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“Icons on Ammo Boxes”: Art bringing life from death


Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital

John Burger - published on 07/12/19

Ukrainian artists paint religious scenes on the lids that once covered boxes of weapons and bullets.

If, as they say, art imitates life, and life sometimes imitates art, “Icons on Ammo Boxes” brings life out of death.

A project by two Ukrainian artists, “Icons on Ammo Boxes” is a way to transform instruments of war into something beautiful and to help restore life to those affected by a now-five-year-old conflict.

The exhibit graced Philadelphia last month in conjunction with the enthronement of Metropolitan Borys Gudziak as head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the United States. Papal biographer George Weigel, who gave a lecture in connection with Metropolitan Borys’ installation, wrote that the icons are written on the wooden lids of boxes for weapons or ammunition dating back to Soviet times and from the more recent war in Eastern Ukraine.

Weigel, author of Witness to Hope, explained that the project supports the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, which brings medical professionals into the war zone of eastern Ukraine to treat wounded soldiers and civilians. “Since its inception, the mobile hospital has served some 50,000 patients, saving or repairing many lives broken by Russian aggression,” he wrote.

The iconographers who carried out the work are Sofia Atlantova, 37, and her husband, Oleksandr Klymenko, 43, both from Kyiv. Klymenko graduated from the National Academy of Art and Architecture in 1998 and completed a post-graduate course at the Rylskyi Institute of Art History, Folklore and Ethnography in 2002. Atlantova studied in the Kyiv Shevchenko State Art School and the National Academy of Art and Architecture.

In a video about the project, Klymenko said he got the idea for “Icons on Ammo Boxes” when he was visiting a military base and noticed that the upper boards of the boxes for AK-47 bullets are “identical to icon painting boards.” He took one home and promptly painted the Theotokos and Christ Child on it.

“The main idea of the project is the transformation of death into life, where a symbol of death, such as an ammunition box, is transformed by a symbol of life, an icon,” Klymenko said, comparing the “metamorphosis” to the deeply ingrained Christian idea that the cross, an instrument of killing, has become a symbol of life.

As a Byzantine prayer for Matins on the feast of The Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross says:

All the faithful, let us come and venerate the holy resurrection of Christ, for through the Cross the joy has come to the whole world. As we constantly praise the Lord, let us also praise His glorious resurrection since He, after having endured the crucifixion, by His death has destroyed death.

“Icons on Ammo Boxes” has also been shown at the European Parliament, the Parliaments of Ukraine and Lithuania, St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, the Monastery of the Caves in Kyiv, and in Antwerp, Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, Frankfurt, the Hague, Munich, Lublin, Los Angeles, Milan, Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Prague, Rome, Toronto, Vienna, Warsaw, and other cities.

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