The Church
Of the Novgorod

Many smaller churches and monasteries had stood in the vicinity of the Novgorod kremlin. Among them was the Church of the Lord's Transfiguration, built in the fourteenth century on a small hill three kilometers away. In 1380, a group of anonymous painters decorated the interior of the church with magnificent frescoes. Their surface area totaled around 350 square meters.

During the Second World War, Russians turned the church into a bunker and an artillery observation point, at which the Germans constantly took aim with cannons and mortars. Because they fired at the church for more than two and a half years, after the war all that remained on the hill was a mountain of rubble more than five meters high.

For the next twenty years, the mountain was overgrown with grasses, weeds, and bushes, until, in 1965, someone started to poke around in the rubble and discover small, colorful fragments of the frescoes.

Over the next several years, three hundred cubic meters of debris were carefully dug through and ten cubic meters of colored bits were sifted out of it, then transported to the Novgorod kremlin, to the building where for the last twenty years Professor Grekov, his wife, and a group of enthusiasts have been attempting to piece together again from these little stones, morsels, and particles, thoroughly shattered and ground up by artillery fire, the old, fourteenth century frescoes, in which anonymous painters conveyed their vision of the Lord's Transfiguration.

Talking with Alexander Pietrovich Grekov, I am aware of being in the presence of a man of unique, extraordinary imagination. It must be an imagination replete with thousands of question marks, of dilemmas. This piece of wall, on which the trace of a flame remains: Is it a fragment of the fire in which God appears, or, on the contrary, is it part of the infernal fire into which the Almighty will cast the hardened and incorrigible sinners? And this tiny sliver on which the clear image of a tear has been preserved. Is it the tear of the mother, who lays her son, Man, into his grave, or the tear of joy on the face of one of the women who hear that Christ is Risen?

"Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone. There in their presence he was transfigured; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the snow." (Matthew 17:1-2)

Which of these golden rays, scattered on one of the tables, are parts of this sun? Which of these white particles, lying on one of the chests, are fragments of the clothes that became white as the snow?

"But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck." (Matthew 18:6)

Do these chips of waves, which someone here is just now carefully inspecting under a light, symbolize these dangerous depths of the sea, or, rather, are they part of the painting of the sea upon which Christ is walking with dry feet toward his disciples?

" Suppose a man has a hundred sheep and one of them strays; will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go in search of the stray?" (Matthew 18:13)

Does this lock of wool, the drawing of which has been preserved on this bit of plaster, belong to one of the ninety-nine well-behaved and obedient sheep, or is it a remnant of the reckless and unruly sheep, for whom the patient Shepherd searches over the hillsides?

And thus observing how from thousands of particles, bits, and crumbs, from dust, molecules, and pebbles, the professor and his students have been for years piecing together portraits of saints, sinners, and legends, I feel as though I were a witness, in this cold and dusty underground, to the birth of the sky and of the earth, and of all the colors and shapes, angels and kings, light and darkness, good and evil.

--- From Imperium
by Ryszard Kapuscinski
(Vintage Books, 1994)

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