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Glory Hallelujah

Mint Museum hosts Russian icons


The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to the production of Russian religious icons, which had been revered for centuries and respected outside of Russia as works of art. The intentions of the makers of these icons were that they not be seen principally as artwork; therefore, artistic innovation wasn't encouraged and, in fact, was considered undesirable. The icons, most often made by monks or nuns, were not even signed.

Icons (derived from the Greek word meaning "image") were not to be worshipped, but rather to be focal points of congregational worship or of individual prayer or meditation in a church or a home. They were made of wood, bone, stone or paper, and painted with egg tempera (which uses an egg yolk basis for, among other reasons, its adhesive qualities) or oil paint, which was developed later than tempera.

Through Sunday, February 15, the Mint Museum of Art is presenting Windows Into Heaven: Russian Icons from the Robicsek Collection of Religious Art, featuring 65 works from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The breakup of the Soviet Union allowed collectors such as Dr. Robicsek to acquire these works. The Robicsek collection includes sacred images depicting Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Christian saints and holy persons.

In the section of the exhibit with a Jesus theme, the icons are both simple and very complex, with light as an ever-present visual element. In "Gospel of Matthew open to the 25th Chapter," a beam of light shines down on a wise man. At the focal point of this composition is Christ surrounded by two angels. Beams of light surround him, creating an intriguing optical effect.

In a much larger icon composed of 29 different, small pictures, Christ washes the apostles' feet; Judas is the only disciple without a halo. Among these 29 images, each approximately 2-1/2 inches wide by 3 inches high, are very intricate, complete paintings. In the image depicting Palm Sunday, the donkey carrying Jesus walks across ground covered with detailed white and orange cloaks.

The most visually interesting image here is Jesus walking on water. The blue water makes a path that looks like an architectural column rising straight up to the light of heaven. Another work in the "Jesus" section, "Crucifix with Saint, 19th Century, tempera on wood," is almost four feet tall. The wood has decayed and perhaps been damaged so that the gouges appear in the ankles and legs of the crucified Christ. At the base of this crucifixion image, as well as others here, we see a skull and crossbones.

The "Calendar Icon" features numerous small images of Mary holding Jesus in almost every possible position. It's well known that pop artist Andy Warhol was a practicing Catholic, and it made me wonder if his serial images of Jackie Kennedy, Campbell Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe might have been inspired to some degree from this style of calendar icon he may have seen in cathedrals.

In addition to icons that are simply paintings, the exhibit features works surrounded by silver metal crowns or clothing placed over the painting, or else surrounded by ornate metal or wooden frames.

One icon that stands out as a big departure from the other works is "The Icon Not Made by Hands, Russian, 19th century, tempera paint on wood." Here, the painted face of Jesus looks like a photograph, surrounded by painted jewels, and it reminded me of the work of the contemporary Greek-American artist Lucas Samaras.

In the "Mary" section of the exhibit, one icon, "Kozelshchan Kaya, Mother of God, Russia, late 19th century, tempera and gold leaf on wood," is painted in a way that allows Mary to look lifelike as she holds her baby with some hesitation. She looks as though she wants to protect him yet she knows she isn't his protector.

The exhibit also includes icons featuring Saint George, the patron of Moscow, depicted slaying a dragon. Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop from Lycia, is shown in other icons; he was Russia's most popular saint and looks a lot like the Western concept of Santa Claus.

These works are a glimpse into a complex world that no longer exists yet retains something of the eternal in its quiet power.

The Mint Museum of Art is located at 2730 Randolph Road. Hours are Tuesdays 10am to 10pm, Wednesdays through Saturday from 10am to 5pm, and Sunday from 1pm to 5pm. For additional information, call 704-337-2000.

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