One of the last icons painted by Sister Joanna (Julia Reitlinger) was The Walking on Waters, and her whole life was, in fact, such a walk – at difficult moments, she boldly grabbed the hand of the Savior, who led her over the troubled waters.
Her life was full of difficulties and wanderings. She was born in St. Petersburg, then lived in Crimea, Warsaw, Prague, Belgrade, Paris, until she finally died in Tashkent. The Revolution prevented her from finishing the gymnasium, divided her family, and forced her to leave her homeland, her earthly paradise.
Her meeting with Father Sergius Bulgakov in Crimea, where he served as a priest, had a huge impact on her life and work. Julia was struck by the prophetic zeal of Father Sergius. He became her spiritual father and a lighthouse whose light guided her in life. Julia becomes a true friend for Father Sergius, too; he feels the power and grace of the Holy Spirit abiding in her, as he often writes in his diaries.
After the death of her two sisters and her mother from typhus, Julia and her sister left the country. She first went to Warsaw and then to Prague, where she began to paint icons. She took lessons from Katkov, an Old Believer icon painter, and from the very beginning she realized that an icon is something extremely profound, that it is not just a pious painting, but something that requires a serious attitude of one’s hand, eye, and soul.
After a while, Julia Reitlinger moves to Paris, and she encounters real icons at an exhibition in Munich. It is worth remembering that the knowledge of icons in those years, and even more so in the exile, was relatively limited: people did not see any samples, there were no large collections of icons, and those that were in museums were very scarce. She goes to the exhibition for a few days and copies the icons.
Her thoughts and writings about art in notebooks, letters and diaries have been preserved. Julia does not just develop her craft, she ponders and reflects on the icon. She wants it to be spiritual and not to interfere with prayer, but at the same time to be a piece of art. That is why she called her art “creative icon painting”.
In Paris, Julia finds herself in the fertile environment of the St. Sergius Institute, where the best minds were gathered: George Fedotov, Anton Kartashov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Father Sergius Bulgakov, George Florovsky, Archimandrite Cyprian Kern. She is friends with Mother Maria (Skobtsova).
She joined the Icon Society in Paris. Thanks to this society, the Western world learned about the Russian icon, because prior to the Russian exile virtually no one had known anything about Orthodoxy and Old Russian icon painting in the West. Furthermore, this community promoted the construction of temples. Although they were rebuilt out of former garages and stables, they had to be decorated, and Julia took part in the decoration of those churches.
One of them is the Church of St. John the Warrior in Meudon, a suburb of Paris. The Heavenly Liturgy and the Apocalypse cycles became the main decoration of the church; the painting opens with scenes entitled Paradise and Exile from Paradise, followed by the traditional composition of the Twelve Great Feasts and figures of saints. The design of the paintings at the Church in Meudon was approved by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov who suggested the color scheme, “The blue vault embraces the dark earth, and the celestial lights burn in its transparent depth…”
The scenes of the Heavenly Liturgy are thought out and seen in an uncommon way; the angels bring all the liturgical supplies. All the scenes are made by graphic sharp strokes that convey the drama and tension of the events.
The Exile from Paradise is next to the scenes of the Apocalypse. An angel pours the bowl of wrath on the earth, while John the Theologian records everything that happens in a scroll he holds in his hands. Her Crimean memories and experiences “manifest themselves” on the frescoes. The figures of Saints Lydia and Mary (saints whose names are the same as the names of her mother and sisters who died of typhus in Crimea) are incorporated into the context of the painting.
The paradise world full of harmony and mutual love is the precious world of childhood, to which Julia Nikolaevna returned many times in her creative work.
One day, Marina Tsvetaeva told her son Mour about the creation of the world, saying that at first God created all marine animals, all kinds of walruses… “Seals of all kinds,” the boy added. The “Seal” that peeps out of the water and the good-natured elephant that stares back at the seal are in the center of the Paradise composition in the Meudon Church, where Mour went to attend the services and the Law of God classes.
Sister Joanna (she took monastic vows with this name) later became a famous icon painter in the West. Father Sergius Bulgakov died in 1944. Sister Joanna left the St. Sergius’s for good in 1945 and moved to Prague, where she waited 10 years for permission to return to her homeland. When she returned, she was exiled to Tashkent, where she had to dye kerchiefs to earn retirement money. Sister Joanna’s health was damaged by harmful production and the harsh climate, and her vision deteriorated dramatically.
She was already half-blind in the last years of her life but she continued to paint small icons, the main buyer of which was Father Alexander Men, a young priest.
Nun Joanna becomes Father Alexander’s spiritual child and even gives him Father Sergius’s vestment, which she had brought with her from Paris as a memory. It was a symbolic act of unity between the Church in exile and the persecuted Church in her homeland.