The Angels of Lviv

Photographs by Elena Subach

As soon as the first air-raid sirens sounded last winter, Elena Subach, a photographer and curator in Lviv, began to worry. “Lviv is itself an open-air museum,” she told me. “You cannot hide it in a bomb shelter.” All over Ukraine, curators mobilized to try to protect what they could and transfer movable items for safekeeping. In Lviv, museum staff and volunteers rushed to preserve the city’s treasures, putting steel plates over stained-glass windows and preparing canvases for transport. Subach photographed these efforts. At the Lviv National Gallery, she found a woman’s portrait obscured by bars of packing tape—the same tape that Ukrainians soon learned to use to prevent their windows from shattering under the impact of Russian attacks.

photo of a building's windows covered with metal behind an outdoor statue shrouded in protective cover

The protected artworks remind us of all that could not be saved, of the scale of Ukraine’s irrevocable loss. While Lviv’s artworks have so far survived, the same cannot be said of those in Melitopol, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and far too many other cities where museums—and communities—have been leveled by missile strikes.

photo of outdoor sculpture wrapped in protective materials with metal cage and plywood surrounding it

When we spoke recently, Subach recalled watching curators ready the 18th-century baroque wooden sculptures of Johann Georg Pinsel, “the Ukrainian Michelangelo,” for storage. On that day, in late February, Pinsel’s angels could barely be seen beneath their bubble wrap. The angels (below) now reside in an unknown location, Subach told me, silently guarding Lviv from their temporary refuge. “Until the victory, no one will take them out.”

photo of wooden crouching angel wrapped in bubble wrap on black background
photo of wooden angel almost completely obscured by protective wrapping with just top of head peeking out on black background

This article appears in the October 2022 print edition.

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