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Icons in exhibit are from Russia, with love

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    2005.10.30 Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Icons in exhibit are from Russia, with love Mary Abbe, Star Tribune Given Russia s testy relationship with Europe and the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 3, 2005
      2005.10.30 Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

      Icons in exhibit are from Russia, with love
      Mary Abbe, Star Tribune

      Given Russia's testy relationship with Europe and the United States through
      much of the past century, many of its art traditions remain exotic to
      outsiders. So it is with icons, the distinctive painted figures of saints
      and Biblical scenes that are so typical of the Russian Orthodox church.

      Russian artists have been painting icons since 988, when the country
      officially adopted Christianity, but the icons rarely are seen outside
      Russia because they have been closeted away in churches and monasteries for
      the contemplation of the faithful. To believers, the icons are more than
      mere art objects to be admired for their grace of line, intricate details,
      expressiveness or ornamental effect. They are spiritual vessels, designed
      for communication with the deity and saints.

      Thus the exhibit "Icons: Windows to Heaven" at the Museum of Russian Art in
      Minneapolis through Jan. 14 is an unusual event. More than 40 icons are
      included, dating from about 1500 to the late 20th century. They include
      soulful images of the Virgin Mary cradling her son in her arms, Biblical
      scenes and depictions of Christ and various saints. Highly stylized and
      static, they adhere closely to Orthodox painting traditions that discourage
      artistic innovation in favor of design continuity. Backgrounds of gold leaf
      and metal trim animate the dark images, injecting a flicker of life and
      luxury into otherwise somber designs.

      All of the icons come from the collection of Gordon Lankton, the chairman of
      Nypro, an international company headquartered in Clinton, Mass., that
      manufactures precision-molded plastic products. He bought his first icon for
      about $20 at a Moscow flea market in the early 1990s while on a business
      trip, said his assistant Sharon Stadtherr. His collection has grown to about
      220 pieces in the past 15 years, during which Lankton has made an average of
      three trips annually to Russia, where Nypro has business ventures.

      Lankton is currently renovating a former library in Clinton that he plans to
      open next spring as the Museum of Russian Icons.

      Archpriest Andrew Morbey, dean of the Cathedral of St. Mary's Orthodox
      Church in Minneapolis, recently commented on the icon exhibit by e-mail from
      Georgia in the former Soviet Union, where he was traveling. He saw the show
      in Minneapolis before departing. Here are some excerpts from Morbey's

      Q How do the icons at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) compare in quality
      with those one might see in a Russian church?

      A If by quality one means aesthetic value, the exhibit is a mixed -- and
      therefore representative -- lot for the period in question. Some panels have
      a strong influence of earlier Russian iconography; many of the later ones
      show a marked Western influence; lots [are] in between. Generally speaking,
      most people have come to prefer the more traditional, less westernized
      iconography. One of the most beloved of Russian Orthodox saints -- St.
      Seraphim of Sarov -- prayed before a very Westernized, nontraditional icon
      in his cell. It worked. What can one say? In any event, this collection is
      very typically Russian in its composition.

      Q Are Russians renewing their interest in icons now that their government
      accepts religion again, or was the icon tradition decimated by 70 years of
      Soviet rule?

      A Iconography is absolutely flourishing in Russia (as it is here in Georgia,
      by the way) and specifically in its traditional forms -- on panels, in
      frescos, in illustration. The Soviet period put a brake on things,
      certainly, but in a sense it may have purified or focused the phenomenon. So
      [there are] lots of workshops, not only in monasteries but in parishes and
      in schools and institutions. As to the personal use of icons, undoubtedly
      this also is flourishing in as much as Orthodoxy is almost unconceivable
      without iconography, and Orthodoxy is, if not growing so astonishingly after
      these past dozen years of freedom, at least deepening in terms of the
      commitment and practice of believers.

      Q Are there regional styles among Russian icons? If so, what parts of the
      country are represented in the collection at the museum?

      A Sure, there are some local characteristics here and there. I'm not
      certain, but most of the icons at TMORA are probably from the Moscow region.
      The real difficulty with an icon exhibit is finding a proper balance. For
      the general public, iconography is art. But for Orthodox believers,
      iconography is art transfigured, art disciplined in the service of a
      theological vision. Most important, [the icons are] not something to be
      looked at but rather a point of encounter, where there is the possibility of
      a very intimate relationship -- and communication -- with God and the
      saints. They are made by believers, for believers, in the context of a
      living faith.

      Icons: Windows To Heaven
      What: Russian Orthodox icons
      on loan from a private Massachusetts collection.
      When: Ends Jan. 14, 2006.
      Where: Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Av. S., Mpls.
      Tickets: $5. 612-821-9045 or www.tmora.org.
      Mary Abbe . 612-673-4431

      Copyright 2005 Star Tribune. All rights reserved
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