The Ilimsk Crucifix
The Ilimsk Crucifix is an article from the new book by V. I. Molodin,
The Sword of the Carolingians, which is to be published in 2006 in the Library of Science First Hand. It is a book about archaeology and the people who dedicated their lives to it or worked with the author in the expeditions. Two articles from the book were published, in brief version in previous issues of the magazine (The Knight-Errant, № 0 (1), 2004; The Sword of the Carolingians, № 1 (4), 2005)
A militiaman got out of the cabin of the powerful log-truck and approached our dig. He was so young, his uniform fit him well, and I noticed four stars on his shoulder straps. So he was a captain. The officer smiled at us cheerfully. His face looked good-natured and amiable, which always wins our hearts.
“Collect me on your way back”, the captain cried to the driver and turned to us. “Hello, archaeologists! How about a guided tour?”
I put away the dig plan and made my way to the unexpected guest. We exchanged hellos. The officer was a divisional inspector from a village next to Ilimsk. Enthusiastically, he looked at the uncovered burial places of the Ilimsk necropolis, scrutinized the findings, expressed a vivid interest in our life, asking dozens of clear questions. Another thing that was attractive about him was the genuine warmth with which he made inquiries about Ilimsk’ history and his feeling sorry (which we shared) that such a huge area of forest would go underwater, and the town, so small, almost a village, but it has such a history! But everything was demolished, levelled by bulldozers, and soon will be flooded… In a word, the fellow was quite likeable.
“You know, Vyacheslav,” the officer said with a smile, “it was not out of idle curiosity that I’ve come here.”
I looked at him puzzled: why should he need us? It would be strange to expect anything good from militia. Though one should admit that if anything unpleasant happens, we turn to no other place for help.
“I was thinking,” he went on slyly, “if I liked the visiting archaeologists, I would tell them the story and deal with them.”
“What if you don’t?” one of my companions asked with a smile.
“If I don’t, I’ll look for somebody else. Here, at the site of the future hydropower station, you are not the only archaeologists…”
“So, do you like us?” asked one of the girls.
“Were I not married, I would take you away, the grey-eyed”, the captain laughed, “and the matter is like this, fellows. The other day they brought a thing to our office. It was a wooden figure of Jesus Christ, no less. It seems to have been nailed to a cross but was torn off, and the whereabouts of the cross are unknown. In our office and in the village, nobody has any idea about the value of the thing. I showed it to the teachers of the local school, and they suggested I go here. I myself believe the thing to be quite valuable. It is so beautifully made and painted…
“Well, what are we waiting for?” I answered in the same fashion. “A car is coming for us. We’ll have lunch together and then go…”
From the hill, where we stayed in one of the houses of the power-station builders, our truck was coming down slowly. Oleg was going to collect us as the lunch break was drawing near.
The captain did not obviously expect such a turn of events. He looked at the approaching truck confusedly.
“I can’t do it now, Vyacheslav, for I came here on my way to Zheleznogorsk, where I’m going on business. In our office, we haven’t got a vehicle, the motorcycle has broken, that’s why I hitchhike. This Sunday I have a day off, so I’ll come to you. Is it all right?”
“Sunday it is.” I said. “But you surely can have lunch with us, can you? It’s a long way to Zheleznogorsk.”
The fellow liked the idea, but his log-truck was rushing down the hill leaving Oleg behind.
“See you Sunday then,” smiling again said the captain. “The driver is in a hurry, so he won’t wait, and to hitch another lift here is not easy.”
He jumped up the cab of the slowed down log-truck and waved his hand.
Sunday was several days ahead; and to say frankly, I forgot about the captain’s visit in the hustle-bustle of everyday life. However, early in the morning he unexpectedly showed up in our house, this time with a charming girl. She was, as it turned out, his wife. We welcomed our guests and treated them to late breakfast (or early lunch), and showed them our new artifacts.
The girl worked as a teacher in the local elementary school. Like her husband, she smiled charmingly and asked questions about Novosibirsk, especially Akademgorodok, which in the seventies was famous not only in our country but worldwide.
It was September, a wonderful Indian summer, sunny and tranquil. The Siberian taiga played with bright colors: golden birches and larches blended with bright-red rowans, green firs and pines. The air was fresh and cool and soaked with the smell of needles, mushrooms, and musty leaves. Down there, in the valley, the Ilim river was flowing like a blue ribbon.
We placed our guests in the cab, and I got into the truck. We reached the village very quickly. The road was smoothed by numerous cars, and Oleg, inspired by his charming passenger, did his best.
The village was quite large. Solid houses with big windows and glassed porches suggested that solid and prosperous people lived there.
The militioner and his wife offered to go to their place, but I didn’t dare to impose on their hospitality, besides, I was eager to see the crucifix, because it was the prime aim of our trip.
In the militia office, the sergeant on duty met us. He got very excited having heard from his boss who we were and why we came.
While the captain was fetching the sculpture, which was in the safe, the sergeant told me and Oleg a real detective story concerning the crucifix. The story began in Ilimsk!
“Just before the beginning of the preparation for the flooding of Ilimsk, where you are working now,” the sergeant told us, “the boys brought to the local school a relatively big wooden cross, to which a carved wooden figure of Jesus Christ was nailed. The school principal supposed, not unreasonably, that the cross belonged to one of the Ilimsk churches and decided to take it to the Museum of Arts in Irkutsk. But in a few days, the cross mysteriously disappeared from the teachers’ room. All attempts to find it failed. They were obviously formal, for nobody officially applied for the search.
“After almost all the inhabitants of Ilimsk had gone away, the loss was found in the basement of a building that was being demolished. But it looked differently. The wooden figure of Jesus was torn off the cross, which had disappeared without a trace. The robbers probably thought that the cross was of no value, and the figure of Jesus was without doubt remarkable; besides the cross was too big to hide, while to cache the sculpture was much easier. The school in Ilimsk had been closed by that time, and the workers gave the crucifix to the hopgirl of a still working shop, so that she, in her turn, would hand it to the local authorities when she went to Zheleznogorsk for goods. However, the crucifix was stolen once again — this time right from the shop! The last time it was found by the boys in the village — in the basement or in the attic of a house — and they brought it to school. One of the teachers, who had lived in Ilimsk, gave it to the officers. That was him who told us the whole story”, concluded the sergeant.
As we were listening to the story, Oleg and I did not notice when the captain came back to the room. In his hands, he was holding a bulky bundle vaguely reminding a crucifix. The figure was quite enormous.
The captain tore off the fabric in a striking gesture, and we saw a magnificent figure of the Savior. The master was definitely talented. He managed to embody in wood finely and realistically, crucified Jesus, his beautiful tragic face and naked figure in loin-cloth. The effect was even more stunning because the figure of the Savior was covered with paint that did not lose its brightness despite the so-called cobwebs, characteristic of this sort of ancient things.
Without doubt, the figure of Christ had been nailed to a cross. Moreover, this was done in the same way as with Jesus himself: the wooden figure was nailed to the cross with wrought iron nails. When tearing the sculpture off the cross, the robbers did not try to be gentle. As a result, the fingers, very finely carved, were damaged. A part of the loin-cloth was also broken off.
I took the sculpture in my hands. What stroke me about it was its finesse and at the same time perfect conciseness. It was light, almost weightless…
The master took three pieces of wood to make this wonderful work of art. From one he carved the body, head and legs. The arms were carved separately and were fastened to the body probably with the help of some glue. The finest carving reproduced even the hair.
For a few minutes we stood there like spellbound… The captain, obviously content with the effect, finally broke the silence.
“So, Vyacheslav, is it valuable?”
“Valuable is not the right word. Invaluable! And it should be in a good museum!”
“So what’s holding the matter up?” the officer gave us a benign smile. “Pack it up and take it!”
Frankly speaking, I was taken aback. I never thought that it would go just like this, out of the blue. For some reason I thought that having heard my opinion about the value of the finding, the captain would thank me politely and bring the sculpture to the museum himself. But “Pack it up and take it!” Still hardly believing my fabulous luck, I began to pack the sculpture in silence. Oleg helped me as if he was afraid that the captain would change his mind.
There we parted.
On our way to Ilimsk, I was saying to Oleg that not all honest people became extinct in Russia, and, what was even more pleasant, was that they were still present in militia.
It is not necessary to describe the excitement that Jesus’s sculpture caused in the members of our party. All the evening it went from one person to another. And the captain’s conduct was also admired genuinely.
“How are we going to transport it?” asked somebody. “It’s impossible to hold it in one’s arms all the way, and at the same time, it’s dangerous to place it next to our artifacts…”
“I will pack it up”, suddenly said Vitya Koryakin. “I have an idea how to do it.”
Indeed, Koryakin took thick planks and made a real sarcophagus for the sculpture, repeating its shape. The precious figure was wrapped in cotton and gauze, put in the case, and covered with a sheet of plywood.
That’s how the wonderful wooden figure of Jesus Christ got into the Institute’s museum. Despite its uniqueness, no article or paper about it has been ever published. Sometimes I set about to try to comprehend the thing. I read special literature on the wooden cult sculpture, well-known in the Perm region and in Central Siberia, however, I never met any analogues to the Ilimsk one. The published wooden images of the crucified Savior were much cruder and represented, beyond any doubt, other artistic schools. Since I did not have special knowledge of the subject, I was losing my heart. There was nobody in Novosibirsk who could advise me, and I put the business off for some time.
The veil of mystery of the Ilimsk Crucifix was lifted a little when I took to research into the collection of under-cloth crosses from the Ilimsk burg. Naturally, I had to study everything that was written on the subject, in addition to the special literature. While reading the pre-Revolution literature, I couldn’t help thinking, that I may find something about the wooden crucifix. The thought sat deep and fitm inside me, for I was not even surprised when reading the monograph by N. V. Sultanov about the wooden architecture in Siberia, including Ilimsk, I bumped into the lines that excited me…
There were four churches in Ilimsk, and Sultanov cites in his book their description based on the data by S. Popov and Father M. Sizoy. As Sultanov’s book was published in 1907 and is rare, I will give a full quotation, especially because it clears up many questions about the origin of the crucifix and its dating.
“Let us now turn to the third and the last church (in fact, the last church in Ilimsk was the fourth Spasskaya, dating to the 18th century; its description is also presented in the cited work. V. M.) that S. Popov speaks of.
“This is what he tells about it: ‘Another church that also belongs to the Ilimsk parish is situated on the so-called zaimka, a one-homestead place on no-man’s land, in six versts (about twelve miles) from the town, in the forest; the church in also one-storeyed; it was built, according to the clergy registers, in 1707, in the name of Saint John The Baptist. In its architecture it resembles the church from the outskirts of the town, except that it has one altar and, respectively, one cupola.’
“As far as its architecture is concerned, the church represents naivety and simplicity at its best: it is an ordinary log hut, a vestibule in the form of a porch with a roof joins from the west, and on the roof no less primitive cupola is built; its lower part, the base, in its form is the same log hut, only small, set across the lower, or the main, log hut. The base over its ridge is decorated by a tiny bulbous dome on a thin neck.
“Both log huts, the lower big and the upper small, are built with smooth corners, the ends of the logs being flush with the walls, as is clearly seen in the picture.
“The church has two windows to the south and two doors from the vestibule: from the west and from the north. The vestibule embraces the church from the sides and ends at the altars. Its floor is lifted over the level of the ground for two arshines (about 4.5 feet), which can be explained, of course, by a thick layer of snow in winter. As far as the interior is concerned, the church borrows from Father M. Sizoy certain details, which are not discussed by S. Popov.
‘The choir in the church,’ writes Father Sizoy, ‘is only right. Beside the choir on the pedestal, there stands a carved image on the cross of Christ the Savior, with the same images on the sides of Mother of God and Evangelist John. The iconostasis (the icon screen) is of a very simple work, unpretentiously knocked up from planks and beams, on which the local icons painted on canvas are fastened, also, in a simple way. Out of the icons the image of Savior on the right from the holy gates and the icon of Mother of God on the left deserve our attention. Both icons are of ancient painting, very close to the modern, the so-called Souzdal style. The altar still hosts the wooden painted tabernacle with several rooms. Both before the altar and in the church itself in front of the local icons all candlesticks are wooden, probably from the beginning. The church is lit by seven small windows with muscovite instead of glass. The crowning cupola with the cross is built in the same way as in the previous churches. For fulfilling the holy liturgy in the church, there is a holy antimension, consecrated by Filofey, metropolitan of Tobolsk, in 1704’.”
Thus, we can definitely say that the wooden crucifix
of Jesus Christ was only in one church of the Ilimsk parish, therefore, it comes from the church in the name of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist the Forerunner. The church was destroyed before the town died, and a great part of its decoration, probably, went to Ilimsk and was kept somewhere before getting scattered… It’s quite likely that the crucifix was made at approximately the same time as the church was built, that is, in the beginning of the 18th century.
And it was a stroke of luck that after all the adventures the crucifix ended up in the hands of honest people who kept it and gave it to specialists.
After our Institute’s Museum of History and Culture
of Siberian Nations, founded by Alexey Pavlovich Okladnikov and visited by numerous guests of Akademgorodok, has been reconstructed, the Ilimsk crucifix is sure to take its due place in the ethnographic exhibition. I also hope that experts on ancient cult sculpture of Siberia will give it special attention and study it. Indeed, the work is worth it!
And then, in Ilimsk, in the far and dear 1985, there was an inexpressible joy of discovery of the invaluable finding and an imperishable desire to admire it…
Right before the end of our excavation in Ilimsk Oleg and I went to the nearby village. I wanted to say good-bye to our friends and to thank the captain once more for the crucifix. I bought two bottles of an excellent Armenian brandy and with this modest gift dropped by the militia office. The sergeant was on duty. Unfortunately, the captain was absent. I had to ask the sergeant to give our modest present to his boss…
The only thing I cannot forgive myself is that I did not write the captain’s name in my diary, and my memory failed, to my great disappointment… And I don’t want to invent anything.
Thank you very much, our dear captain! Such honest, unselfish, decent people hold our country together. We can rely on them.
Baraba - Akademgorodok, 2003