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Human quality shines through in Russian icons


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.

Regional centers

The second major section of the show deals in detail with the characteristics of the various regional centers: the "democratic and provincial" images of Novgorod, the conservatism of Tver, the intensity of Pskov, the sophistication of Moscow.

Finally, there are examples of the Westernization of Russian art in the 17th century, as the images grow more and more baroque. Within these sections, one is introduced to certain particular artists -- Dionysii, Simon Ushakov, Semyon Spiridonov, the Stroganov school with its exquisitely detailed little works, and the greatest artist of all, Andrei Rublev, whose combination of technical ability and spirituality is said to have been emulated but never matched.

One wonders if the Rublev icon, "The Prophet Zephaniah," is the best possible example of his work, for it is labeled as "workshop of Andrei Rublev, with 16th century overpainting." But the face of the saint does possess the sense of spirituality for which Rublev is revered.

The didactic organization of the show should not lull the visitor into viewing the objects as simply examples of this or that time or place, for they are works of great individuality, often mingling the sacred nature of the figures in them with a sense of real personality.

In the light of an essay from the as-yet-unpublished catalog, it is interesting to speculate on whether this exhibit, despite the fact that it was assembled for a foreign audience, nevertheless represents in any sense a chapter in the ongoing scholarly discussion about the nature of medieval Russian art. Olga Popova, the author of the essay "Medieval Russian Painting and Byzantium," writes that, "Attitudes to the relationship between Byzantine and Russian painting have varied considerably over the years."

Byzantine or original

Some decades ago, the author says, "it was officially approved policy to stress the exceptional originality of Russian art." In recent years, however, "a new approach has become noticeable in which all medieval Russian art is seen as part of Byzantine culture." To these eyes, the present exhibit swings the pendulum back at least somewhat toward the position of Russian originality.

Organized by the Fort-Worth-based educational organization InterCultura and the State Russian Museum of St. Petersburg, in association with the Walters, the exhibit's 100-plus objects were selected entirely from the collections of the State Russian Museum, which has "the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive collection of Russian art."

It is a museum whose personnel have worked gallantly amid great hardship throughout the century to preserve Russian art. During the years of Soviet opposition to religion, they traveled far and wide to rescue works from churches and monasteries that had been closed, and during World War II they continued to work throughout the siege of Leningrad. Such a record could only spring from the deepest love of and dedication to Russian art.

Russian Art

What: "Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia."

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 18.

Admission: $4; $3 for seniors; free for members, students with ID and those 18 and younger; free to everyone Saturdays 11 a.m. to noon.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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