International Exhibition An Emblem of Unity. The Great Coat of Arms of Ukraine: from Narbut to Yakutovych

International Exhibition An Emblem of Unity. The Great Coat of Arms of Ukraine: from Narbut to Yakutovych

Over a hundred years of history behind the creation and manifestation of the main state symbol of Ukraine is presented by the international museum exhibition: An Emblem of Unity. The Great Coat of Arms of Ukraine: from Narbut to Yakutovych, which opened on November 25, 2020 at the National Art Museum of Ukraine.

 The main concept behind this unique exhibition is best characterized by the following quote:

State emblems are inherited, not created.” 

The exposition consisted of 69 artifacts – many of them seen by the Ukrainian public for the first time. An important focal point of the exhibition is the world premiere of a unique heraldic art album: State Insignias of Ukraine, by Mykola Bytynsky (1893-1972), which consists of 17 separate illustrated sheets, and will be shown for the first time.

The co-organizers of the exhibition were the Bogdan Gubsky Foundation “Ukraine – 21st Century”, the National Art Museum of Ukraine and the Sheremetyev Museum as well as an International partner, The Ukrainian Museum and Library in Stamford, Connecticut. In total, 12 museums, archival and library institutions of Ukraine and the United States, took part in the exhibition.

The exhibition was shown at the National Art Museum of Ukraine and was dedicated to the history of the Great Coat of Arms of Ukraine, the origins of which date back to the Liberation Struggle of 1917-1921.

The exhibit was displayed in two large exhibition halls of the museum. This harmoniously emphasized the structure of the exhibit, which was based on two main themes;  the history behind the formal elements of the state emblem and the tradition of its existence within the larger context of Ukrainian history.

The historical  origins are represented by artifacts that help illustrate the heritage of the state coat of arms from ancient times to the present. Among them are the historic coats of arms of Ukraine, which at various times have already served as state and national symbols. For example; the trident, which is the emblem of the Princely State of Volodymyr the Great; the golden lion–which is the coat of arms of the Galicia-Volyn state, and the main heraldic symbol of Western Ukraine; and the cossack with a musket– which is the coat of arms of the Zaporizhian Army (16th-17th centuries), during the Cossack era, and served as a state and national coat of arms of the nation.

Below are some of the historic museum pieces included in this exhibition:

A rare artifact from the first half of the 11th century, made of horn with an image of the prince’s insignia- – the trident. This piece is stored in the Chernihiv Regional Historical Museum named after V.V. Tarnovsky.

A silk flag of the National Guard from Yavoriv in the Lviv region (1848), attracted special attention from visitors. This is the oldest surviving flag with an image of a lion perched on a rock. It is exhibited for the first time outside the National Museum in Lviv (Andrei Sheptytsky), where it is stored.

One of the main shows of the exhibition is entitled, Book: a Collection of Documents, dated 1679-1745, which was compiled by Ivan Zabila, a representative for the Cossack officers. It is also kept in the Chernihiv Regional Historical Museum (V.V. Tarnovsky). This collection of documents contains one of the oldest preserved graphic images of the coat of arms of the Zaporizhian Army, which is a Cossack with a musket. The signature under the emblem “Sigilum Ucraina“, which translates from Latin as “Seal of Ukraine”, is unique. The artifact emphasizes not only the widespread use of the coat of arms on seals, but also the high level of national consciousness of the Cossack officers.

The pieces displayed in the second hall revealed the circumstances behind the development of the state emblem in Ukraine, which is more than a century old. This room explored the background and relevance of the large coat of arms for the state building and how it symbolizes the unification of the Ukrainian lands. The design of this historically significant symbol for Ukraine came to fruition as a culmination of efforts put forth by a group of prominent artists, historians, and politicians on January 21, 1919–the day before the solemn proclamation of the Union of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic. The members of the group that commissioned the design of the UPR emblem were:  Petro Doroshenko (chairman), academician Orest Levytsky, Heorhiy Narbut, Hryhoriy Pavlutsky, Pavlo Zaitsev, Mykola Bilyashivsky and Vadym Modzalevsky. Archival historic documentation referencing their final design decisions are recorded in their meeting’s minutes:

a) To determine that at the present time, when the ZUNR was united with the Eastern Republic, it is necessary to record this moment and the corresponding connection of the coat of arms for a United Ukraine with the emblems of both republics. Such a coat of arms will be clear and understandable for a broad cross-section of people; in addition, it will be convenient to compose, because there will be no doubt (amongst the Ukrainian population) as to what the images symbolize:  a Cossack with a gun for Eastern Ukraine and a lion for Western Ukraine.

b) Considering that both parts of a united Ukraine arose from one source–Kyivska Rus’,  it is important to recognize the need to include the coat of arms of St. Volodymyr. 

Prominent Ukrainian artists Heorhiy Narbut (1886-1920), Vasyl Krychevsky (1873-1952), Serhiy Yakutovych, and others made history, and took part in the creation of the Great State Emblem of Ukraine during the First Independence.

The exhibition consists of 69 artifacts, many of these artifacts were presented to the  public for the first time. These historic pieces are largely unknown to the general public except for a narrow circle of academics. In particular, for the first time, visitors were able to get acquainted with the seal of the Ukrainian State, made according to the original sketches of Vasyl Krychevsky, and the seal of the State Secretariat authored by Heorhiy Narbut. Also, for the first time in the capital of Ukraine, the seals of Ukrainian hetmans were presented to the general public: the founder of the Cossack State – Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky.

The pearl of the exhibition was the heraldic album State Insignias of Ukraine, by the artist Mykola Bytynsky, which was shown for the first time to the public in Ukraine after 80 years of its creation. 

Mykola Bytynsky made 17 color drawings for the album, State Insignias of Ukraine, at the request of the Government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in exile in Prague in 1939. That year, Ukrainian emigrants celebrated the 20th anniversary of the proclamation of the unification of Ukrainian lands on January 22, 1919, on Sofiyivska square in Kyiv. A book of heraldic art was published in Prague in 1940. The album was considered lost until it reappeared sometime after World War II.  It is currently located in the Ukrainian Museum and Library in Stamford, Connecticut.  

 The head of the Foundation, Bogdan Gubsky, said:

“Cultural diplomacy is a powerful tool that helps focus on what unites, not divides. The purpose of the exhibition is to highlight more than a century of history of the Great State Emblem of Ukraine and more than a thousand years of tradition. The Princely State of Volodymyr the Great – Trident; the coat of arms of the Zaporizhian Army – a Cossack with a musket; and the coat of arms of the Galicia-Volyn state – with its golden lion.  And today, I can say that we have addressed this task one hundred percent. “

Leading figures from a wide range of backgrounds; including, academics, public leaders, military, historians and diplomats as well as ordinary visitors who visited the exhibition, noted that it was very important for Ukraine as it showed the historic origins of the main state symbol, which goes back thousands of years. By following both historical and political events through the evolution of  state symbols and insignias, it more confidently paves a deeper understanding of Ukrainian statehood.

The uniqueness of the artifacts presented at the exhibition was emphasized by former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko:

“Our state is 30 years old, and we are still discussing the Great Coat of Arms. Our identification begins here, as it is an emblem which is symbolic of the Ukrainian nation. It is unfortunate and inexcusable, that for many years now, we are still tackling the significance and importance of this.  A national emblem is visible to millions of people, and it illustrates the structure of the Ukrainian state. Now that it has become our mission to place the topic of national symbols on top of our agenda, it can be properly addressed.”