Human quality shines through in Russian icons


August 23, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Somewhat more than midway through the exhibit "Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia" at the Walters Art Gallery we come upon a street person.

Hair flying around, cloak falling off, he looks like one of those wild-eyed characters who stand on street corners and tell passers-by they're all going to hell if they don't mend their ways. Only this is a 16th century Russian street person, known as a Holy Fool, and his appearance on an icon indicates that he was revered -- the "fool" with God-given powers to drive out devils and lead sinners back to the path of righteousness. In this show he also serves as one of many indications of the very human quality of Russian medieval religious art.

The Russian Orthodox church was a child of the Byzantine church, but those who saw the Walters show of Greek Byzantine art four years ago are in for a surprise if they expect the same sort of experience. The Greek images were full of an austere and solemn power, emphasizing the godliness of the figures represented. The Russian images were no less objects of veneration, but there is something closer to us about them.

Although there was no lack of communication between Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, and the centers of Russian Orthodoxy such as Moscow and Novgorod, the latter developed an art which had its own independent characteristics.

Walters curator of medieval art Gary Vikan notes several such characteristics. There is stronger color -- instead of a relatively somber palette there are bright hues, especially reds and greens. Figures are less classically influenced and sculptural, more two-dimensional, graphic and subordinated to the overall composition.

Variety of themes

And there is a greater variety of themes. Instead of sticking closely to the Bible for subject matter, as Byzantine art does, in Russian art there is a willingness to explore outward in both directions: on the one hand to deal with theological concepts, and on the other to reflect the concerns of daily life.

Close together in the Novgorod section of the exhibit, for instance, are two icons that demonstrate these tendencies. One deals with the concept of the trinity as a symbol of unity, harmony and perfection. The other depicts Saints Paraskeva and Anastasia; as Paraskeva means Friday (the day on which this saint was born), and Friday was market day in Novgorod, this saint became the patron of trade.

It's a pity that nowhere in the show are the Russian characteristics of this art enunciated clearly enough, for they certainly constitute one of its themes. Although the history of Russian Orthodoxy goes back to the the late 10th century, the exhibit deals with the 13th to 17th centuries and primarily with the 15th and 16th, by which time, Mr. Vikan asserts, Russian sacred art had developed its own identity.

The exhibit does not follow a strictly chronological path, however. Billed as the first major show of medieval Russian art to be seen in the West in more than 60 years, it presents a subject that will be new to the vast majority of its viewers, and it approaches the subject in not one but several ways: experiential, chronological, regional and, to a lesser extent, by artist and school. That's a large order, and in trying to fill it the organizers may even have given us too much to read (that from a museum-goer who is strongly in favor of didactic materials). But the effort is largely successful.

As if in a church

First, one is introduced to the experience of the art somewhat as if one were visiting a Russian Orthodox church. Unlike other Walters shows on similar subjects, there is no simulation of an actual church space here, but rather a presentation of the rich variety of religious objects together with an explanation of how one would encounter them in an actual setting.

There is a wooden reliquary tomb lid, together with several examples of the palls that would cover such a lid -- figures of saints created in magnificently embroidered and superbly preserved textiles. There are religious books in gilded covers, vessels used in the service, and in particular there are works of art from the iconostasis, or screen decorated with icons that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church, together with an explanation of the successive tiers of icons that constitute the iconostasis.

Here, too, we are introduced to one of the other primary emphases of the exhibit, the differences in styles of the various centers. Flanking a large icon of "The Savior Enthroned in Glory," which would have occupied the central position of an iconostasis, are icons of two saints, one from Moscow and one from Novgorod. The Novgorod saint is more like a folk art image, but strong, with bright colors and angular drapery folds; the Moscow saint -- by Dionysii, one of the greatest of Moscow artists -- is more delicate and sophisticated, with soft colors and gently flowing drapery.

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