Art beat: The vivid colors of Russian history

‘Transcendent Art’ offers rare glimpse of icons
– The 17th century must have been a wonderful time to be among the elite of Yaroslavl, a bustling trading hub on the Volga River in eastern Russia.

Second in size only to Moscow 155 miles to the southwest, Yaroslavl was rich and powerful enough to repulse the Polish forces occupying the Russian capital in 1613. The wealthy merchants of Yaroslavl then helped usher in the Romanov dynasty, ending a turbulent era of Russian history known as The Time of Troubles.

And when it was all over, they built churches — nearly 40 of them — decorating them with some of the largest, most vibrant and richly detailed icons in Russian Orthodoxy.

The paintings of religious figures and Biblical lore were executed by highly skilled artisans in hummingbird hues with touches of silver and gold. More than 50 of the icons are on display in “Transcendent Art: Icons from Yaroslavl, Russia” at The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) through January.

TMORA provides a rare chance to see these works from the Yaroslavl Art Museum collection in the United States, and its staff has done an impressive job of explaining the significance of these works in Russian culture, religious tradition and history. The exhibition makes the case convincingly that these icons transcend their origins as objects of veneration and are impressive works of art.

Curator Maria Zavialova said TMORA founder Raymond Johnson saw an exhibition of the Yaroslavl icons in Moscow last year during one of his regular trips to Russia. That exhibition, which included nearly twice as many pieces as the traveling version, made a splash in the Russian capital.

“It was like the Moscovites discovered the beauty of these icons from Yaroslavl, which [today] is a small town,”
Zavialova said.

TMORA Director of Operations Lana Brooks said it also made an impression on Johnson, who negotiated to bring some of the pieces to Minnesota.

“It took a little bit of convincing because they’re so old and fragile,” Brooks said.

The icons are painted on gesso-primed linen glued to wooden planks. Artists painted in glossy tempera blended with natural mineral pigments like lapis lazuli for blue, ochre for mustardy yellow and cinnabar for a rich, regal red.

Brooks said the intense colors, as well as the monumental size and relative freedom in composition made the Yaroslavl school of icon painting unique. They also occasionally deviated from the strict templates adhered to by most icon painters.

Many of the icons depict saints, contemporary religious figures or angels. In “St. Simeon the God-Receiver,” all rich yellows and gold, the ancient, bearded saint cradles an intelligent and almost sly looking infant Jesus in his hands. St. Simeon’s large eyes are swollen with emotion and dominated by two huge, black pupils.

The exaggerated eyes were most likely intentional, part of a coded language deployed by the icon painters. The relative position of figures, the colors of their garments and the objects they hold all have a meaning that is hidden to us, but would have been easily deciphered by the Russian faithful.

Those hidden symbols are packed into icons that depict the lives of saints or Bible stories. Instead of one scene, these icons are often boxed and divided into multiple scenes that can be read like a page from the Sunday comics section. More importantly, an illiterate audience could understand them easily.

Russia inherited both icon painting and Christianity from the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century, and many of the early Yaroslavl icons on display at TMORA have the look of Middle Ages art. The figures are flat and the scenes lack perspective.

As the exhibition explains, the style of iconography began to change in the early 18th century. Russia expanded under Peter the Great, and Western influences crept into art.

Icons on the second floor of TMORA reflect this shift.

In “The Savior, Great High Priest,” circa 1747, the solemn face of an enthroned Jesus is one of the most realistic-looking in the exhibit. Delicate shadows give it volume and depth.

But that shift in art coincided with a shift in political and economic power in Russia, and marked the end of Yaroslavl’s “golden age,” as TMORA describes it.

That golden age left an artistic legacy that was almost lost in Soviet-era Russia. Here again, the story of the Yaroslavl icons seems be caught up in Russian history.

The icons were imperiled in an atheist state. Many were destroyed, but art collectors and historians saved others. Some currently at TMORA had been hidden for decades.

It is that rich history, skillfully told, that elevates “Transcendent Art.”

Go see it

“Transcendent Art: Icons from Yaroslavl, Russia” runs through Jan. 24 at The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S. $5. 821-9045.
TMORA is open additional hours on Sunday for the duration of the exhibit.