July 20, 2016

The icons' jurney

Scattered heritage


Not only manuscripts and books were carried away from Macedonia and scattered across the world, but also many church relics, icons, archaeological and ethnological objects and other various pieces of movable cultural heritage. Macedonian churches, monasteries, archaeological sites and museums were plundered for centuries, and thefts happen even today. Icons were especially interesting to people who legitimately scattered Macedonian cultural heritage.

A French customs official had a Macedonian friend, and during a conversation in the 1990s the customs official happened to mention that his coworkers and he confiscated three icons, the origin of which was unknown, but about which there was an unusual story. His Macedonian friend happened to be a bit more knowledgeable and informed about icon thefts in Macedonia and began an investigation. After Macedonian police reviewed his findings, Interpol became involved, and it was established that one of the three icons came from Macedonia.

If the French customs official didn’t happen to have a Macedonian friend, the seized icon's identity may not have been discovered, since the story the customs officials had been told about the icons wasn't in any way related to Macedonia. The three icons were discovered in the luggage of a French physics professor while he was crossing the border. He claimed they didn’t belong to him, but to his friend Marie Helex Musner from Morocco, and she in turn claimed she painted them herself in her spare time. Yet, the accidentally discovered icon was examined by Macedonian medieval iconography experts and found out to be an icon of Jesus Christ dating from the 16th century, which was painted in the St. Jovan Kaneo monastery in Ohrid.

Another detail from the unusual story about this icon is interesting. After the icon was examined, it turned out that it hadn't been catalogued anywhere in the Macedonian institutions, nor had it been included in the inventory of cultural heritage done in 1956, so that almost no-one in Macedonia knew of its existence. That, in turn, created another problem: It couldn’t be proved that it was stolen from Macedonia! (And if its origin cannot be proven, then there's no basis for asking for its return.) But this case poses a dilemma: Were there accidental omissions in the inventory of our valuable movable cultural heritage, which isn't complete even now, at the beginning of the 21st century?!

Many other icons had fates similar to the fate of Ohrid's Jesus. They often end up in Western private collections and can rarely be reclaimed. As a result, Macedonian institutions have very limited information on the whereabouts of Macedonian icons, as well as other ethnological and archaeological items.

Caption: No-one knows, nor will ever know, the number of icons taken from Macedonia. Since they were being systematically seized and relocated, their number is much higher than the several thousand icons that have been saved

The icons from the Macedonian churches and monasteries suffered the most during the Balkan Wars and World War I, when almost all valuable icons were carried away (except the ones that were accidentally saved or hidden). However, icons were also stolen before and after the war – even after World War II, when Macedonia already had its own institutions responsible for the care of cultural heritage. There are recorded thefts, but probably there are even more unrecorded ones. From the end of the war until 1952, many churches, monasteries, museums, and galleries were robbed of many valuables, such as: icons, frescoes, carvings, old manuscripts and books, gold objects, silver objects etc. But not until 1952 did Macedonia start to make an inventory of the objects that are considered cultural and historical monuments, among which are the icons. After the inventory was completed, in 1963, around 22,800 icons were registered in around 1,700 churches and monasteries, no small number considering all the thefts. The icons were assigned numbers, photographed and described, but some of them vanished in the meantime nonetheless – from museums, archaeological sites, churches, and monasteries. Thus, from 1963 to 1991, 61 thefts were recorded from churches and monasteries, 49 of which were thefts of icons. Only 7 of them were solved, however, i.e. only 44 icons were located (two of them destroyed) of the 368 icons that were stolen.

In the future it will be even harder to find the icons that have yet to be discovered, since their final destinations are private collections in Western Europe. And there are icons there that were obtained a long time ago. No-one knows, nor will ever know, the number of icons that have been taken away from Macedonia. But as regards the systematical thefts and relocations of those icons, we can safely say that there are more icons abroad than there are icons saved in Macedonia. Which means that such icons number in the tens of thousands. One can only estimate the value of such a cultural heritage.

To be continued...

Nove Cvetanoski

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