Arts & Culture » Visual Art

From Russia, with Love

Romanov era icons travel to Idaho


On November 16, Boise Art Museum (BAM) introduced an exhibition of Russian religious icons spanning 300 years of Romanov dynastic rule. The exhibit offers a spectrum of breathtaking artistry. From rustic to opulent, the icons reveal timeless secrets to those who open their hearts and minds to the experience.

Religious icons (sacred devotional images) first appeared around the third century. The pieces in this particular show weathered storms of persecution, systematic destruction and political upheaval. The vision of Marjorie Merriweather Post, Madame Augusto Rosso and Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt, whose collections are on display, preserved masterpieces that could have been forever lost.

Forty three icons are displayed in "Tradition in Transition." In addition to those, seven works are on view from two local collectors: Carol MacGregor and Kellie Cosho acquired their 19th century icons during travels to Eastern Europe.

Whether of enamel, ivory, wood, encrusted with jewels, cloaked in ornate silver or gold casings, painted, printed or carved, the religious visual imagery of the Russian icon is remarkable. There are miniatures so painstakingly crafted, it is difficult to imagine the time, patience and skill required to produce them. Museum visitors are afforded an extraordinary proximity to artwork in this exhibit but if you use reading glasses be sure to bring them along.

The collection is skillfully laid out, leading visitors along the Russian icon's journey toward modern times. One can easily trace their progress from flat, unrealistic depictions of the Holy Family and saints to the incorporation of Western-influenced effects such as lighting, shadow and contour. Upon the walls, crisp, easily read captions draw observers more fully into the story of Russia's passion for religious images.

For many years, icons were treasured possessions of the rich and powerful. Lushly decorated, gilded and bejeweled, icons reigned resplendent in the palaces of the Tsars and estates of fabulously wealthy, influential families like the Strogonovs. It is documented that Tsar Alexei Romanov (1645-1676) had 8,000 icons in his storehouse. Icons even traveled to war, where generals prayed for heavenly intercession, petitioning the sacred subjects for success on the battlefield.

Later, demand for icons led to mass production and a decline in iconography's extravagance and intricacy. The common citizens wanted access to icons of patron saints and holy personages to whom they could direct their pleas. BAM's display includes icons known as "Peasant Icons," and shows the effect of this cultural development upon the art form.

The "Tradition in Transition" collection includes rare and stunning masterpieces. Especially captivating is a work entitled, "Resurrection". Created between 1775 and 1800 and fashioned out of carved ivory and silk on wood, the approximately 16-inch-by-15-inch panel is a spectacular example of iconographic artistry. Twelve small meticulously carved squares, each depicting a scene from Christ's life, border a larger, central square within which the artist has captured the Resurrection. The delicacy of this work is astonishing.

Sandy Harthorn, BAM curator of art, tells BW that "Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs" is a one-time opportunity for Idahoans. The icons are touring from their home institution of Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., where they are not always on view. Harthorn hopes that Boiseans will recognize the good fortune of having this exhibit to enjoy and admire. The museum has done an outstanding job of showing how lovely and informative these images can be. A documentary film, Secrets of the Romanovs, runs during the exhibit's open hours. BAM also provides a colorful, educational handout for young people. Harthorn says, "The art form (iconography) is over 1,000 years old, and still a living art form ... when you learn about an icon, you learn about the richness of Russian culture and history."

"Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs" will be on display at the Boise Art Museum through January 28, 2007. Check for more information on the exhibit and for museum hours.