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Making the Invisible Visible: Russian Icons of the Golden Age

by Laurel Gasque

Ms. Gasque is a cultural historian from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. During the 1987-88 academic year she has been in residence at Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 8-15, 1988, pp. 570-574. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


The Slavic principality of Kievan Rus -- in what is now Soviet territory -- was converted to Christianity a thousand years ago, and the celebration of that anniversary has aroused interest around the world. Quite understandably, most of that interest has focused on how the Soviet government will respond to the recognition of the Russian millennium and whether the policy of glasnost will make a difference. What might not be as evident during this year, however, are the celebrations initiated by the Russian Christian diaspora.

One small but significant contribution to these worldwide celebrations is a traveling exhibition presented by Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and titled Russian Icons of the Golden Age: 1400-1700. This select group of 47 icons comes primarily from the private collection of Koitcho and Tatiana Beltchev of Geneva, Switzerland, with additions from three private American collections and Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum. All of the paintings, including the Fogg's, are being shown to the public for the first time.

The vision and foresight to present this exhibit of Russian icons come out of an archetypically American experience. Two professors at a small independent college, not affiliated with a large or prestigious university or near an influential center, simply set out to raise the money and round up the icons in order to carry on a college tradition and to celebrate the Russian millennium. Seventeen years ago, George Dolnikowski, Juniata College professor of Russian and German literature, wanted to show his students what real Russian icons are. On a budget of $25.00 he organized in the college's art gallery a small exhibition of four icons borrowed from a nearby Russian Orthodox church. It was a great success -- so much so that a colleague from the philosophy department, Robert E. Wagoner, enthusiastically joined forces with Dolnikowski some 19 months ago to bring together the current exhibition. Fortunately, their project received the warm support of the college's president, Robert Neff, who undertook to find funding for the event.

Responsibility for the selection of the works in the exhibit has been in the hands of Natalia Teteriatnikov, curator of visual resources at Dumbarton Oaks, a center for Byzantine Studies in Washington, D.C., operated by Harvard University, and her husband. Vladimir Teteriatnikov, a conservator and restorer of icons and author of Icons and Fakes (privately published, 1981). Mr. Teteriatnikov has received public attention in recent years by challenging the authenticity of some of the Russian icons from the well-known collection of the late Pittsburgh aviation industrialist George R. Hann that went on the block at Christie's auctioneers in 1980 (some unhappy European buyers are still engaged in a legal battle with Christie's over the matter).

Both Teteriatnikovs were trained professionally at Moscow's National Scientific Research Laboratory of Restoration and Conservation of Art Objects. They immigrated to the United States in 1975. Dr. Teteriatnikov, who compiled the exhibit's catalogue, is also a member of the Millennium Committee, a group of distinguished American-based Russianists that includes Orthodox theologian John Meyendorff, linguist Nadine Natov and historian Donald Treadgold; they are seeking to promote the commemoration of the 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia and to publicize the place of the church and its contribution to the history and culture of the Slavic peoples.

Russian Icons of the Golden Age: 1400-1700 is especially welcome at a time when there is a growing awareness that visual monuments are as important for the history of religion as are written records (see, for example, Margaret R. Miles, Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture [ 1985], John Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities: The Visual Arts and the Church [1986]; and Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, editors, Art as Religious Studies [1987]. The term "icon" comes from eikon, which is used in the Septuagint, Genesis 1:21-27, in reference to the first human being as made "according to the image of God." The exhibit's icons contribute instructive evidence of the theological thought and liturgical practice of Russian Christianity over the course of several centuries.

The exhibit itself is on a refreshingly human scale. Its icons are not so numerous that one is overwhelmed by them, yet there are enough of sufficient quality for one to get a true feeling of what this kind of art is about. The works -- all of which are on wood -- range in size from that of a paperback book to that of a smallish double doorway. It is not at all difficult to imagine these images as daily companions for use in church or home.

The intimacy with which the Orthodox believer encounters icons is physically evident in, for example, two small 16th- and 17th-century household triptychs from Moscow in the exhibition. The charred onion-shaped capped frames of these icons reflect generations of veneration through the lighting of candles before them. One of the triptychs also poignantly leaves a complete blank space where one would expect to find a symmetry of saintly figures in order to provide a personalized space for the next family member to have her patron saint painted.

The personal and intimate continue to characterize the relationship of Orthodox Christians with the icon. One hears them speak reverently of the comfort and joy they derive from being surrounded by icons in the church, in their homes, and sometimes at their workplaces and upon their persons. One young Orthodox couple I know recently presented icons to each other at the conclusion of their wedding ceremony. Their intention was to install them immediately on the east wall of their home to express the presence of Christ as the center of their home and their marriage.

For the Orthodox, icons are an integral experience uniting liturgy with life. Often, however, it is precisely this personal, often tender response to the icon that confuses those unfamiliar with Orthodox theology and practice. It may appear to them that Orthodox Christians are being sentimental or superstitious, or even that they are worshiping images. But this is an inaccurate assumption. Those of us who merely "view" our religious art may well envy the Orthodox their freedom to acknowledge gesturally through such intimate acts as touching and kissing the icon that eternal truth evokes a response in the present.

The luminous crimsons, soft greens, ochres and creams of this exhibit's icons provide an overall impression of warm radiance comparable to the feeling one gets in a room filled with hanging oriental carpets. Visually they are difficult to resist.

One can easily understand the enthusiasm for Russian icons expressed by an artist like Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who extolled their "modernism" and "formalism" when he visited Russia in 1911. Yet it would be a mistake to view these works from a strictly formal and aesthetic point of view, for, above all, they embody a theological tradition and were created for devotional use (see "The Icons of Russia," by Mihail Alpatov, in The Icon, edited by Kurt Weitzmann et al. [Knopf, 1982], pp. 239-252).

When Christianity came to Russia in A.D. 988 as a consequence of the baptism of Prince Vladimir of Kiev and his alliance with Byzantine Emperor Basil II, all the icon painters at that time were Greek. Their art, virtually a visual theology of the New Testament and the writings of the early church fathers, deeply affected their new Russian apprentices as they went about decorating churches. And although for the next two centuries the Greek influence of Constantinople prevailed, local styles gradually emerged in places like Kiev, Novgorod, Smolensk and Vladimir. These developments, however, were substantially set back by the Mongol conquest in 1240. Only Novgorod and the lands of the North were spared, enabling a remarkably individual style of icon painting to develop there in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Russian Icons of the Golden Age: 1400-1700 begins with icons from the distinctive Novgorod school. The earliest of these is a late l3th- or early l4th- century mandylion (or starkly frontal formula for the face of Christ often called "the image not made with hands," because it was reputed to have been first imprinted on a cloth by Christ himself); it clearly manifests the characteristic dramatic and formal compositional power of the Novgorodian style. Even in a much later Novgorodian icon, the 16th-century Apostle Paul, the potency of strong rhythmic design and color is apparent.

Moscow became the prominent city of central Russia after victory over the Mongols in 1380. The transference of the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church from Kiev to Vladimir and finally to Moscow also added to its prestige. Further, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, it laid claim to being the "third Rome," with its ruler, Ivan III, enhancing the claim by marrying Sophia, niece of the last Byzantine emperor, and assuming the title of czar (or caesar). Moscow also grew as an artistic center, fostering the development of its own style of painting, which combined elements of formal Byzantine tradition with the local tradition of greater softness of color and delicacy of line. The masterful work of the monk Andrei Rublev (136?-1430) marks the culmination of this development.

Although one might be disappointed at first not to see a Rublev in the exhibition, it offers a number of fine 15th century examples of the Moscow school, such as a New Testament Trinity (a particular type of Russian trinity in which three angels represent God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit, but also recall the visit of three angels to Abraham and Sarah [Gen. 18:1-15]), a double-sided icon of St. Nicholas and the Virgin Hodegetria (the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child and pointing to him as the guide to salvation), and a Christ Enthroned.

While the Moscow school of icon painting still exerted dominant artistic influence in central Russia and even in far-off Novgorod during the 16th and 17th centuries, distinctly local artistic characteristics arose in places like Yarolslavl, Rostov and Kostroma. A vivid example of the Yarolslavl style is the large, brightly colored 17thcentury icon St. Theodore Stratelates. Amid a swirling pattern of design the decoratively clad warrior-saint with spear in hand stands frontally, almost seeming to step out of the frame toward the viewer. The figure also confronts the observer with the fact that the sword and martyrdom played their brutal part in the consolidation of Orthodoxy in Russia.

The exhibition's visual spectrum ends with the Holy Mandylion, painted by Kremlin court artist Simon Ushakov in about 1676 for Colonel Matveev, stepfather of Czar Aleksey's wife, Natalia Narishkin. Although traditional in format and probably painted for a church's iconostasis (a screen placed between the sanctuary and the nave), this icon shows considerable Western naturalistic influence in the depth of its modeling of Christ's face, especially the eyes. A comparison of Ushakov's icon with the above-mentioned Novgorodian mandyllon, with its flatter, almost archaic frontal impact, gives some indication of how in the 17th century traditions in icon painting changed fundamentally as Russia's educated elite opened itself to the cultural influences of the West. The heart and soul of this exhibition, however, are icons that, coming chronologically between these two Mandylions, modestly but dynamically reveal the special artistic and spiritual integration of the Russian icon painter.

The viewing public in North America has probably never been as open as it is today to exploring the relationship between art and spirituality. Not only is spirituality currently a popular topic (even in seminaries), but major museum interest has also focused recently on spirituality in art, especially in the art of our century, in shows such as The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (Los Angeles, Chicago, The Hague) in 1987 and this year's Anselm Kiefer exhibition (Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York). Further, familiarity with modern and postmodern art has accustomed viewers to accept expressive distortion of likeness and the abandonment of traditional Renaissance one-point perspective in the representation of space. Still, while this experience prepares us to look afresh at the conventions of icon painting -- with its frequent inversion of perspective and its formalized arrangements -- it does not prepare us to understand the spirituality that informs the art.

Ours may be an age open to, and seeking, spirituality, but we are still a long way from being able to affirm with assurance the reality and intelligibility of a world we cannot see, feel or touch. This invisible world, however, is precisely the premise on which the art of the icon rests. The affirmation of the eternal truth and intelligibility of a spiritual world defines and shapes the entire form and content of icon painting. Things that are seen are referential to realities unseen, and unseen realities can be made manifest. At its base is the attempt to make these relationships evident, to make the invisible visible.

A good example of this effort is the exhibit's 15th century Christ in Majesty icon from the Moscow school. About the size of a card table, the icon is arrestingly attractive. On a luminous cream field are two overlapping square crimson banners stretched opposite each other so that all eight corners reach toward or into the field, thereby suggesting the shape of a star. Between the crimson squares is a dark blue-green disk. In the composition's center, surrounded by the warm red of the topmost square, is a haloed enthroned Christ, his right hand raised in blessing and his left hand holding an open book revealing the text, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

At first glance this icon seems severely static and geometric. The vibrancy of its colors, however, draw one closer to see a tremendous swirling activity surrounding the throne. In fact, the throne's skewed perspective makes it appear to be in movement itself. What had appeared as solidly colored areas of black and red vibrate with the individualized facial features of a myriad of winged cherubim, energizing the dark disk around the figure of Christ. Form and content are reinforced by the depiction of Christ's feet resting on a footstool supported by fiery wheels (cf. Ezek. 1:5-28 and 10: 1-22). Finally, emerging from the corners of the red banner behind the dark disk and surrounding the throne are the creatures of Ezekiel's vision transformed to represent the four evangelists -- Matthew (man), John (eagle), Mark (lion) and Luke (ox).

This icon's biblical allusions alone could nurture its indefinite contemplation, from the cherubim surrounding the mercy seat in Exodus 25:18-20 and 37:7-9 and Ezekiel's vision in the Old Testament to New Testament references to the Son of Man enthroned in Matthew, Luke, Acts and ubiquitously in Revelation. In this art lies a visual exegesis which conveys many nuances for which words are inadequate. An example of this is the l6th-century panel titled The Washing of the Feet, from central Russia. Here, oddly, Christ stands rather than stoops to wash the feet of three of his disciples, who are placed on a dais above the ground-level on which he stands. The theology of this icon places emphasis not on Christ's humbling himself, but on his raising the dignity and status of his disciples. In studying this icon I could not keep from thinking of the Athanasian formula: "He was made man in order that we might be made God" (On the Incarnation of the Word of God, 54).

The icons of the Juniata College exhibit show that the rendering of an uncompromising Orthodox theology need not be unnaturally austere. The significant role that resurrection plays in Orthodoxy permeates the exhibition's visual theology and gives it a sense of joy. There are no crucifixion images in the exhibit. Although Russian icon painters do depict the crucifixion, they do so to a much lesser extent than do Western artists. In that respect the selection of icons in the exhibit does not misrepresent the traditions of Orthodox theology as much as it underscores its emphasis on the resurrection -- an emphasis which highlights by, contrast how central to both Catholicism and Protestantism is the theology of the cross and suffering. Also in contrast to the theology of the West is the significance placed on divine worship and the sublime servanthood of the angelic hierarchies a significance which is reflected in many of the icons on display.

In a time and place where icons have come to mean "a graphic representation of an object, a concept, or a message" to be clicked on when using a computer, the controversy over icon veneration in the church's early ecumenical councils (730-843) may seem irrelevant. On the other hand, consideration of the conflicts that created this remote controversy may help us to see why ours is a time of spiritual impoverishment. These issues were deeply embedded in the last great christological debates (see Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., "Christology: A Central Problem of Early Christian Theology and Art, " in Age of Spirituality, edited by Kurt Weitzmann [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980], pp. 101-120). For theologians like John of Damascus (ca. 675-ca. 746; tf. his On Divine Images) and Theodore the Studite (759-826; cf. his On the Holy Icons), iconoclasm, or the rejection of the use of images in worship, was tantamount to denying Christ's incarnation, his taking on of human flesh in order to make human salvation possible.

Catharine Roth points out that Theodore reasoned, "If Christ could not be portrayed both before and after the resurrection, then He was not truly man, humanity was not truly united with God, and no human beings could expect to become 'partakers of the divine nature' [II Pet. 1:4]" (from her introduction to her translation of his On the Holy Icons [St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981], p. 16). The world of the icon afforded a participation in that truth, enabling a person to become the true icon of Christ. It is tempting to suggest that Albrecht Durer's extraordinary Self-Portrait of 1500, using a frontal formula resembling the mandylion, is an unusual instance in the West of an artist's giving visual representation to an understanding of this kind of theology, thereby showing his refusal to be entrapped in his own intense self-consciousness and instead recognizing his participation in Christ.

If you have ever been led to believe that the art of the icon is static if not boring - - because the formulae or conventions for representing various subjects such as the Virgin, Christ and the saints are relatively set and change but little over the course of centuries -- I recommend that you see this show, or, at the very least, in this year of Russian millennium celebrations, attend a Russian Orthodox service to correct that impression. The North American public rarely sees Russian icons in its major collections, so this is an unusual opportunity. After appearances at Juniata and at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Washington, D.C., it will be at the Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Drive, New York City, from July 11 to August 8; at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, from September 1 to October 7; and at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, from November 3 to December 11. (A totally different but very interesting exhibit, dealing with the 17th- I9th centuries, is Castings of Faith: Old Russian Copper Icons and Crosses from the Kunz Collection, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History throughout the summer.)

Whether in the context of the liturgy or on the gallery wall, the images of Russian icons evoke the eternal while calling forth a response in the present.


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