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This paper was originally prepared for a seminar that took place in St Anne's Orthodox Christian Church in Northampton, May 2018, on the work of Julia - Sister Joanna - Reitlinger. The church has taken custody of a collection of her mural paintings done in 1946/7 for the rooms of St Basil's House, headquarters of the Anglican/Orthodox Society of SS Alban and Sergius in Ladbroke Grove in London. When the Society moved its headquarters from London to Oxford the murals were installed with the Anglican Community of the Servants of the Will of God, in Hove, Sussex. They came to Northampton when the Hove community transferred to the order's mother house in Crawley (also in Sussex).

Sister Joanna lived in Paris through the 1920s and 1930s and during that time she studied with the French painter Maurice Denis in his Ateliers d'Art Sacré, created in 1919 with the intention of forming painters able to decorate churches in the huge work of restoration that was necessary after the 1914 war. My job was chiefly to speak about Denis with other contributors talking about Sister Joanna. Since I can't assume that my present readership knows much about her it may be useful if I give a brief biographical outline here. (1)

(1) This is largely drawn from Elizabeth Roberts: "A True Theologian" - The icon painter, Sister Joanna,; Christopher Mark: 'Lift up your hearts: The spiritual formation of nun-iconographer, Joanna Reitlinger', Come to the Father, journal of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, No.32, Epiphany 2018, and Irina Yazykova, trans Paul Grenier: Hidden and Triumphant - the underground struggle to save Russian iconography, Paraclete Press, Brewster, Mass, 2010. 

She was born Julia Reitlinger in 1898 into an upper class family in St Petersburg, part of the circle of the influential Obolensky family. Prior to 1917 she studied at the 'Society for the Advancement of Artists'. Assuming that this is the St Petersburg based Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (called the 'Society for the Encouragement of Artists' until 1882), it was directed by Nicholas Roerich, representative of the 'neo-Russian' Slavophile/mystical strand in Russian culture at the time. (2) 

Nicholas Roerich: The Last Angel, 1912

(2) The Imperial Society at (website of the Dmitry Likhachev foundation). For Roerich see Victoria Klimentieva: Nicholas Roerich - in search of Shambala, 2009 thesis for University of Austin, Texas, available at

But in 1917 the family fled to the Obolensky estates in Crimea, where very soon afterwards Julia's mother and her elder sister died of typhus (another elder sister had died previously, according to Roberts, of scarlet fever). It was in the Crimea that she met Fr Sergei Bulgakov (he was ordained as a priest in 1918). As the White army lost control of Crimea, Julia, with her younger sister, escaped to Poland. 

In Warsaw, in a state of despair over her mother's death, she wrote to Bulgakov declaring her intention of becoming a nun, renouncing her ambition to be a painter. He replied that she should not make this decision yet but concentrate on developing her ability as a painter. Soon afterwards she went to Prague and enrolled in the Prague Academy of Arts. In 1922 she was joined in Prague by Fr Sergei, expelled from Russia together with other prominent Orthodox and non-Communist intellectuals on the famous 'philosophers' boat'. She supported herself by serving as cook and housekeeper for Bulgakov and his mother.

In 1925 (Roberts, 1924 according to Yazkova, p.73) she went with Bulgakov to Paris, which is where she joined the Atelier d'Art Sacré with Denis. In 1929 (Roberts, 1928 according to Yazykova, p.74) she saw and was deeply impressed by an exhibition of newly restored icons, and very good quality copies of icons, in Munich. Roberts gives letters she wrote at the time to Denis showing something of the tension she felt between icon painting as a craft and her, and his, notion of what it was to be an artist. She was also working with icon painters in Paris who generally saw their work as a matter of reproducing already existing models, including the Old Believer painter, Mikhail Katkov.

Through the 1930s she decorated some of the new Orthodox churches that were forming to serve the needs of the Russian emigrant community, including the garage church at Lourmel for the community formed round her friend Mother Maria (now widely recognised as Saint Maria) Skobtsova and the church of St John the Warrior in Meudon, subsequently vandalised and largely destroyed by fire. But some of her paintings for Meudon were rescued and are now, after several years restoration, installed in the Solzhenitsyn House for the Russian Diaspora in Moscow.

Julia Reitlinger took the veil as Sister Joanna in 1934 (Roberts. 11th September 1935, according to Christopher Mark, p.32), following the example of Mother Maria (1932). Metropolitan Evlogy in Paris gave her the title 'Sister' rather than 'Mother' since she was still part of the Bulgakov household and he did not want to embarrass Bukgakov's mother.

She remained in Paris during the war and was present at the death in 1944 of Fr Sergei who advised her to return as soon as she could to Russia.

After the war she was commissioned to paint the murals for the Society of SS Alban and Sergius in London, as always still with a dearth of good materials. She painted on the plywood used for tea chests and the paint surface is very fragile due to a shortage at the time of the eggs she used as tempera. Soon afterwards she was invited to Prague to decorate the Orthodox cathedral of SS Cyril and Methodius. There, however, she seems to have fallen out of love with the church due to the 'unedifying manoeuvres' (Roberts) of the clergy. In 1956 with her sister Katya, she went to the USSR, presumably hoping to live in Russia but they were exiled to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan where she made her living painting scarves by hand in a factory.

Yazykova tells us that it was through Elena Braslavskaya-Vedernikova, a student of her own student, Gregory Krug, that, in 1973 (1974 according to Roberts), she entered into contact with the well-known priest Fr Alexander Men, resulting in an intense correspondence which continued until her death in 1988, just before the fall of the Soviet Union (Men was murdered in 1990). Roberts tells us that it was through Men that she again took up painting, sending small, rapidly executed 'icons' to a numerous circle of spiritual children and admirers often hidden from the Soviet authorities in boxes of sweets.