Imagine that, while visiting the Frank H. McClung Museum’s current exhibition of religious icons, you have an Alice in Wonderland kind of experience. That is, when seeing the show Windows to Heaven: Treasures From the Museum of Russian Icons, you feel yourself growing increasingly larger as you take in the detailed paintings in miniature, the one farthest from the gallery’s entrance (an egg tempera-on-wood calendar, or “Minyeia”) intensifying the effect with its depiction of more than 400 impossibly small holy individuals. Through the end of this month, viewers can marvel at the time and determination that such ethereal works must have required. Technical skill aside, the stunningly colorful two-dimensional pieces exhibited—primarily produced by Russian monks and dating as far back as 1590—really do suggest somewhat altered states. No matter how trippy that notion might sound, it’s not absurd, given that the very act of creating icons has long been considered sacred: an often meditative endeavor involving frequent prayer. After all, devotion to the faith was all-important after Christianity reached the pagan north and inspired Greek Orthodox-influenced icon painting beginning in the 10th century.
Also presented in the show, in freestanding display cases, are a brass crucifix, an enamel and metal object with scenes from the story of Elijah, a painted-wood Saint Nil figure, and a cobalt-blue glass-and-silver “lampada,” among other things. As interesting as these objects are, it’s the distinctive style of painted icons—some with as many as 15 hinged panels—that’s most captivating. The emergence of that style, and its significant departure from Byzantine icons in the early 15th century, is uncharacteristically attributed to a specific artist, Andrei Rublev. For the most part, historical icons weren’t signed, as they were meant to celebrate God, not the individual artist or his or her level of accomplishment. Throughout time, icons have served as vehicles for prayer rather than objects of worship.
As complex and powerful as many of the paint-only icons in Windows to Heaven are, someone somewhere along the line decided images would benefit from the addition of “basmas” or “oklads” crafted from various types of metal. Despite the exhibition’s failure to clarify the difference in terms, it seems an oklad (sometimes featuring precious stones) is incorporated into the overall picture, at times concealing parts of the painting, whereas a basma is more of a frame. Either way, the addition of gilt or silvered metal to already amazing paintings is an exercise in gilding the lily, to say the least.
Among the oft-titled “Mother of God” pieces in the show is a barely-revealed painting that, instead of having an oklad, has an especially unusual overlay of beads. Supposedly taken to the walls of Novgorod during an attack in 1170, it purportedly shed tears when struck by an enemy arrow, distracting attackers enough to save the city. Other deviations from straight painting on display include a folding brass and enamel “iconostasis” from 1700. Used privately, as were many smaller painted icons, it was likely carried by a priest to rural chapels or meeting places.
“Mother of God, Burning Bush,” a painted panel believed to protect the faithful against fires, was made 50 years after the aforementioned “iconostasis.” The scene in this case, as in so many others icons presented, exemplifies how small-scale Russian works possess the same sense of intimacy as do Persian or Indian miniatures. Whether such paintings address a love of God or love-making, their intricacies demand up-close examination, and this particular painting works on numerous levels. With the striking geometry of its eight-pointed star—four rays burning, four not—“Mother of God, Burning Bush” represents Mary giving divine birth via fire to Jesus while simultaneously alluding to Moses in Exodus.
The exhibition’s informational text and photos are limited, but adequate. I found one picture showing an irreplaceable icon being shoved into an oven following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 especially jarring. Although the systematic destruction of religious art can hardly compare to Nazis employing the same means to annihilate Jews and others, it’s nevertheless a disturbing sight. Worse yet were the mass executions of Russian monks and nuns—people who possibly created icons similar to ones in Windows to Heaven.
As always, the McClung’s space for traveling shows is thoughtfully arranged and lighted, creating a mood fitting items drawn from the impressive collection of the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. Housing the largest number of such icons in the United States, the northeastern museum is currently providing Knoxville with the opportunity to present art we might not soon see again.