NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Strong color and brilliant gilt emitted from a group of Russian icons from the Sixteenth to the early Twentieth Century reflect off each other in an explosion of powerful images in the newly staged exhibition “Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons and Treasures.” Four years in the making, the exhibition on view through April 27 at the Knights of Columbus Museum, dazzles the viewer and invites careful scrutiny.
Orthodox Christian religious images existed as early as the Second Century, serving as aids in devotional practices. They are not representational; rather, they are expressive of Christ or another sacred figure or event by signs and symbols, and it is that figure or event that is venerated. Icons are written, not drawn or painted.
The tradition of Orthodox Russian icons is rooted in the eastern Roman Empire, the capital of which was Byzantium, later Constantinople. It found its way to Russia with the conversion of Kievan Rus Prince Vladimir in 988, who then imposed the religion on his subjects. He introduced new levels of culture along with highly trained craftsmen, architects, painters and metal workers, all from Byzantium. Icons were instrumental in spreading the new religion. They were painted in egg tempera, on wood, often with rich gold leaf or covered with ornate gilt metal covers known as rizas, which lent an extra dimension to the work.
The “Windows into Heaven” exhibition is drawn from an anonymous private collection. Guest curator Father Paul Halovatch, MDiv, MA, has organized the show by subject, gallery by gallery. A Roman Catholic priest, it is his own Russian Orthodox background that stimulated his interest in icons. Halovatch describes two general categories of icons; first are those depicting Christ, Theotokos or a saint or group of saints. The second group are narrative icons that capture scenes from the life of Christ, Mary or a saint.
Icons were not meant to be decorative; they were intended for veneration in churches; smaller examples were used in the home, in a reserved space — the beautiful or red corner — and were often the name-saints of family members. A selection of small, mostly cased, icons used during travel are also on view.
The walls of each gallery are painted a deep color, selected by Halovatch, to differentiate each gallery and its themes. The first gallery displays icons of Christ and is painted a deep burgundy; the gallery devoted to Theotokos, Mary the Mother of God, is a deep teal; the gallery of saints and angels is forest green, signifying life; and the gallery devoted to icons of the liturgy is a warm mustard color.
The iconographer was the medium, not the message. Iconographers made no personal interpretation of the saint they depicted, nor did they sign them — a signature would detract from the image; the few makers who are known are anomalies. While most early iconographers remained anonymous, there were several exceptions over the centuries.
It is said that the first indigenous Russian iconographer was St Alipy, a Twelfth Century monk at the Kiev Caves monastery. Another was the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century artist Andrei Rublev, who had studied with a Byzantine master. Still another was Simon Ushakov, whose westernized (baroque) icons were held as the standard by Peter the Great in the late Eighteenth Century. Iconographers were religious figures, working in monasteries, or as prayerful lay persons in the tsar’s workshops. They were required to adhere to standards of piety, modesty and chastity as they labored under the supervision of a priest or bishop writing icons according to prescribed tradition.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Orthodox church was suppressed and artists and iconographers were scattered. For iconographers, that meant regional influences and the use of locally available pigments. At the same time, Russia gained prominence and Moscow became the center of power and religion. Under Ivan the Terrible in the Sixteenth Century, Russia iconography prospered, but only according to the tight strictures of the Church canon. The Seventeenth Century patriarch of Moscow, Nikon, banned the production of brass icons and crosses by Old Believers and punishment was severe.
Old Believers resisted the reforms and continued the practices that were in use before them. Some settled in Vyg, the center for casting brass devotional items; a few went to Siberia, where Tsarina Catherine later banished 20,000 of them in the mid-Eighteenth Century; many lived quietly in Moscow where they created icons in secret — for which they had an eager audience. Old Believers preserved the most traditional aspects of iconography.
In the mid-Nineteenth Century. Slavophile writers, politicians and artists looked to adopt indigenous traditions, including iconography, and iconographers looked back to the work of the Old Believers.
“Windows into Heaven” comprises about 236 icons and other religious objects from a private collection, along with several pieces from the museum’s own collection. Each icon is carefully placed, one following another. Each is rich in symbolism, conveying much information. They are graphic and textural, most often with Cyrillic inscriptions.
The icon Christ the Pantocrator or Jesus Lord All Powerful greets the visitor at the entrance to the exhibition. The figure holds an open book of gospels, referring to Christ as pantocrator, the all-powerful teacher. The icon of tempera and gold leaf was made around 1860 by an iconographer of the Palekh school in Russia. Measuring 35 by 27 inches, it would have been used in a church. The image of Christ the Pantocrator is popular and imbued with symbols to convey divinity. Every icon of Christ bears the inscription IC XC, the Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ. A halo indicating divinity contains a triple barred cross, the bars of which contain the Greek letters omega, omicron and nu — the first three letters of the phrase “I am who am.”
“Life of Christ, Only Begotten Son: God the Father, Trinity, Emmanuel” is an Old Believers icon made around 1860 at Goslitza. A narrative icon, it is read from the top, where God the Father is pictured; Christ surrounded by angels is in a medallion below; at the lower right death rides a lion out from a cave; to the left, Christ on the cross is depicted about a robed Christ signifying victory over death; below that an angel triumphs over hell.
“Blessed Silence,” a circa 1800 Old Believers icon, depicts Christ before conception as an angel. His face is red, indicating the wisdom of God, and he wears a double diamond crown, indicating that he is Great High Priest and Tsar Tsarem (King of Kings.)
The Eighteenth Century icon of the last supper, circa 1740, reveals western influences. Christ is at the center, surrounded by the apostles. In the foreground, Judas holds a money bag and another figure has the face of Tsarina Elizabeth, who decreed that her face be depicted in every Last Supper icon.
Against the blue walls of the Mary, Mother of God gallery the icons pop. Mary is known as the Theotokos, the God Bearer or Mother of God, of whom three kinds of icons were written. Tenderness icons portray mother and child inclining lovingly toward each other; Hodefetria (she who shows the way) icons portray the two in a more formal pose, with her holding the child in one arm and pointing toward him with the other hand; Orante icons show Mary with her arms stretched in prayer with the child inside a mandorla of light inside or in front of her. Three stars denote her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ.
An Old Believers Moscow example of the Theotokos of Vladimir, circa 1790, portrays Mary cheek to cheek with the Christ child in her right arm as she points to him with her left. Set against a simple green ground, the colors are compelling. The Theotokos of Vladimir is considered the holy protectress of Russia.
Six icons on view of Our Lady of Kazan evoking the protector and patroness of Kazan attest to her importance to Orthodox Russian Christians. One tempera and gold leaf example has a riza of pearls, glass beads, faceted glass and metal prongs and was made in Russia around 1850. Yet another, from 1908, has a gold and silver gilt riza and fabric and is hallmarked Kostroma, Andrey Ivanov Smirnov, silversmith and enameller.
Angels are depicted in icons as messengers — but their wings denote their heavenly nature. Popular angels are Michael and Gabriel, along with the guardian angel; the most popular saint icon is St Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of Russia. He is frequently depicted with an open book. A narrative icon, circa 1820, on view presents 12 scenes of the life of St Nicholas of Mozhaisk. More than 40 other icons in various metals with enameled or pressed images of saints are also on view.
In the Russian Orthodox church, an iconostasis — a wall of icons — separates the sanctuary from the nave; passage is through a set of paneled Royal Doors, examples of which are on view. There is also a selection of crosses and crucifixes dating from the Seventh to the Nineteenth Century worn or used in the liturgy.
The Knights of Columbus Museum is at 1 State Street. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily, admission and parking are free. For further information, www.kofcmuseum.org or 203-865-0400.