Russian icons

icon imagesThe ambivalence of the soviet authorities towards the art and artifacts of the Orthodox Church throughout the 50s and 60s is even more apparent in relation to icons. These religious paintings have always held a personal spiritual significance for believers in Russia and some have been the objects of public veneration at a local or even national level. Conscious of the need to instill a sense of pride in the richness of pre-revolutionary Russian heritage, but wary of allowing religious sentiment to flourish, soviet art historians stove to emphasise the uniqueness of the Russian icon traditional and its central role in the cultural development of 12th to 16th century Russia, while minimizing its Orthodox Christian essence. It was a narrow path to tread.
One obvious ploy was to detach the icons from their normal setting in Churches and cathedrals and display them in secular art galleries. This is particularly clear in the case of the Tretyakov art gallery in Moscow which hoy\uses many of the oldest most beautiful and most venerated icons. Hung on impassive cream walls, these wonderful paintings are stripped of their religious significance encouraging the spectator to concentrate on their artistic merits. Elsewhere in the gallery hang the mordant social commentaries of nineteenth century Russia realist painters such as Repin, Makovsky and Yaroshenko, some of them specifically attacking the veniality and corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church, or mocking the superstitious ignorance of the Russian peasants. Further on are the paintings of the soviet era , explicitly socialist, concentrating on human particularly collective human, achievement. The peasants, now liberated from their attachment to religion and superstition ( the two are synonymous in soviet parlance), became heroic figures, contributing to the socialist future. The inference is not hard to draw: the icons belong to a continuous tradition of Russian artistic creativity which emphasizes the dignity and universal emotional, intellectual and spiritual integrity of man , without reference to an external God. The soviet authorities, of course were not content to let visitors to the gallery draw this inference for themselves. It was explicitly stated in all the official guidebooks.
A further development in this separation of icons from their religious context can be seen in the creation of the Museum of iconography in north-west Moscow. Housed in the former Andronikov Monastery, and named after the 15th century icon painter Anderi Rublev, the museum contains a representative selection of icons mainlt from the 15th of the 17th century from various parts of Russia. The paintings are displayed in 15th century monastic building retaining the out ward semblance of a Church with monk’s living quarters, but which have been stripped of all religious purpose. The guidebook stresses the harmonious lines of the museum building as if the original architects had designed them with that future purpose in mind.
Icons depicting the virgin and child lent themselves easily to appropriation by the secularizing art historians. The virgin is no longer the mother of God, but a symbol of human motherhood, her sorrowing face no longer a foreboding of the death of her son on the cross, but an expression of universal maternal tenderness and pity. Icons of saints of the early eastern and Russian Church, such as St. Nicholas, Sts Cosmas and Damain nd St. Sergius of Radonezh are similarly described in terms of their civilizing influence, the humanitarian acts they performed or the role they played in the early development of a Russian national identity. Some of these saints were martyrs, dying for their faith, and so become symbols of Russian stoicism and steadfastness in the face of the invader. But icons of a more abstract or mystical nature, particularly those depicting the Holy Trinity, presented a more intractable interpretative problem.
In the Bible, the Holy Trinity is described as appearing to Abraham and his wife Sarah in the form of three angels. Icons of the three angels of the trinity are to be found dating from the late 14th century onward, though few survive from this early period. The angels are normally depicted seated in repose, gesturing towards mystical symbols of divinity. They do not lend themselves to humanistic interpretation, but the three relaxed yet at the same time grave and tautly composed linear figures, combine to create some of the most compelling images in Russian iconography. The names of few icon painter from 15th century are known to us , but fortunately for soviet art historians, the name of the painter of what is usually considered the most astonishingly beautiful ‘Trinity’ icon of all is known. It is Anderi Rublev. So instead of being forced to focus on the not-very apparent humanity of the painting the historians are able to turn their attention to the artist. They emphasise his skill, they explain his technique, they place his work firmly in the emerging Russian national consciousness of the early 15th century. The artist is hero.

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