MOSCOW. (Anatoly Korolev, RIA Novosti commentator) -- The Moscow Patriarchate kept a unique find secret for more than ten years.
The laity heard only recently that the remains of renowned icon-painter Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny, his elder colleague, had been found under one of the altars of St. Andronicus' (Andronievsky) Monastery in Moscow.
Church hierarchs' silence is explicable, what with the reverence the painters deserve.
The find goes back to 1992, when the Russian Orthodox Church regained the monastery. Archpriest Vyacheslav Savinykh, Father Superior, led the monks to restore the Savior's Cathedral, its principal shrine. The work started with cleaning the debris and repairing the altar. The team eventually dug as deep as massive altar foundation slabs - a holy spot where members of the supreme clergy find their last abode. Excavations went on, and the monks came upon four graves. The sumptuous ecclesiastical attire of the deceased and certain other indications led to the conclusion that none other than Andronicus, the monastery founding father, and another three Father Superiors - Savva, Alexander and Ephraim - were interred under the cathedral altar.
Patriarch Alexy II the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church bowed to the remains, and visited the excavations several times.
The work was extremely labor-consuming, and went on at a snail's pace till a landslide made a fifth grave visible. The team came on a sensation, intuition told Father Vyacheslav, and so he asked a top-notch secular expert to supervise the following works. That was forensic anthropologist Sergei Nikitin - a prominent name in his research circle. Sculptural portraiture based on skulls has been his specialty for many years. We know the true features of Nestor the renowned chronicler, of the legendary Grand Duchess Sophia Palaeologa of Muscovy, the last of Byzantine princesses, and Helena Glinska, mother of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, thanks to the expert's endeavors. He is presently head custodian of the medieval Royal sepulcher in the Kremlin's Archangel Cathedral.
Sergei Nikitin sensationally proved his repute by winning a recent contest in which delegates of an international anthropological congress in the United States reconstructed a head after a skull. The jury judged the results by lifetime photographs of the deceased. The Russian contestant's sculpture was the closest to them.
So the expert came down, brush, miniature shovel and all, to excavate the grave with the utmost care and precision. He found two skulls instead of the one expected, a cup in which holy oil was put into the grave, and leather articles in a fine state of preservation - small wickerwork crosses, and simple shoes. The things evidently belonged to modest monks rather than hierarchs. Nikitin roughly identified their age as fifty and eighty. He made an even more sensational conclusion - the remains had been exhumed and reburied.
One of the skulls was injured, evidently with a probing rod. As the expert logically assumed, the exhumers did not know the exact spot in the monastery graveyard, and had to probe the soil around to come upon the remains.
Who of the brethren could deserve reburial with the Father Superiors years after their death?
The answer was evident - Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny.
Both icon-painters belonged to the St. Andronicus community, and died c. 1430 to be buried in the monastery, says scanty extant information.
Medieval artists, of whatever renown, were doomed to anonymity when they took monastic vows. Andrei Rublev's name survived through centuries as rare, even astounding, exception.
A monk never signed his paintings - that would be an act of arrogance unheard-of in the Middle Ages. Icon painting was regarded as an act of worship not work of art. Andrei Rublev alone owed several chronicle references to his inimitable genius.
The earliest dates to 1405, when a Moscow chronicler mentioned three painters - Andrei Rublev, Theophanes the Greek and Fyodor of Gorodets - in an entry concerning the decoration of the newly-built Annunciation Cathedral in the Kremlin. Theophanes, Byzantine emigre, was a star of the first magnitude. It was a tremendous honor for the two Russian painters to be selected from among several icon-painting schools and hundreds of masters representing them to work at altar murals and icons side by side with him.
Another reference followed three years later, concerning the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir, at which Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny worked together. Vladimir was then See of the Patriarch of Russia, and its new cathedral was to become Russia's principal shrine.
The latest lifetime reference was made fifteen years after, when Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny were decorating the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery near Zvenigorod, in the Moscow environs.
Andrei Rublev's glory reached its peak, according to medieval monastic standards, in 1430, with written references to his demise and burial in St. Andronicus' Monastery, whose monk he became several years before death.
A medieval icon-painter needed to attain the utmost perfection to earn written and oral references. Besides, Rublev's was a time too drama-laden to pay attention to any person. Closely following one another were a Tatar raid of Ryazan, Khan Mamai's embassy killed off in Nizhny Novgorod, the Battle of Kulikovo, Khan Tokhtamysh pillaging Moscow, Muscovites' war with Ryazan, Smolensk coming into Polish possession, the death of Vasily I the Grand Duke of Muscovy, the transfer of the Vladimir princely seat to Moscow and, to crown it all, the plague.
That was a time when West European art reached its peak with the Van Eyk brothers making altar paintings for St. Bavo's Cathedral, the principal shrine of Ghent. Only one artist from among their Russian contemporaries rose above his brethren to elevate the concept of altar icon to the status of the crux of spiritual harmony in Eastern Christendom.
The mid-19th century brought the attribution of several renowned holy images to Andrei Rublev. What mattered even more, he was identified as painter of The Trinity, his supreme achievement and one of the highest attainments of the world's sacred art. Art scholars have only now taken stock of his extant works, of which there are a mere dozen - seven icons of a Kremlin cathedral iconostasis, scanty mural fragments in Vladimir, three badly injured icons of the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery - the Savior, Archangel Michael, and St. Paul - and, last but not least, the precious Trinity, in the cathedral of the Holy Trinity Laura of St. Sergius, the only of the Rublev icons that came to this day excellently preserved. The pious community of Zvenigorod used icons to cover sauerkraut tubs, and one was made a ladder step.
The graves of Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny were not even neglected but utterly forgotten. The only written reference to them was in the manuscript chronicle compendium by Brother Jonas of Yaroslavl, who wrote that the holy men's relics were in St. Andronicus' Monastery under a decrepit belfry that was pulled down, and the spot was trampled by the human foot to desecrate it.
It took Russia three centuries to realize what Andrei Rublev meant to it, as the chronicle entry testifies. The newfound reverence moved St. Andronicus monks to probe the soil on the site of the pulled-down belfry late in the 18th century in search of the holy relics. They were a success, and the remains of Andrei Rublev and Daniil Cherny were exhumed for reburial with honors among the Father Superiors. Monastery papers certainly mentioned it, but the St. Andronicus archive perished when fire consumed a greater part of Moscow during the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.
The grave is truly a miraculous find, considering that even Leonardo da Vinci's grave has been lost - that despite ample information about his last days. Leonardo died in the Royal castle at Cloux, on May 2, 1519, King Francis I never leaving his bedside till he gave his last breath, and was buried in a highly honored cemetery in the same castle, all French courtiers attending the funeral.
Andrei Rublev was the highest spiritual pillar of the Russian Middle Ages. His icons stay unsurpassed for five centuries - paragons of artistry, and of piety that makes them not figurative images but silent prayers.