Clinton, Mass. – In this sleepy former mill town, where geopolitical tensions seem a world away, Americans are getting a fresh look at Russia through a lens that’s seldom made available on U.S.
shores: the Russian sacred icon.
Weekly attendance at the two-year-old Museum of Russian Icons has doubled from about 250 to 500 since mid-October, when 16 of Russia’s most precious icons arrived on loan from the state-run Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Visitors to the “Two Museums, One Culture” exhibit see ascetic lives of saints depicted in centuries-old, tempura-on-wood creations that survived a ban by atheist Soviet officials who burned millions of the holy objects. Russians regard these icons as portals to the holy, and now, as tangible links to a resurgent Christian tradition that thrived for more than 1,000 years in Russia before Soviet rule.
“This (loan) is an exceptional gesture by the Tretyakov Gallery because these are sacred objects,” said Catherine LeGouis, a French and Russian literature expert at Mount Holyoke College and a collector of Russian icons. “This is a private, cultural exchange that shows we are not fated to perpetual enmity between our countries.”
This rare exhibit debuted during a frosty moment in U.S.-Russian relations. Last summer, Moscow and Washington exchanged tough talk when Russian tanks moved into Georgia and again when Poland agreed to host a U.S. missile-defense system. At times, diplomatic tensions have derailed Russian art exchanges; last year, Russians abruptly pulled the plug on a major exhibition at London’s Royal Academy.
But recent tensions didn’t scuttle this icon exhibit in large part because, according to Museum founder Gordon Lankton, “the Putin government liked what they knew about this.”
Russia’s support “was largely because the exhibit would be in the U.S.,” where Russians feel misunderstood, Lankton said. “The other aspect is that they strongly disapprove of the commercial people in this business, the ones who buy and sell (icons). But I’ve never bought and sold one. They know I’m a different type of person. I’m in it because I love it, as opposed to trying to make a buck.”
Lankton, a soft-spoken 77-year-old originally from Peoria, Ill., has built his reputation in Moscow over the past two decades. A plastics tycoon, he bought his first icon for $20 at a Moscow flea market in 1989 during a visit to explore prospects for opening a factory in Russia. He snatched up dozens of icons on subsequent visits as Russians, desperate at the time for rubles, eagerly unloaded valuables.
As his collection grew, he sought out local icon experts, who appreciated his curiosity. By the time authorities clamped down on the export of icons worth more than $100, he had already amassed most of the 350 that now form the basis of the largest collection in North America and the museum’s core holdings. At a November auction in London, he paid more than $200,000 to acquire 10 more.
Lankton’s hobby means Americans are now seeing a side of Russia that many didn’t know existed.
“The majority (of visitors) are thunderstruck that Russia is a Christian nation,” said Kent dur Russell, CEO and curator of the museum. “This exhibit is saying that we have more in common than the issues that divide us.”
Although the faith on display is Christian, the austere values celebrated on these warping woodblocks have a foreign feel. St. Nikita, for instance, tortures his body in cold water to escape a devil who’s been keeping him from praying. St. Makari of Unzha is honored for swapping clothes with a pauper. An angel slices off the hand of a Judaic high priest who tries to overturn St. Mary’s deathbed and later restores the hand only after the priest gives Mary praise.
“I tend to associate religion with comfort and benevolence,” said Allison Meeks, a museum visitor who described herself as non-religious.
“The image of the angel cutting off the man’s hand was very jarring to me.”
Some visit precisely to encounter the unfamiliar. Janet Lovejoy, a retired Episcopal priest, said she’d already visited twice since the Tretyakov exhibit opened because “I just want to come and be here.”
“It’s a liberating thing for me (because) it’s a different type of spirituality from my own,” Lovejoy says. “I need to expand, so I’m thinking about Buddhism, and I’m thinking about these icons.”
For Russian Orthodox Americans, the exhibit has become something of a pilgrimage destination. The Rev. Alexander Abramov, rector of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Nicholas in New York City, sanctified the museum space with a special liturgy. Two Boston-area Russian Orthodox churches are running buses to the site monthly until the Tretyakov exhibit closes on May 1, 2009. Visitors receive instructions not to touch, but those inclined to venerate are allowed to blow air kisses.
“There are religious rituals taking place here almost on a daily basis in relationship to the art,” dur Russell said. “If you ran an American Indian museum or a Buddhist sacred art museum, you might get this type of response (as visitors) seek an intense relationship with the sacred objects. … But at a standard museum of American landscape painting, you wouldn’t get this kind of visitor (response).”
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