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A professor teaches four students in a gallery exhibit of Ukrainian artwork of Mary.

History As It Happens

By Michele Jennings

When University of Dayton political science professor Jaro Bilocerkowycz’s class Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia visited the Marian Library Gallery on Oct. 3, nothing about the routine exhibit tour suggested that students would be witnessing history. Yet just as they were learning about a work of art on display, the feast day affiliated with it was undergoing a historic shift.

Marian Library staff curated the current exhibit, East Meets West, in response to the war in Ukraine; it features representations of Mary that mingle Marian devotion with themes of war, freedom and opposition. The exhibit centers on the Marian Library’s Ukrainian Marian Collection, established by former library employee Halyna (Helen) Nykolyshyn in the early 1980s. 

The exhibit also features artwork from the Marian Library’s collection that highlights the connection between Pokrova — a feast day that celebrates the intercession and protection of Mary, shown carrying a protective veil or cloak in her outstretched arms — and Defenders Day, which commemorates veterans and fallen soldiers from Ukraine’s armed forces. In artist Mykhailo Skop’s 2022 print “Defenders Day,” on view in the gallery, a modern Pokrova extends her cloak to shield two members of the Ukrainian armed forces whose uniforms bear the insignia of the golden trident, or tryzub. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014, the Ukrainian government decreed Defenders Day a new holiday to occur on Oct. 14, sharing the date with the Feast of Pokrova according to the Julian calendar used in the Russian Orthodox liturgical observance.

On display: The pace of change

When the exhibit text was prepared for East Meets West in May earlier this year, it listed Oct. 14 as both Defenders Day and Pokrova. Bilocerkowycz’s class visited the exhibit expecting to draw connections between the items on display and the content of their class, including Ukraine’s struggle for political, cultural and religious freedom from Russia. In the span of those five months between exhibit installation and the class’s visit, the exhibit text had already been rendered out of date. In a move to align Ukrainian religious and cultural observance with the Gregorian or revised Julian calendar rather than the Julian (and therefore the majority of the non-Russian Orthodox Christian world), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy proposed and signed a law moving Defenders Day from Oct. 14 to Oct. 1. In an address delivered on the new date of observation, Zelenskyy emphasized the connection between the holiday and the Feast of the Pokrova:

In front of each of us and for the sake of each of us stand our modern-day guardians, our warriors along the front line, who are defending our land today. Above the Golden Gate, the gate church of the Most Holy Theotokos [a name for Mary that literally means “God-bearer”] was built that served as the heavenly protection of the city. The sky above us today is protected by the air defense forces and all our warriors, whose guardian is the Intercession.

While we often think of the visual and cultural materials in the Marian Library as products of their time and place that help visitors connect Marian devotion through history to their own experiences, it’s rarer that an exhibit’s educational materials bear the traces of history in action. In addition to discussing the religious and cultural significance of shifting Defenders Day away from Russian Orthodoxy’s Julian calendar, students from POL 321 also reflected on the significance of living through the historic conflict and witnessing the pace at which history changes course. 

Incorporating Mary into the curriculum

Instructors from across disciplines are always encouraged to bring their classes to experience the Marian Library’s collections and exhibits and to develop curricular tie-ins. Class visits and instruction with Marian Library exhibits allow students to interact with cultural and historical events while offering the experiences they bring with them to the library. Topics in the exhibit like resistance, independence, violence and devotion span time and place, giving undergraduates a moment to reflect on their own place in history and connect what they do in the classroom with the world they live in.

Exhibit open through Nov. 10

You too can witness history in the Marian Library Gallery for a little while longer — East Meets West is on display until Nov. 10. The gallery is open for visitors Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

— Michele Jennings is a visiting librarian and archivist in the Marian Library.

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