Please note: This exhibit was temporary and is no longer on view at the Memorial Art Gallery.

Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs is a new exhibition that opened this month at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York.  This is a rare opportunity to see a fascinating Russian Icon exhibition spanning 300 years of Romanov rule.

Three-handed Mother of God

Three-handed Mother of God

The first icons were introduced into Russia from Byzantium, and while Byzantium icons were used as models, Russian artists incorporated their own distinctive style.  Throughout their history, icons functioned “as direct intermediaries between the viewer and the sacred realm”  and acted as portals through which one could glimpse heaven.  These sacred objects decorated churches, palaces and peasants homes and were carried in processions, given as gifts and comforted the ill.

This beautifully-curated exhibit of 43 icons and oklads, covering the period from Tsar Michail’s reign that began in 1613 through the Bolshevik overthrow of Nicholas II in 1917, represents the socio-political schism that took place in Russia pitting East versus West, Church versus State, and tradition versus innovation.

The earlier icons in this collection are characterized by the use of rich colors, simple forms and flat figures lacking anatomical sophistication and spatial perspective.   Around the mid-1600s, western influence began infiltrating and both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsar called for a more contemporary look emulating Western standards of beauty in which outlines softened,  figures became fuller and which incorporated Renaissance perspective.  The Saints and holy figures in these later icons take on a more mortal presence.

The wooden frames of the earliest works show little embellishment, but as time passed, it became popular to add oklads, or decorative covers, of gold, silver and precious jewels as a way to update, adorn and protect icons, often obscuring the art beneath.

Kazan Mother of God

Kazan Mother of God

An interesting facet of this exhibition is the inclusion of crudely-painted icons that were created quickly, en masse, and framed in tin oklads for the peasant class.  During the late 1800’s, French and German manufacturers got into the icon-production business threatening to destroy the peasant-class icon painting industry that had developed in several towns in Russia.

Following the overthrow of Nicholas II, and coinciding with the destabilization of the Greek Orthodox Church and the rise of Bolshevism, many icons came on the market as a way to raise currency from abroad, which is how many of these icons came to be part of the collection of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Running as a companion show, visitors can also see the exhibition “Subverting the Sacred: The Face of Lenin,” which explores how images of Lenin’s face became the “new icon” for the Soviets following his death in 1924.

Memorial Art Gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.  Admission: $10 adults, $6 college students with ID and Seniors; $4 Children 6-18, Free to Members, UR Students and children 5 and under.  Located at 500 University Avenue, Rochester.  CLICK HERE TO MAP IT.

About the Images:
Top: Three-Handed Mother of God (1743)
R. V. Vasilevskii (Russian, active mid-1700s)
Tempera on wood with gilding
Collection of Hillwood Museum & Gardens
Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post

Second: Kazan Mother of God (ca. 1600-1650)
Tempera on wood with gilding, silver gilt, and paste gemstones
Collection of Hillwood Museum & Gardens
Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post

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