Russian Icons

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

Archangel Gabriel from Rostov Region, circa 1600

The Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, is housed in a building so beautifully constructed, largely of wood that I’d like to move into it. I feel I could live very well there. The rooms are spacious but not palatial. The place has a human scale. Even though their subject matter is meant to plumb the sacred and holy reality of Christianity on an almost cosmological scale, the icons also have a human scale and are extremely approachable. In fact, they invite me to come closer for a better look. Some paintings are provided with magnifying glasses so as to better view their exquisitely small details.This museum houses icons—religious images painted on wood—usually executed in egg tempera in which the ground pigments are bound together with the whites of eggs. It’s a delicate medium that yields a smooth glazed surface and has the potential for almost microscopic depiction. The layers of paint are semi-transparent and reflective. Some paintings executed in egg tempera almost seem to emit light.

Icon of Saint Luke painted circa 1530

Saint Luke, circa 1530

For the faithful, these images are sacred objects. Many icons, but not all, depict the Virgin and her precious Son. Some icons reputedly weep or bleed as a response to tragic events. Some have been carried into battle. The icon connects the worshiper with the larger realities of the faith. The painters who created these objects were expected to serve the perfection of God. Many remain anonymous and leave behind only the work, made lovingly, created with respect and perhaps even rapture. This is an alien concept in our art world where making a splash and being different is the norm. We value a kind of individualism that has no meaning in this environment where angels are moving forces and participate actively in human life.

These vignettes happen at a juncture between the visible and the invisible. Many references root them credibly in our concrete world, but the space behind the figures is often defined by gold leaf that urges the viewer toward a dimension that lies on the other side of the mundane. The communication of the spiritual is achieved partly through use of vibrant color. The brilliant cadmium reds and the cobalt blues in some of these works vibrate. I experience the deeply expressed hues in a visceral way. The characters in the paintings possess bodies and facial features idiosyncratic enough to represent real people. But they are also saints inviting me into another order of human experience—one where knowledge, faith, and belief meet up with ideals of supreme effort and sacrifice. Their gazes are always serious, and they look out at me as if in admonishment. It is hard to find contemporary works of art that exude this kind of power or confidence. That may be our loss.