Here is a nice little bit of Russian culture that is opening not too far away from me. Mr. Gordon Lankton, long-time Russophile and founder of Nypro Inc., a plastics manufacturer - is building the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. The museum will showcase Mr. Lankton's collection of 230 icons at a nonprofit museum he is building in a former mill building and library across from Nypro headquarters in Clinton. He bought his first icon for about $20 at a Moscow flea market in the early 1990s while on a business trip. His collection has grown in the past 15 years, during which time Lankton has made an average of three trips annually to Russia, where Nypro has business ventures. Through his Russian friends, Mr. Lankton has also become educated about the art of Icons. Lankton said his friends plan trips to various Russian sites so he can learn more on each visit.
Mr. Lankton and his wife first visited Russia in 1989. The Soviet Union at that time was seeking foreign companies to invest in joint ventures, and the he and his wife were invited on a business excursion down the Volga River. He and about 100 other foreign executives were lectured each day about the benefits of investing in Russia. As part of the program, each day they also were allowed to visit the countryside. "I grew fascinated with Russia very quickly," said Lankton. Lankton plowed ahead despite opposition from Nypro's counsel and a decision by a major healthcare partner to abandon Russian manufacturing plants. The plant lost money in following years after the fall of the Soviet Union, as it fought red tape, the Russian mob, customers who wouldn't pay, and other obstacles. "It was a very, very sad situation, but I wasn't about to give up on them," comments Lankton." I thought these people have half of the nuclear weapons in the world and we should be friends with them. I also felt someone should teach them the benefits of the free enterprise system."
That business excursion was eventually quite successful for both Russia and Mr. Lankton. Nypro still does molding and mold-making at their Russian facilities. Nypro currently has annual sales of over $500 million with 66 facilities in 18 countries, including the US, the Russian Federation, Europe, and Asia.
Icons are usually religious images painted on wooden panels. Russian artists have been painting icons since 988, when the country officially adopted Christianity, but they are rarely seen outside Russia because they have been closeted away in churches and monasteries for the contemplation of the faithful. To believers, the icons are more than mere art objects to be admired - they are spiritual vessels, designed for communication with the deity and saints. Icons have often been referred to as "windows to heaven", and cannot be regarded simply as representations of saints in the same way those subjects are regarded in Western art.
The word icon is derived from the Greek word eikon, or image. In the Orthodox Church the term is a theological one referring to the idea that visible things are revealed images of invisible things. Through the icon the believer could gain contact with the spiritual world. Icons do not represent the earthly realm, and that is why the figures do not cast shadows; glittering gold backgrounds remove reference to the transitory natural world. Russian Icons are highly stylized and static, and adhere closely to Orthodox painting traditions that discourage artistic innovation in favor of design continuity. Backgrounds of gold leaf and metal trim animate the dark images, injecting glittering brilliance into the designs.
Because of icons connection to the divine figures they portray, they were seen as powerful guardians that could bring rain, heal diseases in humans and cattle, and keep away bad fortune. Russian soldiers often carried icons into battle, prizing them for these protective properties. Icons in automobiles are a common Russian tradition today (one which I also follow). After the Russian Revolution of 1917 abolished religion, many icons were destroyed or sold on the Western market. However, many others survived, hidden by believers or carried into exile. Icon painting never died, even under the long years of Communism. There is now a flourishing collectors market in Russian icons. The painted saints of old Russia, long hidden in dark corners of churches and private homes, are now recognized and celebrated throughout the world.
47 pieces of Mr. Lankton's collection were on display at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, Minnesota as part of the exhibit "Icons: Windows to Heaven" at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis until Jan. 14. The icons displayed date from about 1500 to the late 20th century. They include images of the Virgin Mary cradling her son in her arms, Biblical scenes and depictions of Christ and various saints.
Regarding the Icons exhibit at TMORA, museum president Bradford Shinkle says, "It's been very well-received. In terms of attendance, we have had over 4,000 people go through the museum. The icon is a unique body of historical and aesthetic work." Mr. Shinkle notes that Lankton's collection is a great supplement to the other works that were on display.
Archpriest Andrew Morbey, dean of the Cathedral of St. Mary's Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, recently discussed the icon exhibit in an email interview with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune. At the time of the interview he was traveling in Georgia, having seen the show in Minneapolis before departing. Excerpts from the interview are below:
Q: How do the icons at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) compare in quality with those one might see in a Russian church?Upon the completion of the Clinton, Massachusetts Museum in the Spring, the full collection will be put on display. I will be making a visit myself at that time. The new Museum of Russian Icons is located on a narrow stretch of Route 62 (Union Street) in the heart of the old mill town. The Museum design is by architect David Durrant of Durrant Designs, Harvard, Massachusetts. The interior will feature a central spiral steel and wood stairway extending from the bottom to the top floor. Most windows are being blocked up and artificial controlled light installed to enhance the artwork. To maintain the building's architectural integrity, exterior windows will be black glass panels that are glazed from the outside. Inside, the windows will be covered with gypsum blue board.
A: If by quality one means aesthetic value, the exhibit is a mixed - and therefore representative - lot for the period in question. Some panels have a strong influence of earlier Russian iconography; many of the later ones show a marked Western influence; lots [are] in between. Generally speaking, most people have come to prefer the more traditional, less westernized iconography. One of the most beloved of Russian Orthodox saints - St. Seraphim of Sarov - prayed before a very Westernized, nontraditional icon in his cell. It worked. What can one say? In any event, this collection is very typically Russian in its composition.
Q: Are Russians renewing their interest in icons now that their government accepts religion again, or was the icon tradition decimated by 70 years of Soviet rule?
A: Iconography is absolutely flourishing in Russia (as it is here in Georgia, by the way) and specifically in its traditional forms - on panels, in frescos, in illustration. The Soviet period put a brake on things, certainly, but in a sense it may have purified or focused the phenomenon. So [there are] lots of workshops, not only in monasteries but in parishes and in schools and institutions. As to the personal use of icons, undoubtedly this also is flourishing in as much as Orthodoxy is almost unconceivable without iconography, and Orthodoxy is, if not growing so astonishingly after these past dozen years of freedom, at least deepening in terms of the commitment and practice of believers.
Q: Are there regional styles among Russian icons? If so, what parts of the country are represented in the collection at the museum?
A: Sure, there are some local characteristics here and there. I'm not certain, but most of the icons at TMORA are probably from the Moscow region. The real difficulty with an icon exhibit is finding a proper balance. For the general public, iconography is art. But for Orthodox believers, iconography is art transfigured, art disciplined in the service of a theological vision. Most important, [the icons are] not something to be looked at but rather a point of encounter, where there is the possibility of a very intimate relationship - and communication - with God and the saints. They are made by believers, for believers, in the context of a living faith.
The photo of the fountain on the above right is from downtown Clinton on January 31, 2006, when I actually had some work assignment in that town. The photo at the top of the page is from the ceiling of Sergiev Posad's Red Gate. I was there in early October 2005 and I thought the image came out particularly well. Technically, the image isn't an icon, but similar enough in style that I thought it went well with this topic.