The Light of Valaam

Page: 1 2  3 4

The Light of Valaam

Monk Savvaty doesn't lash himself or wrap ropes around his body. Nor does he kneel for hours on a hard floor to tame his passions. His penance at the Valaam Monastery is different: He takes photographs.

Savvaty, [alias Sergei Sevastyanov], was already an experienced photographer when he decided to leave the senseless fuss of secular life and become a monk six years ago. While most monks are encouraged to leave their secular occupation behind, Savvaty was blessed by the monastery elders to continue his work with photography.

"Usually, as we [become monks] we denounce everything we did before, but I dragged my entire life along with me into the monastery," Savvaty said at the Union of Journalists' Photo Center, where his first personal exhibit opened last week.

A middle-aged bearded man in a long black robe who does not like to talk about his life before Valaam, an island monastery on northwest Russia's Lake Ladoga, Savvaty looked on with amusement as the artsy crowd in the hall mixed with priests and church-going women. Visitors sipped holy water from plastic glasses - the evening's substitute for the more traditional champagne.

"Art is passion, but I have to fight passion. Art has become my penance," Savvaty said.

"God grants everyone a talent, and it's a sin to bury this talent," said the head of the monastery, Archimandrite Pankraty, who gave Savvaty his blessing to continue with photography. Although Pankraty agreed that photography is an unusual penance for a monk, he said he was certain from the beginning that Savvaty would be able to "overcome the vanity that inevitably accompanies all artists."

There is certainly no trace of vanity in Savvaty's Photo Center display of black-and-white pictures, all of which project a quality of tranquillity and rest. There are still lifes and landscapes, but the majority of the photographs are of the Valaam monks, shown praying, working or simply looking peacefully into the lens, their every hair and wrinkle captured by Savvaty's 1950's era Linhoff camera.

"Lots of professional photographers come to Valaam every year, but it would be very hard for an outsider to make a portrait like this one," Pankraty said as he pointed at Savvaty's photograph of a young monk sitting in a granite niche on the Valaam island and praying. "Monks would not feel comfortable praying in front of an outsider's camera."

Among over 100 of Savvaty's photographs on display, there is a portrait of a teenage monk walking through waist-high bushes of fern. Sun rays vibrate on the delicate fern; the monk's face glows with what Pankraty calls "the spiritual light."

Savvaty says there is no mechanical explanation for the peacefulness and radiance his work exudes.

"It's one thing to solve creative problems, but penance is different. When art is penance, some other laws come into effect," he said. Although he acknowledges that he "technically" took the pictures, Savvaty insists that the exhibit is the collective work of Valaam itself, and leaves his photographs unnamed and unsigned.

Savvaty's art continues a 140-year tradition of photography at Valaam. According to Archimandrite Pankraty, the monastery has had a photo studio since 1858. Forty-eight photographs taken at the monastery in the 19th and early 20th century are on display on Photo Center's second floor. Strangely, the photographs - recently developed from the old negatives - look very much like Savvaty's work: tranquil and dedicated to detail.

Savvaty is not the only of Valaam's nearly 100 monks now involved with photography. "There are some eager amateurs who get carried away and keep trying to climb up to the monastery roof and take photographs from there," the archimandrite said with a smile. "Such people need to be stopped."

By Anna Badkhen
Special to the Moscow Times