An exhibition of icons raises political and religious issues. Marina
By Marina Kamenev
Published: May 23, 2008
A walk through the first floor of The State Tretyakov Gallery makes
clear the central position that icons played in the genesis of
Russian fine arts. Not just because of the huge number of icons in
Russian history but also because of the influence that they exerted
on the next generation of painters. Early portraits of royalty, for
example, were painted with static hands and placid faces.
Two of Moscow's biggest museums, the State Tretyakov Gallery and the
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts are exhibiting two very different
collections of icons. "Orthodox Icons from Russia, Ukraine and
Belarus" will open at the Tretyakov on Thursday, while the Pushkin
Museum of Fine Arts is currently displaying the private collection of
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in an exhibition called "At the
Altar of Time: Sculpture and Folk Icons from the 19th century."
The lands of modern-day Ukraine were the birthplace of Russian
Orthodoxy among the Kievan Rus, the predecessors of the three modern
nations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir, the grand prince of
Kiev, brought Christianity to the Rus from Byzantium in 988A.D. Over
the following centuries, the church grew in wealth and prestige, in
particular benefiting from tax exemptions after the Mongol invasion
of 1237-40. The invasion accelerated the decline of the loose
association of principalities that made up Kievan Rus and the growth
of regional centers. The church, as today, was an important political
tool in the struggles for power between these centers, and the
transfer of the Metropolitanate to Moscow in 1325 was closely
connected with the city's rise to power.
The exhibition at the Tretyakov brings together icons from the
countries that developed from Kievan Rus. The exhibition places
emphasis on the shared roots of these nations, a hot topic given
recent moves in Ukraine to create a unified Ukrainian Orthodox
Church, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church. Alexy II, who is
the current patriarch of Moscow and all Rus and has written for the
exhibition catalogue, is vehemently opposed to a schism.
One of the oldest icons on display at the Tretyakov Gallery is that
of Prince Vladimir. Painted in the early 15th century, he is barefoot
and elongated. His hands are outstretched and his face full of
sorrow. It is unknown where this icon was found, but it has always
been a permanent part of the Tretyakov's collection.
Nadezhda Bekyonova, head of ancient Russian art at the Tretyakov,
said the Rus did not have their own icons until the 12th century. "We
had icons imported from Byzantium. Only later did Russians start
painting their own icons. You can see that the Russian icons have
warmer, kinder faces."
The exhibition is a first-time collaboration with the National
Kiev-Pechersk Cultural Historical Preserve in Ukraine and the
National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus. The exhibition will
also travel to the other two museums later in the year.
Bekyonova said the icons from the three countries were very similar
but that their geographical positions gave rise to some differences.
"Ukraine and Belarus were territorially closer to the West so their
icons had Baroque influence in the 15th and 16th centuries. Russia
didn't have Baroque influences until well into the 17th century."
One of the icons from Belarus is "The Savior on the Throne of the
Great Bishop." Jesus is raised in the clouds on a golden chair with a
red stand. His fingers are poised to make the sign of the cross.
Clouds tinged with pink surround him. His robe is lush and vibrant,
decorated by gold and flowers, and a circle of gold radiates from his crown.
The elaborate style and rich colors in later Belarus icons came from
the influence of their Catholic neighbors in Poland. Furniture and a
sense of perspective are also signs of the Baroque influence.
In comparison, a Russian icon of Archangel Michael from Novgorod is
much simpler. The robes worn by the apostles are not decorated, and
the horses are leaping in and out of a flat gold background. The
apostles themselves are suspended in space with no reference point or
Alina Loginova, curator of the exhibition at the Pushkin, explained
that icons purposefully lacked one-point perspective.
"When you look at a Renaissance painting, the objects that are
further away appear smaller. But icons, with their gold backgrounds
and what I call a reverse perspective, are supposed to make you feel
small, because you are standing in front of God."
Icons are considered holy objects and taught biblical stories to the
illiterate, which was most of the population. Most of the craftsmen
remained anonymous: "It wouldn't even occur to the masters to add
their names to the paintings," Loginova said. "Why would they put
their sinful names next to something that belonged to God our maker?"
The most famous icon master was Andrei Rublyov, whose authorship of
major works we are aware of from chronicles. Born near Moscow in the
late 14th century, Rublyov decorated the frescos in the Cathedral of
the Annunciation in the Kremlin and was canonized in the late 1980s.
One of the works rumored to be his is a nativity scene from the late
15th century. Three wise men appear on horseback in the top left
corner, and various events that refer to the birth of Christ surround
the baby Jesus.
The icons on display at the Pushkin are very different. The
19th-century iconographers who created the works from Yushchenko's collection are called "bogomazami,"
or "God smearers."
"These were villagers, they were untrained in painting, so what they did was not even called painting but smearing, they were just peasants that had a gift for art," Loginova said.
Unlike the rich icons in the Tretyakov, there is no gold leaf in
these works. Instead, there are bright colors, decorative patterns and no attempt at three dimensions.
One of the icons is drawn in a bright, primitive style that brings to mind the work of Henri Matisse. A bright green background is painted on to the glass, and a naively drawn Mary appears on the panel, holding the baby Jesus. Primary colored flowers adorn the scene, and the figure that Mary is holding is a miniature but grown-up Jesus with a crown and full head of hair.
"Technically, all paintings of religious figures are icons in one way or another, but they are painted in different ways," Loginova said. "There is symbolism within them so that you can recognize each figure."
"If they are wearing a long shirt and a robe it is usually an
apostle, whereas if it's Prince Vladimir, he always wears a red cloak thrown over his shoulders," she said.
"Even in very simple drawings, St. Paul will always have a beard,
receding hairline and high forehead, while St. Peter has a full head of white hair and a very thick beard."
Another specific feature of icons is the way they are painted. "They are painted in the same order as the way God created earth," Bekyonova said. The gold background is painted first representing light, then any nature, then animals. "After the background is finished, the clothes of the figure are painted and the absolute last thing the master paints is the face, because God created man last."
The similarities of the icons mean that even the experts have trouble telling the saints apart. "It's like when very young children are wearing clothes and you can't tell which is a boy or which is a girl.
There are differences in their face but you have to look closely," Loginova said. "The tiny differences are there, but you have to know where to look. It's a visual language."
"Orthodox Icons from Russia Ukraine and the Belarus" runs from May 29 to 13 July at the Tretyakov Gallery V Tolmachakh, located at 6 Maly Tolmachyovsky Pereulok. Metro Tretyakovskaya. Tel. 230-7788,
"At the Altar of Time: Sculpture and Folk Icons from the 19th
Century" runs to May 31 at The Museum of Private Collections the
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, located at 10 Ulitsa Volkhonka. Tel. 203-1546