Published: July 24, 2007
The New Orleans Museum of Art presents the exhibition “Windows Of Heaven: Russian Ikons from the Collection of Daniel R. Bibb and the New Orleans Museum of Art” through August 26.
These “windows” offer a view not into paradise, but of how Russian people from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries viewed paradise and how they were to attain eternal bliss.
“These ikons [also spelled icons] were not just sumptuous decoration for the church,” said John Webster Keefe, the museum’s curator of decorative arts. “They were believed to be prayer in a tangible form, holy and sacred objects; they’re not just pretty pictures. People literally believed them to be ‘windows to heaven,’ which is why they were touched and kissed and meditated on by churchgoers. Even the painters of the ikons were supposed to be devout and of good character. Many of them were monks.”
The Orthodox Church may have been one of the first organizations to “brand” itself. Since the population of Russia remained largely illiterate through the opening years of the Twentieth Century, ikons had to be instantly recognizable. This led to a strict set of rules and conventions for the depiction of each image.
Tradition dictated the color, pose, attributes and text of each ikon; realism, originality and naturalism were eschewed in favor of stressing religious content. Images of saints or holy persons could take human form but were not to be mistaken for ordinary mortals. The glowing ikons became the focus and inspiration of one’s devotion and were an intimate accompaniment of faith. Thus, the influence of the original Byzantine style endured for centuries until increasing literacy, Westernization and secularization in the Nineteenth Century effected changes in favor of naturalism.
“I’m pleased with the way the exhibition has come together,” said Keefe. “Along with the ikons, processional crosses and ikon lamps are on display. I know that the beauty of the exhibition will be appreciated by those who come to view it, but I’m also hoping that people will be moved by what these ikons symbolized.”
Atlanta collector Daniel R. Bibb, a longtime friend and patron of the New Orleans Museum of Art, was given a Russian ikon nearly 30 years ago, and that gift sparked a lifetime interest in the field. For him, these resplendent “windows of heaven” poignantly recalled the splendor of a vanished Russia, the Russia of the tsars, magnificently garbed clerics and long-past ceremonies. He instituted a program of acquisition from other collectors, dealers, auctions and estate sales, eventually also assembling a working library on the subject of ikons. The Bibb collection presently numbers more than 100 examples ranging in date from the Seventeenth to the early Twentieth Century.
Russian ikons have formed part of NOMA’s permanent collection since 1928. This facet of the collection was greatly augmented in 1981 and 1983 by the gift of William P. Thompson of 26 ikons, whose dates spanned the late Seventeenth through the early Twentieth Century.
Thompson’s interest in ikons ranged from lively provincial types to highly sophisticated Moscow and St Petersburg examples adorned with elaborate riza, which protected the ikons from human contact. The Thompson gift included such enduringly venerated subjects as The Mother of God of Kazan, Christ Pantocrator, The Tikhvin Virgin and St Nicholas the Miracle Worker. NOMA’s ikons form an appropriate complement to those in the Bibb collection.
The museum is at 1 Collins Diboll Circle, City Park. For information, www.noma.org or 504-658-4100.
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