Text | Zarminae Ansari
Visuals | Museum of the Russian Icon Website
By ADA’s Moscow correspondent, when she lived in the endlessly surprising city trying to learn their rich, but forbiddingly difficult language! Arch. Zarminae Ansari, (MIT, 1997) is the Founder/ Director of Joy of Urdu, a bilingual organization for the promotion of Urdu @joyofurdu
The only free museum in Moscow, also happens to be one of its best.
While living in Moscow, I visited many museums, and one of my favorites was undoubtedly The Museum of the Russian Icon. While it is one of the best icon collections in the city, I was kind of “icon-ed out” after visiting all the usual tourist attractions, until I took the guided tour offered by their on-site religious scholar and finally understood the subtle differences, and unique artistic aspects of the traditional icon in Orthodox Art.
After visiting it at least 8 times at length, and organizing tours for some of my interest groups, I still recommend this hidden treasure to all those planning to visit Moscow. It is unique as the largest private collection of 4500+ pieces, but also because it has been carefully curated to represent almost all the different Russian iconography schools of painting, from an impressive variety of regions, and eras. To put this in perspective- the largest icon museum in North America has 800 icons in comparison!
Background of the Museum
The Museum of the Russian Icon was opened in 2006. While many people have reasonable private collections of icons, the businessman Mikhail Abramov’s collection actually received the full status of “Museum”.
While Abramov was not even one of the top 20 wealthiest businessmen in Russia- he was the only one running such a philanthropic, artistic institution. He believed that in America any person regardless of wealth could go and take a tour of the seats of their government and see the White House, but the average Russian cannot even think of visiting the expensive Kremlin and its museums with their family. Which is why this private museum is completely free.
It all began with him looking for an icon of his patron saint, St. Michael, and Abramov used to spend time searching auctions.
At the time, icons were sometimes even found covering manholes, and holes in the floors, as discarded pieces of wood. Some have been sold or donated to the museum rather than to other institutions, because they have state of the art restoration facilities. In the Soviet times when icons were stripped from churches, and most churches were blown up and destroyed, there were closed auctions for foreign buyers where thousands of priceless icons were sold. Germany seemed to be the center of antique trade. Some have been returned to the churches and museums from where they were stolen, either by donation, or by the philanthropist who would buy the icons to return them to their original homes, or for the museum.
According to one of the employees, there had been no effort by the government to stop the trade in stolen medals and icons, and there is no ban in sale of icons, like in Cyprus. However, the Ministry of Culture was looking for a few major icons. “Unlike places which have had an uninterrupted religious life, we can’t leave a church open without a guard!” As the State does not support it and the museum pays rent “It will survive as long as its founder survives”. Abramov’s unexpected death due to a helicopter crash in Greece in August 2019 put the museum in jeopardy, however, it is still operating.
Public vs. Private
“Its difficult to explain to some visitors that leaving a biological stain on a 16th Century painting is perhaps not the best way to venerate it!” says our enthusiastic young guide, Sergei Brun, clarifying the instructions to visitors: “No photography in the halls, no touching or kissing the icons”.
As a regular visitor to the over 100 museums in Moscow alone, it was the small details that struck me about the difference between private vs. public museums.
For one, not only are the museum brochures beautifully designed, with a contemporary aesthetic, they are available in BOTH Russian and English, and are also free! When you step into any museum or historic building in Moscow, you are handed plastic shoe covers: something most people had never seen in most countries, until after PPE’s became du jour during COVID-19. These protect the parquet floors, and keeps interiors clean from the snow, thawing chemicals, mud, dust, (and germs). This was the only museum where I saw mechanical shoe cover machines, which meant that you simply stepped a foot into the machine and it covered your shoe with a shoe protector- you do not have to touch your wet shoes to slip these covers on, or bend down (until you leave).
The museum has an understandably church-like feel in its immaculately maintained contemporary exhibition halls, depicting six centuries of iconography, with excellent examples of Greek, Byzantine and post- Byzantine icons. This is also one of the biggest displays of Ethiopian Orthodox Christian art and icons in the world: a true rarity. 2500 pieces, and 1700 crosses bought from a famous German collector’s estate auction in 2010. Experts from St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum came to Moscow to study these pieces of religious art for the first time as they were made public.
Historical Destruction of Icons, Discoveries, & Restoration Attempts
Old icons were thrown out of churches even before Soviet religious persecution, when churches started being blown up as a symbolic spectacle during Soviet times. Some icons from the 14th and 16th century survived almost miraculously.
As new, bright, and shiny icons were gifted to churches by patrons, the old ones were painted over, discarded, used as a piece of wood to repair a building, or even as manhole covers! When Peter the Great made Orthodox Christianity the State religion, they would tear down old icons that were not “good enough”.
One of the greatest icon painters in history was the 15th Century painter Andrei Rublev. His work in a church just 45 minutes train ride from Moscow was destroyed because they wanted bright, shiny magnificence. One Rubleyev was found stacked in a bell tower, replaced with new icons in the 18th century gifted by Catherine the Great. The icon of St Nicholas, a widely loved saint, was found in 1967, in a ruined chapel in Russia by a private collector who recognized that the dark boards on floor were icons, unrecognizable, because they had darkened due to the discoloration of the linseed oil protective coat, as well as a heavy coat of oil from the oil lamps.
Unlike other types of paint, egg tempera is a different medium: it is basically colored minerals ground mixed with vinegar or wine and egg yolk. A chemical reaction does not happen with this egg tempera, and the ground rock does not dissolve. Since it is just a binder, it retains its original brilliance and color over the centuries once the top layers are carefully removed. The linseed oil protective cover goes black over 80 years and removing is a surgical process as parts of the icon can easily get damaged.
In the museum are rare examples of un-restored, un-touched-up 14th Century icons. Around 90% of icons used to be painted over, since unlike the Greeks and Italians, they did not know how to remove the top linseed layer, so it was painted over and over again when the linseed oil darkened over the decades.
Rubleyev’s famous painting “Trinity” (displayed at the State Tretyakov Gallery) was repaired 9 times; 4 times in the 19th Century alone. Icons were covered by gold and silver attachments over the clothes, and halos of the figures, leaving only the face visible. These decorative sheets of precious metals were gifts by devotees, called “riza” (robe) which also protected the paintings from the burning oil lamps. The painting was uncovered in 1904, which caused damage to the original painting.
One of the exhibits shows this clearly. In the icon of Ivan the Terrible, a 2×2 inch piece is left as is, which shows a tacky green and red paint that covered the more subtle colours of the original icon.
The Suitcase Cut:
In one icon displayed here, there is a horizontal line in the icon, which is where the icons were cut to be inserted in suitcases to be smuggled out of Russia. However, had they not been smuggled out, they might actually have been burned, or simply rotted away, so considering the alternative, the suitcase cut is worth the price of saving the icon.
How are icons dated with so many forgeries out there?
There are many parts of an icon that are tested. First of all, the board on which it is painted- however, good forgerers use old boards. Attention is paid to the specific region of Russia that the icon is from and the specific iconography of the particular school of icons is checked. From a theological point of view, certain subjects and symbols were documented and used and others frowned upon at various times. Then the technique is carefully studied and the experts are usually able to date an icon within 15-20 years.
Icon Styles & Placement
Technically speaking, icons are “written”, not “painted”.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, an “Iconostasis” is a wall of icons and religious paintings separating the main part of the church, the nave, from the Sanctuary. Also called the “Deisys Row”, it displays icons in a specific hierarchy of placement. It shows the image of the Judge on Judgement Day, images of Mary and John the Baptist, the two humans exalted above angels in Orthodox Theology, Peter and Paul, Angels, and sometimes the warriors and martyrs.
In this installation of an antique altar and iconostasis, one can see the inspiration of catholic baroque art brought into the Greek Orthodox Church, suych as the depiction of cherubs. Decorative masks in the wood carvings are reminiscent of late antiquity fertility symbols, as well as the popular baroque symbol of the two-tailed mermaid, which is the logo of Starbucks!
Since this is a replica, women were allowed in to see what the Sanctuary area looks like, as it is strictly forbidden for women, and for most men on most days to enter this restricted area. It contains candles, the Gospel, not the bible, the priest’s cross, it is a sanctuary for the bread and wine till next service.
Some icons with elongated faces and dark eyes are copies of Byzantine icons from the 14th C, that were, In turn, copying from 12th and 13th century preserved icons! El Greco was trained as an icon painter and migrated to Italy in the 16th Century. His training of depicting religious figures following the rules of icon painting shows in his religious portraits which are static and have a devotional quality.
In one famous icon preserved here, red, blue, and brown squiggles on the floor are intriguing, and there are various interpretations about what they depict. The commonly accepted explanation now is that they represent marble floors, which the 14th century icon painter had never actually seen, but had heard about, from returning pilgrims and clerics from Constantinople. The artist wanted to make a connection with the Orthodox Church and Constantinople by trying to paint marble.
St. George and the Dragon:
This is one of the museum’s highlights, and unusually shows the saint on a brown horse instead of the usual white horse. While art historians do not know why exactly, but guess that perhaps the local patron who commissioned it wanted his “equestrian culture coming through”.
Entrance Into the Civilized Mediterranean World:
While the museum does not own any icon by Rubleyev, they have paintings by his students and from the school of Rubleyev, where the icon glows with the “uncreated light”, which was a mystic movement in the Orthodox Church.
Baptism of Christ Icon:
The Pskoff icons are the museums pride. Two blue figures, allegories of nature, in which Christ was baptized: River Jordan and the sea, while sitting on a dolphin. A Byzantine artist painted this. Through Byzantine art, Russian artists got a glimpse of the symbols of Greek antiquity. This school loved intricate symbols and details and hid them in the icon.
Madonna and Child Icons:
Throughout history, the theme of Madonna and Child has been explored in every era, in every style. Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, if you cannot read the symbolism the beauty of the painting can be lost. Icons of Madonna and Child are usually in two styles, and it is interesting to notice subtle differences when you begin to understand the depth of theology behind the depiction of the baby Jesus as a baby, or as a little baby-sized man. In the latter, the Virgin Mary is often presenting him, with a hand positioned in that manner. He looks like a mini-adult, and seems to be seated on a chair, rather than naturally draped in her arms. This is because he is being depicted as Christ the Judge, sitting on a throne.
The icons that are the most moving, the most “human”, are the ones in which the vulnerability of the baby Jesus is shown. Jesus is shown as a baby hugging his mother, sometimes touching her cheek, as if to wipe away the tears from her sad eyes. In this most identifiable of maternal emotions, you will almost always see one foot toward viewer, as the Virgin looks at the viewer: sadly, accusingly; as if speaking to the Christian devotee viewing the painting, as if to say: look at this tender baby’s foot today, because 30 years later, this baby in my arms will be nailed to the cross for you. There is an exquisite and delicate balance between love and gentleness, juxtaposed with the great pain they will endure in the future.
Russian “Old Believers” Chapel
Old Believers or Old Ritualists/ Russian “Starover” were religious dissenters in Russia. They were Eastern Orthodox Christians who maintain the original liturgical and ritual practices, and refused to accept the reforms imposed by the patriarch of Moscow Nikon between 1652 and 1666.
They kept thousands of icons hidden, since many of their icons were used for shooting practice, and for “re-education” during Soviet times.
The director of the museum tracked many of these Old Believer communities. In one village, the Old believer community had died out. Two old ladies took him to a prayer room, and gave him a 17th Century wooden statue so that it could survive. The villagers would have simply burned it. The Old Believers do not evangelize, so he started to look for chapels- burnt down- or torn down. Finally he found a room without a roof with decaying walls, no books or ornaments.
State officials first said it is just a piece of wood with no value and were not interested in preserving it. However, when they tried to move the walls to preserve the chapel and the “memory of prayer in the walls”, the officials resisted and accused them of wanting to move their heritage. Finally, an “agreement” was reached, and the sacred walls were moved into a hall in the museum, recreating what a chapel looked like. It is treated as a proper chapel, not just as an exhibit, and viewers are requested to respect its religious memory.
The Icon Studio
In a comfortable, intimate room in the museum, is a replica of an icon artist’s studio in monastery. Despite the Soviet suppression, the art did not die out. The museum wants people to see it as a living art.
On display is an authentic manual of icon painting. These are a series of training boards, and are not considered icons, that show the process: from preparing the board, to drawing, to layers of paint. Some pieces answer questions about the change in color and brightness: an icon “manual” board shows the coating of linseed oil. Because of 80 years of state atheism, to actually see these training boards and a studio with its original 16th century workshop tools and equipment is a privilege.
Icons were painted with strict rules governing colors to be used for symbolic purpose. Different religious characters, and their clothes and accoutrements were supposed to be painted in specific colors, although at times this was not followed as artists used what was available.
One could see many colored minerals, though not all can give pure color. The artist uses around 6 minerals at time. According to the British Museum, on an icon one can rarely detect more than five or six pigments, usually of mineral origin. For example, BERGGRIN (Берггрин) is a green made from powdered malachite, LAZOR (Лазорь) is a strong but often rather radiant dark blue, the best being derived from powdered lapis lazuli.
The Russian painters’ favorite colors included bright red cinnabar, white lead, lapis lazuli, ochre and orpiment, and also earth greens, malachite and Shungite or black charcoal. They also used a few organic colors: cochineal, indigo. In this studio, titanium white is used, not lead as the artists often died because of lead poisoning in the past.
Ivan, the resident icon painter, is a second-generation painter who was invited to work here and works on commissioned icons. Both his parents taught him, and he does not copy icons, but only makes new ones on commission. The art was kept alive due to the need for restoration in the museum. There are not too many authentic, traditionalist icon painters, he tells us. “It is too boring. They are only interested in money. We are not taught to make a living; rather this is a form of prayer. Today people do not have the ability to look at and understand an icon. When you are designing an icon, if you do not let the image go through your eyes to your heart and soul: it won’t translate through your hands, and your work will look artificial and horrible. Today, nobody wants to be an apprentice: they immediately want to be Rubleyov and be famous”.
There are galleries that sell icon replicas, but from a religious point of view, he tells us “a true icon is one which is commissioned, and inspired, and painted with intention”. Icon painters to this day do not sign their work. “Today, you don’t have faith, you have religion. There is a very subtle line between faith and religion when spirituality leaves. You cannot exchange your soul with a lot of money. This moment of serving God turns into its complete opposite”, was his reply to the curious visitor who asked the question which was in everyone’s mind: what was the price of the icon he was painting!