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Putin gifts historic treasures to church amid Ukraine campaign

For nearly a century, visitors came to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery to admire the perfect harmony of Russia’s most famous icon: the “Trinity”, painted by Andrei Rublev in the Middle Ages.

The almost 600-year-old artwork depicting three angels is one of the most recognisable Russian masterpieces in the world.

Last month, however, President Vladimir Putin handed over the historic icon to the Russian Orthodox Church, the latest sign of the tightening alliance between the Kremlin and religious leaders.

The handover has sparked an outcry from restorers and art historians, who warn the extremely fragile mediaeval icon might not survive outside the Tretyakov Gallery’s walls.

It comes as Russia’s offensive in Ukraine stretches into its second year, with Patriarch Kirill throwing his support behind the assault and saying that dying in Ukraine “washes away all sins”.

Lev Lifshits, one of the country’s leading art historians, warned that the “Trinity” could be destroyed and said he believed the decision to give it to the church was political.

He compared its state to an ailing person.  

“If you suddenly take a critically ill person out of an intensive care unit, what do you think would happen?”

Some political observers say Putin’s move is a spiritual decision dictated by the difficult situation on the front line in Ukraine.

“Still no victory,” said political analyst Georgy Bovt. “All that remains is for Putin to ask God for help.”

With Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine stalling, Russian authorities have been increasingly willing to depict the offensive in religious terms. 

The masterpiece was painted for what is now the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius located in the town of Sergiyev Posad outside Moscow.

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet authorities transferred the artwork to the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929.

The church said the icon would be first exhibited at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow before returning to the historic monastery in Sergiyev Posad. Religious leaders insist they have every means at their disposal to preserve the precious icon.

It is the second transfer of a national treasure to the church in recent weeks.

The Saint Petersburg-based Hermitage Museum said another Russian monastery would receive the silver sarcophagus of Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince and national hero.

Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, who has lauded the Ukraine offensive, said it was the right move “at this geopolitical time”.

“Today, the sacred signficance of the monument is more important than its artistic value,” he told reporters.

– ‘Helped Russian princes’ – 

In a sign the church will not tolerate dissent, Patriarch Kirill has fired and banned from the priesthood a cleric heading the Moscow Patriarchate’s expert council on church art, who said that the safety of the icon was paramount.

Speaking to AFP before his dismissal, Archpriest Leonid Kalinin said the icon’s “rightful place…

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