Noah’s Ark (the Ark) is the name of our Convent's convention centre, the prospective venue for our social, educational and recreational events. Its building is nearing completion: the facade works are almost over, and inner finishing is in progress. Dmitry Kuntsevich is the man in charge of the wall painting studio responsible for most of the inert finishing works. We asked him to share his views about the significance of the Ark, comment on its artwork and the messages behind it.
The idea to build a community centre has been around for many years. Massive amounts of time, effort and resources have been invested in it. What makes this project so important for Saint Elisabeth Convent.
The convent’s spiritual father, Archpriest Andrey Lemeshonok calls the Ark the frontline of our spiritual struggle. “It is a part of our hard work that we feel we must pursue to make a difference to the life of the city and its people,” says Father Andrey. In a world that emphasises consumption and pleasure, and with a culture that is losing its spirituality, the Ark will offer a welcome alternative. It will host theatrical performances, festivals, exhibitions and film shows that bring enlightenment and spirituality to our inner world. It will be an island of a different life, free from self-indulgence, slavery to momentary desires, neglect of traditional values and the view of children and family as unnecessary burdens.
Is there much of a demand for this kind of spirituality? How likely is it to gain popularity, especially among younger people?
There is always a demand, but I do not expect it to appeal to the wide masses any time soon. The moment of enlightenment comes at different times for different people. But everyone will experience eventually when they find God and look to Him. One finds God individually, not in a crowd. Some discover Him at 14, others at 19, 40 or even 70 years of age. We all follow a unique path, and we will all be there eventually.
I hope that the Noah’s Ark centre will let every man and woman, churchgoing or not, experience face to face the beauty of the works created by people who had dedicated themselves to Christ. I am also hopeful that they will find their visit invigorating for their souls.
In the Bible, the Ark is a symbol of salvation. What message does this name convey, with reference to the Convention Centre?
In religious life, this name has many different meanings - a boat, a container with the Holy Gifts, or the Church, the sanctuary of our eternal life. Most importantly, the Ark symbolises the journey of a Christian towards overcoming their sins by placing their trust in God and fully dedicating themselves to Him.
Noah built his Ark to fulfil a commandment of God. Others laughed at him and took him for a madman. But the day came when water washed away all physical objects and the disbelievers along with them. The disbelievers expected, to their peril, that their Godless lives would continue indefinitely.
As we are finishing our Ark, we want people to know that the Lord is not losing hope. He will continue waiting for us until the very last moment, and He gives us all a chance.
What will a visitor to the Ark find inside?
At the heart of the building is the concert hall with 500 seats, located on its third floor. The hope was to give it superior acoustic properties by comparison with the other concert facilities in Belarus through a combination of optimal space design and materials.
The wall outside the entrance to the concert hall, ready for the painting of the murals
It was designed to evoke the image of the City of God descending from Heaven to become the sanctuary of the human soul. Inside, visitors sit under a crystal dome of glass drops, extending above them like the cover of God’s grace. They scatter spots of retracted light, adding colour and beauty to the interior. Inside the brick walls are multiple window-shaped niches with glass bird figures nested in each. The crystal birds are symbols of our spirits that seek freedom, flight and ascent to a life in God.
Inside the concert hall
The concert hall will host theatrical performances, religious music nights, bard festivals and other cultural events for children and adults. Saint Elisabeth Convent has multiple troupes and individual performers of interest to the public. It will also welcome talents from outside the Convent wishing to perform at the Ark.
The second floor will have spaces for family events, activity clubs for children and a large café. The café will offer attractive business lunch and family dining options. We hope that the nice and welcoming atmosphere of the Ark will attract multiple returning visitors, some of whom might develop an interest in the Convent and start coming to our church services.
The Flying Whale café
We plan to offer creative and leisure activity options to children of different ages. Hopefully, they will be children from the neighbourhood, not just from the more remote parts of Minsk. We consider it our utmost priority to engage whole families and engage them in exciting creative experiences. There is a space for salt therapy sessions for children with breathing difficulties, proposed by Nun Anfisa.
On the fourth floor of the Ark, there will be spaces for exhibitions and galleries, Featuring children's drawings, paintings, photos and artefacts on the life of Saint Elisabeth Convent. It is one of Father Andrey’s dreams to launch a studio theatre for young actors. It will act as a small stage and a sandbox for young actors.
Exhibitions and galleries
How would you describe the overall theme of the interior finishing artwork? Would it be fair to name the great flood its central theme?
We aimed to underline the salvific and purifying properties of water. The theme of water can be seen all across the interior, in different elements of the design. Water is present in the main lobby fountain representing a rain shower. It is recognisable in the wave-shaped glass figures in the wall niches and the elements of the floor styled like rings from a raindrop on a still water surface. All these details should evoke the events of the Great Flood that brought a new life to the world and pulled its people from the brink of self-destruction.
First steps - a sculpture
In the person of Noah and his kin, humanity received the chance to turn a new page in its history. By the gift of God, the raindrops that connected heaven and the earth brought cleansing, sanctity and a new life to nature. Also present in the inner decor of the Ark are the images of a rainbow.
The staircase at the main door of the Ark leads upwards to the lobby, appearing like a stylised harbour. Boat and harbour are some well-known symbols of the Church.
The lobby area, stylised as a harbour
A flat area - resembling a cliff - divides the staircase into two even halves. On it, a sculptural group will be placed, depicting a young boy making his first tentative steps on the glass floor. The boy, representing the human soul, is held above the surface by an angel of God, a representation of the Spirit of God living in every person.
As children, we have a hunger for knowledge, a desire to rise above the earth and establish ourselves for eternity. On the journey of our life, we must overcome our weaknesses. We must dare ourselves to step into the unknown, putting all our hopes on our Lord and finding our support in Him.
Also on the first floor, we find an installation titled “Golden Gates”, a reference to the Golden Gates of Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Kiev, an invitation to contemplate the meaning of our lives, the imminent coming of the Lord and our meeting with Him. They evoke in our minds the massive gates built by the hopeful man in honour of the Lord Pantocrator. However, the sense of the immanence of the Lord’s coming wanes with each generation, and gradually, people lay up with rock their golden gate for their everyday comfort and convenience. With every iteration, the gate narrows, until it becomes only a narrow passage, a far cry from the large structures of megalithic civilisation, and a symbol of the iniquity of modern man with his desire for personal comfort. But for a Christian, the presence of the Lord is a reality, Christ will be in our midst for ages and ages, as long as we open our spiritual eyes to Him and take a step towards Him.
Another object with a related message is the rainstorm waterfall sculpture. Despite the complexity of our idea, we hope to convey it successfully in our work. At present, we are considering a composition centred around a large Boris stone, common in this part of the world.
Waterfall fountain on the first floor of the Ark made from Boris stone
We wish that our interior designs bring our visitors back to the ancient times of our forefathers down to Adam and Eve, showcasing humanity's progress from the original sin to restoration in the Lord. Images of the Kievan Rus and its early medieval principalities of Polotsk and Turov fit nicely into this idea by illustrating the origins of Belarusian culture, art and theological thought.
The main staircase represents man's journey to salvation, the figure of Noah symbolises prayer, the expectation of the rain and anticipation of an answer from God.
The four stories of the Ark are structured around the staircase forming a stylised well. Here, we will place a statue of Noah, his face raised to heaven. He is looking to meet God, his heart is turned towards Him. He has fulfilled God’s commandment and built the ark, and waits for His promise to materialise; and it does - as a clear drop of rain.
The sculpture of Noah on a turtle, a symbol of the new earth
We hope that all our visitors will find in this sculpture something that strikes a chord in them; that they will recall their joy at the warm summer rain or remember about the presence of God in all our undertakings. To the more supine, let this sculpture be a reminder that the ark is complete, the countdown is on, and it is still not too late to jump on the boat.
The people who are working on this project - are they mostly in-house artisans or third-party contractors?
Both. From my perspective, the artistic design needed to be done in-house. Costly but tasteless design solutions was a great risk. From our perspective, the task was to create a different reality, an environment for the existence of man’s spirit. We have worked at the Convent from its first days, and have shared consistently with Father Andrey and the Council of Senior monastics our proposals for the project and its interior design based on our experience. In this way, we competed among the others and won in a fair contest.
It is sad to see artists propose mediocre solutions only to absorb a budget. For how can an artist produce a masterpiece of church art without deep familiarity with the church relics, without ever touching the Lord's cloak? Without this experience, what could an artist tell the world? It could not work, the result would be a travesty of art.
A church artist should seek the gifts of God, and having received them, share generously with others. We offer God our prayer, trust and admission of our iniquity, and hope to receive from Him an idea or a creative design; to partake of His beauty and pass on this beauty to all others.
Our monastic workshops employ numerous artisans specialising in glasswork, ceramics, metalworking and sculpture. Each was given a chance to contribute. It was Father Andrey's idea that the Ark be built as far as possible by the convent's workers, adding exclusivity, talent and a sense of community to the enterprise.
How meaningful was working on this project to you as an artist?
As an artist, it was a chance to explore new opportunities and areas. Our workshop specialises in church mosaics, murals and iconography. Each area relies on a distinct set of techniques. The Ark project presents a set of new challenges, calling for more minimalist expressive devices, more sweeping generalisation and a range of new techniques. We have designed and created in-house many elements of inner decor. To a large degree, it was a steep learning curve. We tested new solutions and made corrections throughout the process. As a result, we have acquired extensive professional experience and discovered new ways of professing our faith.
What is the meaning of the project from a layman’s perspective?
I have four children. They are growing up in a world that does not always change in the most favourable ways. I still want my children to grow up in beauty, but there is much less of it around. There is too much emphasis today on consumption, entertainment and acquisition of material wealth, but I do not wish these motivations to constitute the meaning of their lives. I want them to learn how to choose wisely and consciously an occupation to which they can dedicate their hearts, minds and skill; one that would bring them joy and peace. I see my engagement in this project as my chance to show them how this can be done.
When can we expect the Ark to receive its first visitors?
Work on the facade is in progress, and so is the inner finishing. We can expect to start landscaping works this spring. The tentative timeline is the end of the summer, but it is hard to make any more specific estimates at this point. We are looking forward to this date nevertheless. I hope that it will become a sanctuary, a starting point to every visitor in their journey of self-reinvention towards a new life.
Interviewer: Darya Goncharova
Photos: Olga Solntseva et al.