Lviv’s treasures of sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen

Issue 66, March 2014.

Lviv’s treasures of sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen

Among Ukrainian cities, Lviv stands alone as a place where one can find important architectural landmarks of all kinds of styles representing many different eras standing right next to each other. Works from many recognized architects and artists can be found decorating churches, adorning art galleries, or specially displayed in one of our many museums. For example, one can just as easily find some of the splendid Baroque works of 18th-Century sculptor Johann Geog Pinsel at the Museum of Sacral Baroque Sculptures as it is to see the Neo-Classical treasures of Bertel Thorvaldsen – one of Denmark’s best known artists. Thorvaldsen, living in early 19th-Century Rome, is one of the most important European representatives of Neo-Classical sculptural art.

Thorvaldsen was born in Copenhagen to poor parents in the late 18th-Century. The young boy entered Copenhagen’s Art Academy at just 11 with an unusually bright talent and learned the craft of sculpting for the next 12 years. Soon after he was lucky enough to travel to Rome as the Academy’s scholar to be further educated for another three years. At the time, Rome was the cultural centre of Europe and attracted art collectors from across Europe that could afford works in marble or bronze. And so the stars aligned for the talented Bertel, and after receiving numerous orders he ended up staying in Rome to become one of Europe’s best known artists.

He is probably best known for his sculptures working with motifs from Classical mythology, such as Venus, Mercury, Cupid, or Psyche. He is also renowned for sculpting monuments of important historical figures, such as Pope Pius VII (a grave monument in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) and Jozef Poniatowski (an equestrian statue in Warsaw). Thorvaldsen also crafted large orders for Denmark, of which the most famous are the statues of Christ and the Apostles (in Vor Frue Kirke – Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen). Over time, he gained more and more employees and at the height of his career had no less than five studios in Rome. His works can be found all across Europe, including two here in Lviv – the Monument to Countess Jozefa Dunin-Borkowska and the Gravestone of Poniński's Children.

Built in the 18th-Century, the Dominican Cathedral is a remarkable example of Baroque architecture and certainly one of the most interesting relics at the Cathedral is the Gravestone of Countess Jozefa Dunin-Borkowska. While the grave of the Countess can be found at Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery, her famous gravestone – crafted by Thorvaldsen in 1816 – can only be found on display at the Dominican Cathedral.

The Gravestone of Poniński's Children

In the early 17th-Century, in the small town of Chervonohorod, a local castle was built as a seat of the Danilowicz family. By 1778, Prince Karol Poninski acquired the castle – nearly in ruins – from the Habsburgs and had it demolished. He built a new princely residence in its place and his daughter, Helena Poninski, inherited it. It was she that in 1835 had Thorvaldsen craft a marble gravestone to commemorate the tragic death of her children. By 1842 Thorvaldsen had completed the work and the gravestone was placed in the Palace Chapel of Poninski’s castle at Chervonohorod.

Chervonohorod declined in importance during the 19th-Century and its population was reduced to just 500 by the time of 1939’s ‘September Campaign’. During the Soviet times the Poninski Palace was dismantled, save from the two towers, and Chervonohorod was even removed from the map of the Ukrainian SSR. The site became a city of ghosts and ruins. We have Lviv Art Gallery director Boris Voznitsky to thank for bringing back to life the forgotten work of this talented sculptor. During one of his archeological expeditions to the ruins of the castle, Voznitsky and his team came across the gravestone, which they brought back to Lviv for analysis. After restoration, the marble gravestone was put on display at the Lviv Art Gallery.