KIEV, Ukraine — Overwhelmed. It’s what one feels when entering the sacred confines of the various churches and monasteries that dot Kiev like rainbow sprinkles.
Their interiors are covered floor-to-ceiling in gold and frescoes. The air is choked with incense and religious chanting. Often capped by a shining gold onion dome, their exteriors also stun, coming in an array of colors, or in the case of Kiev Pechersk Lavra, the most sacred complex, a blinding white.
But there is something else housed in the sacred complex of Pechersk Lavra whose renown comes not from its ability to overwhelm but from its subtlety—the Museum of Microminiatures.
The museum, which is just one highlight in a complex that contains caves, tunnels, skeletons, and heaps of gold artifacts, is the location for one of the largest concentrations of works by the master of microminiatures, Mykola Syadristy.
The sculptures, for lack of a better word, range in size from a few millimeters to some that are mere fractions of a millimeter. They are captivating not solely on their own aesthetic merit, but rather gasp-inducing when one realizes what a nearly impossible exercise it must have been to create something so complex on so small a scale. It is the Christ the Redeemer effect in reverse.
And so, as one wanders from object to object, a routine ensues.
Gaze into lens at microminiature. Step back, read the description outlining the size, material, and method. Mutter, “holy crap,” “no way,” or some variant with a four-letter word. Then lean back in to gaze upon the microminiature with a newfound wonder and appreciation.
Take, for instance, the ship set pictured as the article’s main image. Named for the Russian novelist Alexander Grin, the frigate made of gold is just 3.5 millimeters from end to end. The gold strands that make up the rigging in between its billowing sails are just 0.003 millimeters in diameter. (Which is 400 times less than a human hair, the museum helpfully points out).
Another sculpture entitled “Time” has a working clock fixed into the head of a dragonfly. Another, one of the earliest works by the artist from 1969, features a preserved common flea that has been shod with golden shoes.
The “Oginsky’s Polonaise” composition fits the 600 note signs of the polonaise onto a chrysanthemum flower petal with dimensions of 2 x 5 millimeters. A set of gold chessmen on a regulation chessboard from 1973 fits onto the head of a nail. A 2 x 3 millimeter dot of glass is carved with a diamond engraver to make a portrait of the artist’s mother. A scene from The Little Prince in gold makes up one of the works of art, and the height of the pilot is a mere 0.8 millimeters. A book created by the artist made up of 12 pages of poetry by Taras Shevchenko is purported to be the smallest in the world at a mere 0.6 square millimeters. Its cover is so small, is it just a petal from an immortelle flower.
The most impressive, in my opinion, was the “Rose in a Hair.” The description of the piece, which is pictured, is as follows:
“The hair is drilled lengthwise and polished outside and inside until being transparent. An artificial rose twig is inserted into the bore. The flower diameter is 0.05 millimeters, the stem is 0.005 millimeters thick.”
Syadristy was a self-taught master of the microminiature. He was born in 1937 in Ukraine and according to the museum’s biography, he worked as an agronomist from 1960 to 1967 and then as an engineer at the Ukrainian Academy of Science from 1967 to 1974. It also claimed he was the champion in underwater sports in the former Soviet Union from 1976 to 1978.
Syadristy’s works are all made my hand. The materials range from gold to marble to seeds and glass. When painting, he used just a single bristle from a paintbrush.
And of course it is hard not to wonder just how he did all this. How did he have the patience? The skill?
“To achieve it you need to have certain knowledge and experience in design, composition and plastics. Besides, you must be perfectly acquainted with properties of all materials to be used in your craft and be able to control your body to perform particularly delicate arm motions between heartbeats,” the artist wrote in The Secrets of Microtechnique. “But if speaking briefly and deeply, certainly the creative and psychological fundamentals of any artist is somewhere in the depths of his childhood.”
And that, really, is at the core of this museum’s attraction. The art on display does not require an understanding of Fauvism or some grand sweeping theory of art. Instead, it is pure spectacle, but done in such a way that reminds us of the value we place and how much joy we get from seeing somebody pull off something that for us would require some magic to ever complete.