as possible.
The next day, the police called me again, this time they were on the spot, they had dug in the snow and found the icon in the ground, and asked me what to do next. When I heard that the icon was there without any kind of protection, that picture side was towards the ground, my heart jumped to my throat. What is left from an icon after it has spent six or eight months buried in the ground? I flew immediately to Helsinki to see the icon and to take it to our conservation department.
My first sight of the icon made my hands shake, literally. A very strong smell of wet ground rose from the icon. It was covered with leaves, twigs, sand, and dirt. The icon had become a home for all sorts of insects and worms. What struck me was how the faces seemed to be so clean, almost glowing, in the middle of all that dirt, and how well the icon looked despite its fate.
Two weeks have passed now, and every morning, when I take the icon from the cold storage, where it spends most of its time at the moment, and open the box, I feel the same amazement. The odor of wet dirt still overwhelms me when I open the box. The initial cleaning has been completed, but the most important thing is to wait and have patience to allow the icon to dry. This process takes weeks, if not months, since the drying-process must be very slow so that the wood does not get any more damaged from fast drying. If the wooden ground gets damaged, the paper layer of the painting will get damaged as well. To prevent the icon from drying too fast, the icon is stored in a cold storage, letting it breathe for a couple of hours daily. During these hours I am able to document the icon, and get more knowledge about the damages, and make plans for conservation. Patience is needed at this point, lots of it.
Editor's Note: Readers can look at more photos on Riikka's blog at http://www.valamo.fi/fi/konservointi/konservointiblogi.html.