Sacred Russia in spotlight

Russia opened an unprecedented exhibit of religious art pulled from across the country and abroad at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery last week, in a show of Kremlin support for an Orthodox Church growing more powerful since the fall of Communism.

A member of gallery staff passes an exhibit at the Holy Russia exhibition at the Central House of Artists in Moscow. The exhibition, previously held at Paris' Louvre as part of a Russian-French cultural exchange, contains artefacts from the beginning of the spread of Christianity in Russia. 

The state-sponsored exhibit "Holy Rus" displays art works from the Old Eastern Slavonic state, which existed in the middle ages and united the lands of modern Belarus, Ukraine and the European part of Russia, with its capital in Kiev. 

Russia inaugurated a new holiday last year to mark its adoption of Christianity in 988 by the leader of the Kievan Rus Prince Vladimir more than 1,000 years ago.

"It isn't the political state called Russia, whose history we are telling here, it's the historic period of 'Rus' we are showing," Orthodox church representative Father Nikolai Kim said.

The exhibit, which combines 420 masterpieces from 25 Russian museums and from the Louvre in Paris, opens with massive 600-kg, gold-leafed gates from a cathedral in Suzdal, a town 200 kilometres northeast of Moscow with a historic centre that dates back to medieval times.

Fragile 11th-century icons, gem-encrusted and metal-bound copies of the New Testament, priestly robes and rich iconostases are displayed behind glass in cross-shaped stands.

In a modern touch, centuries-old manuscripts can be browsed on flat-screen TVs stuck into crooks of the Orthodox exhibition, where the mood is set with religious hymns and chants.

The director of the Tretyakov Gallery said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had been behind the government's sponsorship of the costly and stunning exhibit.

"It's a very expensive project, and we wouldn't be able to pull it off without the state's help. No investors would provide us with that much money," Irina Lebedeva said. She did not disclose the cost of the display.

The exhibit does not aim at promoting state-church relations but at providing a window onto their historic relationship, the curators said.

"This exhibit is evidence of a respectful dialogue between the state and the church, not politically but spiritually," Kim told Reuters.

The 250-year-old museum, often viewed as the keeper of traditional Russian art, picked its newest art pavilion, built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, to host the religious exhibit.

"In the end, the holy objects in the exhibit only serve as a theme, a reason for the state and the church, the religious and secular society, and for different cultures to come together and see the best of what our history has retained," Kim said.

The exhibition arrived in Moscow after first showing in France last year, during the year of Russia in France.

It will run through August 14.