- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

“Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs,” just opened at the Hillwood Museum & Gardens, is the latest exhibit in what could be called “the year of the icon.” The exhibition marks the last — at least for now — of four superb icon exhibits that began a year ago. Concentrating on three pioneering icon collections in America — the Marjorie Merriweather Post Collection, the Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt-Sherlock Trust and the Madame Augusto Rosso Collection — Hillwood guest curator Wendy Salmond traces the evolution from older, traditional works of Russian Orthodoxy to later, Western-styled ones.

“Windows Into Heaven: Russian Icons, 1650-1917,” 88 icons from the acclaimed personal collection of James and Tatiana Jackson of Cedar Falls, Iowa, was featured last summer at the District’s Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

In March, a dazzling permanent display of 130 icons opened at the historic Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Vicenza, Italy. Originally collected by the Venetian Davide Orler — who bought 2,000 icons over three decades until collecting bankrupted him — the works are now owned by Banca Intesa BCI. Several rare icons from the 1200s are on view.

Also in March, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled its impressive “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557),” a landmark exhibition that includes very early icons among its 350 works of art chronicling the last years of the Byzantine civilization.

Of course, Hillwood’s exhibition of 43 icons and oklads (decorative icon covers) and two books can’t rival that of a large, wealthy institution such as the Metropolitan, but it still has a lot to offer. Housed in the museum’s charming dacha, a reproduction of a traditional Russian country house, the display surveys the differing impacts of Western cultures on Russian icon painting during roughly three centuries of Romanov rule.

For centuries, icons — small paintings of tempera on prepared wood that are later varnished — dominated Russian religious life. “Sacred art,” Mr. Jackson wrote in the catalog for “Windows Into Heaven,” “and in particular icons, are indeed prayers, or as many have reflected, God’s words in paint.”

Helen C. Evans, curator for the Met’s “Faith and Power” show, credits the continuing popularity of icons, even among the nonreligious, to the works’ intense spirituality, as well as brilliant colors and patterns that remind many of familiar works of modern art.

The Hillwood exhibit is structured around three crucial events. The first occurred during the early 1650s, when church patriarch Nikon, the religious “father” of Moscow and Russia, created radical reforms through a changed church that included secular elements.

By contrast, the so-called “old believers” preserved the beliefs, as well as the arts, books and icons, of medieval Russia in northern villages. One 17th-century icon, the exhibit’s profoundly moving “Kazan Mother of God,” demonstrates an intensity of religious experience rivaling that characteristic of icon painting from the medieval golden age of Russian Orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, in Moscow about the same time (the 1660s), the artists at the czar’s Armory Workshops were painting a different kind of icon. Painted in what was called the Frankish or Western style, the works were, as Miss Salmond writes in the “Tradition in Transition” catalog, “a curious hybrid of conventional icon painting with the illusionistic effects of Western painting.”

“Archangel Deisis With Christ Emmanuel” (about 1650-1700) is an example of the style. It’s a triptych of the young Christ surrounded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. As the curator observes in the catalog, “Against the flat, stylized patterns of garments, the rounded forms and dramatic highlights of faces create illusions of depth typical of Western painting.”

The second important development in this late period of icon painting came with the wrenching reforms of Peter the Great (who reigned 1682-1725). He ordered all artists to sign and date icons they painted, as in the exhibit’s “Three-Handed Mother of God” (1743). The dating and signature emphasize Western conventions, as do the artist’s attempts to realistically delineate eyelashes, tear ducts and eyebrows.

By decree of the czar, icons had to please Western visitors. Miss Salmond emphasizes that the painter of the exhibit’s 1740 “Annunciation” “rose boldly to this task,” as the composition probably came from a German or Dutch engraving.

A third turning point came in the mid-19th century with academic styles and icon placement in extravagantly gilded frames. The decorated metal oklad replaced the simpler enclosures of earlier icons.

Use of precious metals and jewels — silver gilt, filigree enamels, gilding, real and paste gemstones, and seed pearls — became popular. Shimmering pearls cover the madonna and child of the tiny but exquisite “Iverskaia Mother of God” (about 1875-1900).

According to the catalog, the icon is a copy of one of Moscow’s most venerated icons of the same name, which had been transported to Russia in 1648 from the Iberian Monastery in Greece. The original icon was destroyed when the Soviets destroyed the Kremlin chapel in 1929.

The Hillwood show, though small in number of works and exhibition space, succeeds in showing the many styles, influences and, above all, tensions resulting from conflicting religious and political changes. It’s these tensions that fascinate the viewer and make the exhibition a pleasurable visual as well as intellectual challenge.

WHAT: “Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs”

WHERE: Hillwood Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Avenue NW

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays with reservations; closed Sundays, Mondays and most federal holidays. The exhibit runs through Dec. 31.

TICKETS: Reservation deposits required: adults $12, seniors over 65 $10, college students $7, children ages 6-18 $5. No children younger than 6 admitted.

PHONE: 202/686-8500

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