One day, my life started to remind me of a broken record. One more spin, and it’s the same. It’s like you exist in some kind of a closet. There was this itchy feeling that something had to change! But nothing changed… I kept painting but I could feel that there was a lack of bright and vivid colors in my works. Just like in my life. And then… I saw these colors. I found them in the Old Russian icon. I’ve always wanted to depict something that matters. Icon painting and religious painting gradually became the most important thing for me.
It was 1991. I was thirty-five years old. I decided to get baptized. First I went to the Transfiguration Cathedral in St. Petersburg but I forgot to take along something necessary for the Sacrament, so I could not be baptized the first time. I decided not to go to the same place for the second time – so I found myself at St. Xenia’s.
I was baptized in the Church in honor of the Smolensk icon of the Mother of God, which is in the Smolensk cemetery, next to the Chapel of Blessed Xenia. My baptism was scheduled after the end of the Liturgy. I came to the service but, since I had not been used to divine services, I stood up a little, got tired quickly, went out into the narthex of the church and sat down on a bench. A woman who looked upset came near me. She was an employee of the church. She looked at me – and I was sitting inappropriately, with my legs crossed – and, as it seemed to me at the time, she just smashed me, giving me a verbal thrashing for my appearance and for everything else.
I was completely unprepared for such an assault. I felt offended and walked out of the church. It happens in situations like this, though it is wrong. But then, suddenly, I felt that something was stopping me. I thought, “I have come to be baptized, and I have already managed to take offense and, proudly raising the banner of my offense, to go out. Funny and sinful.” Then I felt a strong desire to return, though in my youth I was quite stubborn. It was a new feeling for me – as if I had obeyed someone else’s will.
I went back to the church, stood among the parishioners, and I wasn’t angry anymore. The liturgy went on. Just five minutes later, someone touches my elbow. I turn around and see the woman who has just told me off. This time she seemed humble and calm, as if she had understood something too. She leaned over and quietly asked me to help her with something outside.
I go outside and I see a dozen wooden boxes of potatoes to be taken up the bell tower. I assumed it was stored there for the refectory. So I started to lift those boxes up a steep staircase in the sweat of my face. When I first entered the attic, I immediately noticed the brickwork, which was not covered with plaster. Those were natural bricks of long-gone days.
I didn’t immediately understand why those bricks made such an impression on me. It was only years later, when I read the life of Blessed Xenia, that I understood: those were the bricks that the Blessed Xenia had brought up here, on the walls of the church under construction! It turns out that she let me go with the load on the same route, on which she herself walked upstairs … I panted and wiped sweat from my forehead, and I returned in church just in time for my baptism.
A few months later, I got a call from a friend I haven’t seen in a while. She asked if I would paint an icon for their chapel and if I would do it for free, because the parish – it was a home chapel – had no money for it at all. I gladly agreed. Then it turned out that I had to paint an icon… of Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg! I considered it a miracle, a sign…
That was twenty years ago. Since then, I’ve painted over fifty paintings of Blessed Xenia. I published a painting album “Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg” in 2015, which includes all these works. The Museum of Xenia of St. Petersburg was established in 2017 on Kamskaya Street, near the gates of Smolensk cemetery. There are almost no exhibits there – nothing has survived from Blessed Ksenia, she had nothing. So they decided to hang copies of my paintings on the walls of the museum, to which I made explanatory texts. We organized an exposition introducing the life of the Blessed Xenia to pilgrims. That same year, I began painting the Church of Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg, which was built on Lahtinskaya Street, where she lived. This new church was consecrated on June 6, 2019, and opened its doors to believers.
All of these events over the years, from my baptism to my painting of the church, have now merged into one single whole. For which I feel great gratitude to Blessed Xenia, whose help and presence I have felt all these years.
This article contains photos of paintings by the artist Alexander Prostev.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds