Beautiful, rare icons from Russia on loan to Clinton museum

Chris Bergeron

Like the unknown 16th century Russian monk who painted St. George slaying a fanged dragon, Gordon B. Lankton has now completed his own near-miraculous quest.

The 77-year-old industrialist and consummate collector has brought St. George on his white charger, Elijah the Prophet and the Virgin Mother into the "sanctified space" of the Museum of Russian Icons he founded two years ago in the quiet mill town on the Nashua River.

For Lankton, who spent 40 years expanding Nypro Inc. into a $1.2 billion-a-year global manufacturing empire, making deals like that requires hard work, good faith and the persistence he learned as a kid collecting 100,000 pennies.

After two years of negotiations, he convinced officials of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow to allow 16 extremely rare icons to be shipped abroad for the first time for a groundbreaking exhibit that opened Oct. 16 in downtown Clinton.

Painted as objects of religious reverence, the icons, including 12 from the 16th century, are the centerpiece of "Two Museums, One Culture," an exhibit Lankton hopes will bring together people of both countries.

"They are absolutely fantastic," he said the morning the icons arrived. "These icons are interwoven into the history and culture of the Russian people."

The exhibit runs through May 1 in the museum at 203 Union St. which houses Lankton's own 350 icons, regarded as the largest private collection in the world.

As three Tretyakov officials oversaw the unpacking of the icons from large wooden crates, Lankton said he had to take out a $50 million insurance policy to ensure their safe return.

Observing the uncrating, Lankton, a trained engineer who didn't read the Bible until he began collecting icons, said he's drawn inexorably to the gorgeously rendered "stories" about the devotion of saints and sacrifices of the Madonna and Christ.

Painted in egg tempera on wooden frames covered with a layer of gesso to make the surface shiny, the newly arrived icons seemed aflame as if suffused with hues made of glowing embers and molten gold.

Accompanied by an angel in a fiery cloud, Elijah the Prophet rides a burning chariot to his heavenly reward in a 17th century icon taken from the Dormition Church in Moscow. With downcast eyes, "Vladimir, Mother of God," tenderly holds the Christ child in a 4 1/2-foot-tall icon taken from a monastery. As terrified disciples look on, a white-gowned Christ rises heavenward in a sunburst of black and gold in the 16th century "Transfiguration."

Architect David Durrant, who designed the museum, said it was a curious irony that 40 years ago Lankton gave up his dream of becoming a diplomat to pursue the engineering career his father favored.

"Gordon wanted to be a diplomat and became an engineer," he said. "Now with this exhibit, he's like a diplomat who's bringing two cultures and countries together. Gordon's come full circle."

Since buying his first icon for $20 in 1989 in a Moscow flea market, Lankton has discovered in them a powerful respect for the resilience and faith of Russians who have venerated them for centuries.

He spent $3 million of his own money transforming a 178-year-old post office and library into a state-of-the art museum which now houses the 350 icons he's bought since he began collecting. Before the MRI opened in October 2006, the Very Rev. Alexander Abramov, rector of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in New York, sanctified the museum by splashing holy water throughout the building, making it a sacred space in perpetuity.

Nadejda G. Bekeneva, head of the Department of Ancient Art at the Tretyakov, described the loaned icons as "priceless" and compared them to "the frozen music of the Russian soul and artifacts of Russia's history."

Speaking through translator Maria Shelkova, she said the 16 icons are so rare and fragile this is the first U.S. museum they have been loaned to. Over the last several years, Bekeneva worked with Lankton to select icons he liked for the show while considering their ability to travel without damage, she said.

Bekeneva expressed pride that the Tretyakov's cooperation and collection played a role "inspiring" Lankton's own collection and decision to build a museum to house it.

"We appreciate Gordon Lankton made this exhibit possible. It's the first time these icons have been shown in the United States. Mr. Lankton is interested in comparing our icons to his. It's a very interesting concept," she said.

Kent dur Russell, CEO and curator of the MRI, said the Tretyakov icons are "probably the best group of their kind shown together in the U.S." and equal to major exhibits at the Guggenheim Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York.

"They are in exquisite condition. Only one of the 16 (icons) has ever been shown outside of Russia. While Gordon's collection is the world's best in private hands, the age and range of subject matter make the Tretyakov icons extraordinary," said Russell who's writing a catalog for the MRI's collection.

Russell believes the ongoing show will definitively change the status of the Museum of Russian Icons, which is adding a new gallery that will nearly double its floor space. "It's only the beginning of our new relationships with major museums to bring masterpieces of Russian art to the U.S. for the greater understanding of that culture. In the future, we hope to be defining Russian culture for American audiences," he said.

While future shows featuring borrowed Russian art might include other art genres, Russell said the "touchstone of future exhibits will still be icons which are emblematic of Russian art."

"If you ask a Russian 'What is the high point of your culture,' they will automatically say it's icons. Though evolved from a Byzantine prototype, icons reflect the deepest cultural aspirations of many, many Russians," he said.

Smiling wryly, Lankton said organizing the exhibit "was more fun than the plastics business."

"We want to be the best museum of our kind," he said. "Putting this show together has been the culmination of my career but not the conclusion."


The Museum of Russian Icons, 203 Union St., Clinton, is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Additional hours by appointment.

Admission is $5; tour participants and groups, $4. Seniors can make an optional contribution. Students and children under 16 are free.

Museum founder Gordon Lankton will lead tours of the exhibit every Saturday through May 1.

On Wednesday, Oct. 29, bring a brown bag lunch and meet museum curator Kent dur Russell who'll lead an informal museum tour.

Exhibition tour buses from Boston to the museum are available on the first Saturday of every month, November to May. The museum offers a combination ticket that includes admission, lunch and round-trip transportation. Tickets: members, $40; non-members, $49.95. Includes $10 lunch voucher redeemable at one of three nearby restaurants. Advance tickets required. For details and purchase, visit

The museum is fully ADA accessible.

For more information or directions, call 978-598-5000 or visit