By Pipsa Palttala
The recovery of the valuable painting is regarded as a miracle
The congregation breaks into a sigh when a precious icon, browned and dirtied with soil, is brought into the room.
The staff of the Helsinki Orthodox Church have last seen the “Theotokos of Kozeltshan” icon, depicting the Virgin Mary, in the summer of 2010.
In June of last year, the valuable icon was stolen and subsequently hidden underground in Turku.
Apart from the extremely valuable icon, the thieves also seized jewellery and ornaments that worshippers had left as offerings around the actual work, and further jewels from around a second icon.
Another burglary occurred in August 2010, when several perpetrators had broken into the Greek Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral through the same window as in the previous burglary in June. The congregation, however, had made improvements to the church’s security systems after the previous break-in, and the security firm reached the scene promptly. According to the police, some items had been moved around inside, but on this occasion nothing was missing.
Police got on the trail of the stolen icon when a man who was imprisoned for the theft came forward much later with information on where it was hidden.
”In the morning, we were informed that the icon was being searched for. In the afternoon, it was established that the unearthed icon was in fact the work of art missing from Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral since June”, reports the smiling pastor Markku Salminen.
”We were kept informed during the entire search, while we were waiting for the return of the icon from Turku. When the police then arrived, singing parishioners were out meeting the icon in the street”, Salminen adds.
For six months, the icon had been covered in dirt under a layer of soil and snow. Even though the pieces of jewellery that had been placed around the icon by parishioners had long since gone missing and the background of the painting had been tarnished, the picture itself looked bright.
For the Orthodox parishioners, the icon is a priceless work of ecclesiastical art. The “Theotokos of Kozeltshan” icon used to draw for example couples desperate for a child to the Uspenski Cathedral, even from abroad.
”God allowed us to get plenty of snow this year. If the ground had been frozen or soaked, the damage would have been much worse”, Salminen notes inside the cathedral.
The recovered icon was kept in the congregation’s refrigerator overnight in order that too rapid a warming process would not destroy the precious work of art.
Last Wednesday, the icon was sent to the Valamo Monastery in Heinävesi for restoration before it is brought back to the Uspenski Cathedral.Some of the staff of the Helsinki Orthodox congregation were nursing hopes of the recovery of the icon, while Salminen and other priests used a photo of the icon for the screensaver on their computers.
”I ordered that a blank space should be left where the icon had been, even though we had a copy of the icon available”, Salminen continues.
The parishioners are unanimous in their belief that the recovery of the icon was a miracle.”This indicates that even a hardened criminal may repent”, says a tearful Tuula Savinainen from the Orthodox Congregation’s customer services.
The Helsinki Police Department’s unit for investigating crimes against property reports that Ion Vasile, a 36-year-old Romanian national who was imprisoned for the theft, came forward voluntarily, revealing the hideout of the icon.
In August 2010, the Helsinki District Court handed down a sentence of three years and four months’ imprisonment to Vasile for the aggravated theft committed in June, and for the attempted aggravated theft in August 2010.He was also sentenced to pay more than EUR 180,000 in compensation to the Helsinki Orthodox Congregation.
”We believe that the matter has been bothering him in prison. The disclosure will not help him to seek any post-conviction relief, as the court has given its final verdict and the case is over. The disclosure is simply related to the perpetrator’s wish to ease his conscience”, describes Detective Inspector Kari Niinimäki.The two other men involved in the second burglary received sentences of one year and two months each for attempted aggravated theft.
The underground stash containing the icon was located in the centre of Turku.
The police are unwilling to disclose the precise place, as their investigations are still incomplete.Apparently the icon was hidden away as the thieves wanted to get rid of the precious artefact.
The whereabouts of the other jewellery taken is not known.