Why Vladimir Putin decided to exhibit a historic and fragile religious painting in the Moscow cathedral

The painting of The Trinity is in a glass case in a cathedral in Moscow.

Photo: REUTERS/copyright

In Moscow, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior resounds with songs and prayers. It is full of faithful on one of the great Orthodox holidays: Pentecost.

But many have come here to see a masterpiece that has been put on display, a 600-year-old Orthodox icon, one of Russia's most treasured, believed to have been painted by medieval artist Andrei Rublev. It is known as The Trinity.

For a century, this fragile painting has been in a state museum, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. There, temperature and humidity controls, along with teams of restorers, have helped protect and preserve this work of art.

But recently, the Kremlin ordered the icon to be transferred to the Church eitherorthodox ruses. The head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, is delighted.

“This icon returns to the Church at a time when our homeland is facing massive enemy forces,” he told worshipers over the weekend. "Please return so that we can ask God to help our country and pray for our Orthodox President Vladimir Putin, who made the decision to return the icon."

The Patriarch may be satisfied, but transfer of the image has generated controversy.

"Political decision"

One of Russia's most renowned art historians agrees to meet me to explain why the decision is controversial.

Lev Lifshits was part of a group of experts who recommended against moving the icon from the Tretyakov Gallery, warning that doing so could cause serious damage to it.

"Those in power here are looking to the skies for help."Source: Lev Lifshits, Source description: Art historian, Image: Lev Lifshits

“This decision was someone's personal whim,” Lev explains. "The Restoration Council [de la Galería Tretyakov] He was categorically opposed to this."

“While the icon was in the museum, with a team of restorers, it was like a person in intensive care. He watched over him 24 hours a day and with the most modern equipment.

“This is a political decision. Those in power here are looking to the sky and waiting for help from above."

Or at least, expecting the help from the Church to maintain public support for the invasion on a large scale of Ukraine and the President of Russia. Patriarch Kirill publicly endorses what the Kremlin still calls a "special military operation." Previously, he claimed that any dead Russian soldier would have his sins "washed away."

Furthermore, the Russian Patriarch has suggested that President Putin's reign over Russia has been mandated by God.

“God put you in power so that you can perform a service of special importance and great responsibility for the destiny of the country and the people entrusted to your care,” Patriarch Kirill said last October.

Patriarch Kirill

Orthodox Church leader supports invasion of Ukraine

Loyalty to the Church

In this sense, the return of the icon of the Holy Trinity could be interpreted as a reward for the loyalty of the Church.

But that could only be part of the story.

"The Church is a very important element of his personal ideology," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Putin's inner circle, and Putin himself, have an ideology: it is clerical, anti-Western and imperialist. What is the basis of this ideology? It is not Marxism-Leninism as in an earlier period of Russian history, but religion."

“He is a religious man. But he is not about Christianity itself, with real Christian values, because cruelty is not a christian value. In that sense, Putin is a follower of a very specific type of religion."

Outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, worshipers line up to see the icon of The Trinity. Some here expect miracles.

“It's difficult now with the special military operation,” Valentina tells me. "We are praying for victory".

“Any sensible person would expect the conflict to end soon,” says Antonina. "I think God will help."

In Russia, the Orthodox Church often presents the war in Ukraine as a "holy war."

To make the Russians believe that God is on their side. And to make them forget that it was his country that invaded the Ukraine.

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