The Holy Art of Imperial Russia, 1650-1917
By exhibition curator James Lansing Jackson

Toward the end of the 10th century Prince Vladimir, ruler of Kievan Rus, having begun life as a pagan, inquired into the various religions of the medieval world. He sent emissaries to the surrounding countries to investigate the various faiths practiced there. He was first attracted to Islam, liking the idea of a sensuous paradise after death. However, some of the laws of Islam, including the ban on drinking, prevented him from choosing that religion. He then looked into Judaism, but was disenchanted after he found that its people were scattered and without a country, which he saw as a mark of divine disfavor. He also inquired into Latin Christianity, but thought it rather dull after his emissaries reported back that they “found no glory there.” But it was the report given by the emissaries returning from Constantinople, the capital the Byzantine Empire, that most impacted Vladimir. There his emissaries attended a service in a building unlike any they had ever seen, the cathedral of Saint Sophia or Holy Wisdom. They were entranced by the glory of the liturgy which included incense, chants, mosaics, frescos, icons and of course the true presence. “Never have we seen such glory,” they reported, “We did not know whether we were in Heaven or on Earth.” And so, Prince Vladimir chose Greek Orthodoxy and in the year 988 Kievan Russia was converted to Christianity.

For over 1,000 years the icon has been a fixture of the Russian culture. For the first 600 years of Christianity in Russia, icon painting changed little from its roots. However, around the time of the appointment of the Patriarch Nikon in 1652, the holy art of Russia began to change as it had never changed before. The great Schism brought on by these changes generated by Nikon spawned a breakaway group of conservative church members who would come to be known as the Old Believers – Starovery. These “Old Believers” continued to adhere to the old church dogma and canons regarding the rituals of the church and in particular its rules governing sacred images (icons). At the same time, the remaining body of the church (also the vast majority) accepted the new changes. Soon after, this state supported church, like all of Russia, began to fall under the Westward minded Tsar Peter I (1682-1725). With Peter the Great’s encouraged openness, western influences could be seen in most every aspect of Russian culture including icon painting. For some, this period of change was seen as the downfall of icon painting. To many of the Old Believers it was seen as the beginning of the Apocalypse. Patriarch Nikon himself ordered the eyes of Westernized icons be put out with hot irons. Subsequently, until recently


little scholarly effort has been put forth on icon painting of the last 350 years. This exhibition explores Russian icon painting and its development following the Schism, which divided the church and subsequently interrupted the centuries-old manner in which Russian icons were painted.

For the most part, the icons in this exhibition were of the type once displayed in the beautiful corner within every Christian Russian home. Only God knows what joys were shared and what sorrows emptied out in front of these sacred images. An infant’s baptism, a daughter’s wedding, a son’s return home from war, a child’s death. These were not merely pictures used to decorate the wall, but were, in the words of the Russian peasant “windows into heaven.” They were comforters in times of sorrow and an ever-present source of joy in an often dismal world of hardships. The Russian peasants believed that there was something very sacred about icons that exhibited some age. They thought that because they had been witness to so much prayer, perhaps somehow the icon retained some of the holiness poured through it over the many years. Like the peasant, I too am drawn to the icons of old. For me they embody a mystical beauty of faith, love and well-being. When I look at them I cannot help but think of the iconographer, all who have stood in prayer there before me, and of course their message. I hope that you too will find the same joy I have found on my journey to better understand these “windows into heaven.”