The Three-Handed Mother of God’s courtyard

Laboratooriumi Street runs along the still intact city wall in the northern part of Tallinn’s Old Town. On one side there is the wall, and on the other, small houses dating from the Middle Ages to the Eclectic period.

Opposite the Plate Tower, built around 1410, there is a medieval merchant’s house, with a large arched gate. I open it. At the end of the long, dark entryway, the sunny rectangle of the inner courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard, a tall, strong, white-bearded starets is sawing a plank on a planer, surrounded by four or five little boys. A small dog catches glimpse of me, and runs toward me with a furious bark. I calm it down, and the starets also commands it back.

“Good afternoon”, I say in Russian. “I am from Hungary.”

“Ну, такой бывает, such things happen”, he nods with a smile, and with a questioning look he is waiting for the sequel.

“I recently wrote about the icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God, and now I see that it has its own church here in Tallinn. I would like to visit it.”

“Well, it’s closed now”, he says. “But come tomorrow to the nine o’clock service.”

“At that time I won’t be in Tallinn anymore”, I explain.

“That’s too bad. Our priest is not here, and only he can let you in the church. But at least look around.”

First I examine the installation along the long side of the courtyard. On a large stand, there are seven large icons of saints, with a double-sized one of Archangel Michael at the end. Above them, a Latin quote from Plautus: A good man is given good, a bad one gets what he deserves. Under the icons of the seven saints, the names of the seven virtues can be read also in Latin. The presence of Latin is strange here, in the courtyard of an Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, but the seven principal virtues and vices are even more so, as they were developed in Catholic theology after the Great Schism of 1054, as is known from the basic literature, Carla Casagrande’s The seven principal sins, which was edited by me in 2011 for Europa Publishing.

Anatoli turns the bicycle wheel attached to the lower left edge of the stand. A rumble begins, a wooden carriage pulled by the devil starts moving slowly on the rails below the icons, with dreaded figures among the flames painted on it, straight into the mouth of the huge hell dragon snapping its jaws at the left end of the track. At the far end of the rail, a ship rudder rotates and jingles, with the Latin names of the seven principal sins on it.

Meanwhile, the icons open one by one like medieval Catholic winged altars. First, the principal sin contrary to the given virtue is revealed behind it, not in the shape of an Orthodox icon, but in a medieval Viking-Celtic style. Then it opens, too, and in the box behind it, as on a small stage, moving wooden figures and folding painted boards tell a twisted story of the given sin and virtue. These are not simple personal temptation-fall-conversion stories, like in medieval legends. Each story is about a person sinning against nature in some way, by greed, arrogance or envy extorting and destroying the created world. The stories end with someone praying for him, so he comes to his senses and demolishes the destructive factory, closes the large-scale breeding farm that destroys animals, stops oil pollution, and so on.

kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme kolme

“We usually teach the kids with it. And with other figures as well”, he says, and tells the story of the little wooden horse which brings the torn family together.

I enthusiastically praise his creativity, specially mentioning some details. “Do you draw, too?” he asks. I nod. From now on, he presents me to the others as an иконописец, icon painter.

“Come, have a look at our workshops.”

The flats of the medieval house along the other long side of the courtyard are occupied on two levels by workshops: a paper-maker, a printing house and a scriptorium. Estonian and Ukrainian volunteers work here, hold courses, make postcards, booklets, publications. Now I realize that I saw their booth at Sunday’s fair.

 Training in the Labora workshops. Video by Roman Dragunov

The most sophisticated products of the workshops are some books that are all handmade, from the paper to the calligraphy and the illustrations to the cover. I am shown one about the wildlife of Estonia. A copy of it was sent as a gift to Pope Francis and it is now kept in the Vatican Library.

Another was sent to him about the Galician Hutsuls as well, to whom, judging by his references, Anatoli also belongs. The calligrapher girl from Lemberg is going to show me a third one about the history of the Ukraine, but just then, Anatoli comes to announce that the priest has come, and he opens the church for me.

The church is located in a medieval warehouse facing the street. It is closed to the outside, with only three arched windows facing the courtyard. The wooden iconostasis is also adorned with Anatoli’s icons, including the Three-Handed Mother of God.

“The Three-Handed Mother of God is the patron of the innocent abused, and who is more innocently abused today, if not nature?”, says Anatoli, explaining the iconography of the painted saints. They include both Orthodox and Catholic saints: St. Laurus and Florus, patron saints of horses, St. Francis of Assisi with the wolf of Gubbio, and St. Nicholas, who is not only the protector of fishermen, but also of fish.

The protection of nature is beyond the horizon of traditional Judeo-Christian thought. Man’s duty from creation is “to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26). “And ruling means power”, comments the 1st-century Epistle of Barnabas: “whoever rules, commands”. In the traditional Christian conception, the whole of nature is merely of resource that God has created for the use of man, in inexhaustible abundance. It is therefore very sympathetic that the horizon here is expanded, and nature becomes our suffering brother – “the whole of creation has been moaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”, writes St. Paul to the Romans –, for which we are responsible.

The other pleasant expansion of the horizon is that the universality of Christianity is taken seriously here. Wherever I go in the East, the Orthodox clergy everywhere despises Western Christians as heretics. Here however, Catholic saints are also lined up, and the Latin language also finds a place. A fragment of a pseudo-icon is painted on one of the doors, displaying the names of the foundations Kirche in Not, Bonifatiuswerk and Renovabis, which have supported Eastern Christians for more than seven decades. On another door, a large icon, which was also brought to the Sunday fair, with a portrait of St. Hildegard of Bingen, surrounded by her companions, the herbs and trees she wrote about, and the animals living among them.

We go back to the courtyard. Anatoli puts me to work like a colleague to hold a board, a huge angel icon is being made. “We have a tower on this street, we are arranging it for a Virgin Mary’s chapel. Don’t you have time tomorrow morning?” “Unfortunately, my flight leaves early”, I remind him. “OK, then next time you come here. С Богом, walk with God,” he gives hand.

2 comentarios:

MOCKBA dijo...

They 7 sins are very similar in Russian, but they re usually described as mortal sins, and more often, 8 rather than 7

Studiolum dijo...

Yes, the system had its roots in Late Antique Christian theology, but after the Great Schism it diverged. The tight-fitting system of the seven vices and seven virtues was elaborated in western scholastic theology.