Holy Russia in Tuscany: 19th Century Icons

The Gallery at the American Bible Society presents a selection of 19th-century and early 20th-century Russian icons drawn from the holdings of the newly established Museum of Russian Icons in Peccioli, Italy, through September 20, 2003.

Holy Russia in Tuscany: 19th Century Icons from the Collection of Francesco Bigazzi conveys the manner in which, even in the 19th century, a period of increased secularization, ever-present holy icons anchored the worship and daily life of the Russian Orthodox faithful.

“In Holy Russia in Tuscany, The Gallery is asking visitors to take an imaginative leap,” says Ena Heller, director of The Gallery of the American Bible Society. “Inundated with images, modern-day Americans tend to bring the aesthetic expectations of Western art to sacred art. But as relic-like objects directly linked to the holy figures they depict, Russian icons are a unique continuation of a once pervasive spiritual tradition. Using a range of materials, including period photographs, The Gallery will provide a social and religious context so that the visitor may see how these icons would have functioned inside homes, on the street, in shrines and in churches in the 19th century.”

The exhibition has been organized by The Gallery at the American Bible Society in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Foundation of America and the town of Peccioli. All of the 56 icons on view in the exhibition have been drawn from the collection of the Museum of Russian Icons, which was established in 2000 in the central square of Peccioli, a small town located in the historic triangle of Tuscany, nearby the pilgrimage towns of Florence, Siena and Pisa. The municipality established the museum to exhibit, interpret and preserve the icons donated by Francesco Bigazzi, a journalist who built the collection over the course of 20 years of travel and work in the former Soviet Union.

“We hope that the Museum will be a creative, purposeful presence in Peccioli and not just a place for conservation,” says Renzo Macelloni, the mayor of Peccioli. “Maintaining a museum of Orthodox icons in a region studded with Romanesque churches and centuries-old Christian traditions means returning to the roots of a united Christianity. In examining these sacred symbols of the invisible, the museum bridges cultures.”

The opportunity to show this collection for the first time in the US was orchestrated by the Italian Cultural Foundation of America (ICFA). Headed by Paolo Riani, the foundation aims to extend and highlight Italy’s cultural heritage and contemporary culture through exhibitions, performances and other cultural events held throughout the United States.

The works displayed in Holy Russia in Tuscany came late in the history of Russian icon making, a form that remained remarkably unchanged from the 900s to the early 1800s. Painted and incised on wooden panels or metal backings, these 19th-century and early 20th-century icons were created during a period when some Russian Orthodox artisans ventured to introduce Western traditions, such as perspective and the naturalistic treatment of human form, to the Byzantine tradition of vivid color and flat, other worldly backgrounds.

“We know more about the icons painted in Russia in the Middle Ages than those painted a hundred years ago. While medieval icons are exhibited prominently in museums, later icons are often marginalized. Yet these late icons are tremendously eloquent as testimony of a continuity between extraordinarily old spiritual traditions and modern secularized beliefs,” says Heller.

The Bigazzi collection emphasizes icons that would have been more readily found in humble homes, rather than the larger and more codified images created in large workshops for churches and public shrines. The works to be shown at The Gallery at ABS likely were displayed in a family’s most important room, in the so-called “beautiful corner,” typically the northeast corner of a room furnished with a special table, oil lamps, and benches for respected guests. These icons would have been placed outside as well, however, over the front door, above the gates to the yard, in barns, and in outhouses to protect the animals. Wooden posts with icons were even set alongside roads and in wooded areas. The ubiquity of icons in Russian life was noted by the French 19th-century critic and poet Théophile Gautier in the course of his travels:

“Above all, icons, sheathed in silver gilt, cut away to reveal the face and hands, which glitter from the reflected light of the lamps always lit before them, remind you that you are not in Paris or London, but in Orthodox Russia, Holy Russia.”

Photographs drawn from the collections of the New York Public Library will provide evidence of how icons were displayed at the closing decades of the 19th century and in the early 20th century.

The icons in the Bigazzi collection portray themes unique to Russian Orthodoxy. In a section of the exhibition devoted to icons portraying Russian saints, one of the works on view depicts St. John the Precursor, known to westerners as St. John the Baptist. Traditionally portrayed in the guise of an ascetic hermit, St. John the Precursor was so highly venerated by the Russian people that seven days of the ecclesiastical year were dedicated to his memory. In this icon, St. John’s left hand holds a chalice in which the infant Jesus lies, surrounded by bright red, hatched stripes evoking the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, poured out for the salvation of mankind.

Also in this section is an early 19th-century icon of Saint John the Theologian, venerated in the West as John the Evangelist. As if to emphasize its sanctity, the artist has employed centuries-old Byzantine pictorial conventions that would have been instantly familiar to the faithful: framed against a flat gilded surface, St. John raises his fingertips to touch his closed lips–a symbol of silence—as an angel, perched on shoulder, leans into his ear as if revealing the mysteries of divine wisdom. St. John is oversized in scale and drawn in the active, almost agitated, linear manner typical of the old style.

Other sections of the exhibition also highlight types of iconography found only to Russian Orthodox worship, among them various Feast Day icons, Mother of God variations and portrayals of Christ Pantocrator.

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Published in: on July 8, 2003 at 1:25 am  Leave a Comment  
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