Rare immersive exhibition of Christian wooden sculpture opens in St. Petersburg’s Manege
Thirty wooden figures rest in central St. Petersburg’s famed Manege exhibition hall with various expressions of suffering on their faces. Most of them depict Christ: he sits with his cheek resting against his hand, blood smeared on his face below a crown of thorns. These, however, are no ordinary Christ figures, and not only because many are displayed with a neon halo suspended behind their heads. The Manege’s “Christ in the Dungeon” exhibit combines a little-known genre in the history of religious art with a fully immersive contemporary installation. This is the first Russian exhibit to display a large group of wooden religious sculptures in one place, and it brings together dozens of rarely seen works from 14 regional museums.
- When: January 16 – February 10
- Where: Manege, 1 Isaakiyevskaya Ploshchad, St. Petersburg
- How much: 300 rubles
- Contact: +7 812-611-11-00 or manege.spb.ru
Semyon Mikhailovsky, the exhibit’s curator, is also the rector of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and the Commissioner of Russia’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He first encountered the wooden Christ figures of Russia’s provinces on the cover of a book he received as a child. In a written statement, Mikhailovsky described the profound effect the images had on him even then. “I was surprised by the Savior’s unusual posture, the strange gesture and the face with intense features, especially wide Asian cheekbones,” he said. Later, Mikhailovsky was compelled to see the sculptures for himself. “When I saw them in reality, I was stunned. I was struck by the corporality and physicality of the figures: bones, muscles, skin folds, even blood stains, and particularly the faces that express so much suffering, humility and sacrifice...”
The Russian Orthodox artistic tradition may be better known for its icons than its sculpture, but cultural commentators say that makes the Manege’s current exhibition all the more special. The St. Petersburg cultural outlet Sobaka commented that “icons speak to celestial life” while these “wooden sculptures with the facial features of people from the heart of Russia speak more easily to life on Earth.” The Village affirmed that even in the time of their creation between the 17th and 19th centuries, these sculptures stood out because they all depict a particularly human moment in the Christ narrative. “Christ in the Dungeon” or “the Midnight Savior” waits, imprisoned, for his captors to take him to the Golgotha to be crucified.
When the opportunity arose for Mikhailovsky to display a collection of Midnight Savior sculptures in the Manege, he teamed up with architect Anton Gorlanov and designer Anna Druzhinina. Together, they fought for permission to display the figures without a barrier that would distance them from viewers and to transform the Manege’s exhibition space into a full-blown installation complete with light and sound. Now, the exhibition hall is a dark labyrinth of fencing that symbolizes the biblical dungeon. Noise-absorbing walls reflect moving projections of rural woods, and ambient sound completes the atmosphere. The neon halos add a contemporary touch.
The sculptures and their anonymous makers bring multiple centuries of Russian history to the Manege. In 1722, the Holy Synod issued a prohibition against solid religious figures due to their similarity to pagan idols. While churches in larger cities began destroying their sculptures, provincial ones, most famously in Perm, were more likely to preserve theirs. The Synod’s fears were not entirely unfounded: The Village reported that while some sculptors were likely trained on Greek and Gothic European models, others were entirely untrained and worked their craft with inspiration from retellings of the Gospel and pagan artistic traditions. In the Soviet era, the Midnight Savior sculptures saw a wave of conservation efforts because state representatives viewed them as symbols of common people oppressed by religion. Now, they are available for the first time for visitors to experience as both religious and artistic objects.
The “Christ in the Dungeon” exhibit closes on February 10, and its entrance fee is 300 rubles (approximately $4.50).