Icons in exhibit are from Russia, with love
- 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
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
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
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