A Russian Renaissance seen in icon exhibit

Margaret Smith

He gazes at the world from an exalted place, much as earlier believers might have envisioned the Olympian gods looking upon human affairs.

Yet he is in outward appearances a very human figure– albeit with a regal bearing and trappings, and at once peaceful, just and omnipotent.

The image is of Christ as Byzantine artists imagined him – first, on the ceilings of hidden places of worship carved in caves, and later, adorning magnificent churches such as the Hagia Sophia of Emperor Justinian.

Yet this depiction is about a millennium removed from Justinian’s time, the symbol of faith and of a vibrant school of art that paralleled the western European Renaissance.

He is “Christ in Majesty,” a 16th century icon symbolizing an effort to preserve the glory of Byzantine art, and his image is among more than 20 new icons included in a temporary exhibit at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton.

The icons join the museum’s collection of more than 340 Russian icons collected from around the world.

The icons and the temporary exhibit exemplify what art historians consider a unique period in the history of icons, in which artists rediscovered the techniques – and secrets – of the art form’s beginnings.

“They are mostly 16th century. It is a return to the Byzantine style. It’s really called, The Old Believers style of icons, which means, these are traditional Orthodox style icons,” said Kent dur Russell, the museum’s curator and chief executive officer.

The Old Believers artists evolved a school of art in their own right in 16th century Russia.

Russell said the artists “worked hard to preserve the ancient Byzantine culture in the Slavic world.”

He said their legacy became even more precious when Peter The Great brought western ideas about art to Russia in the 18th century – triggering a decline in the ancient style.

Nowadays, the Old Believers style is enjoying renewed national appreciation.

Any icons remaining in Russia reflecting this style and dating to the period cannot be removed from the country and are considered national treasures, Russell said.

A style preserved

There is no reliable census of the number of Old Believers icons, either in Russia or scattered around the planet in museums, auction houses, private collections or unknown places.

Standing nearly six feet in height, the icon, painted about 1580, “Christ in Majesty” was purchased from icon authority Richard Temple, owner of the Temple Gallery in London, and is considered the essence of the eastern icon.

The icon, also known as “Christ the Pantocrator,” was painted in 1580 and was a focal point of an iconostasis – a wall of icons in an important religious site in northern Russia.

Two Berlin art dealers directed museum owner Gordon Lankton to Temple, and from there, the icon made its way to the Clinton museum.

Some are quite graphic in their unadorned elegance. For example, one icon depicts John the Baptist – a prophet in the New Testament portion of the Bible, believed to be a relative of Christ – as he is about to be beheaded on the orders of King Herod.

Other icons tell the story of the lives and deaths of holy men and women. An icon dedicated to St. Alexis shows him surrounded by detailed images of moments from his life, in miniature.

Alexis is a figure western and eastern Christian traditions and remains sacred to both.