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Posts tagged ‘Russia’

Peter the Great Trendsetter: National Change through Fashion

The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme.  This month we are discussing Fashion!  Take a look at all the great stories at the bottom of the page.

Peter the Great statue

A Monument to Peter the Great in Taganrog, Russia (Photo)

Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) is a legitimate candidate for the the Most Interesting Man in the World.  Physically impressive at 6 foot 8 inches tall, he disregarded his royal status and sought out hands-on experience with the military, international trade, and sailing technology.  Realizing this country needed an Atlantic shipping port, he planned and constructed St. Petersburg from absolutely nothing.  Peter I’s reign was a revolutionary time for Russia; he brought the nation from medieval neglect to the Age of Enlightenment.  Emblematic of the massive political and technological changes he made, Peter’s reforms included forcing Russians to completely update their wardrobe – which was not nearly as easy as it sounds.

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An American Watches Eurovision 2012

eurovision 2012

Walking home from dinner in Istanbul, I noticed the Eurovision Song Contest Finals being broadcast on a cafe TV and zipped back to the hotel to watch.  From what I can tell, Eurovision is a American Idol/Pop Idol combined with good-natured European nationalism.  I have some vague recollection of years past when the musical acts were either terrible, super avant garde or kitschy traditional music.  Always one to watch European countries compete, I followed eagerly, only to realize that I really don’t like European pop music!

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Miracles and Russian Icon Copying “Errors”

Take a good look at the icon below (without reading its name).

Holy Virgin of the Three Hands (Museum of Russian Icons)

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Maybe the Best Russian Icon Collection in America

The other day I wrote about the Eastern Orthodox iconography of John the Baptist.  Let me take a step back now and spend a little more time on the amazing institution where I saw those pieces: The Museum of Russian Icons.  Located in Clinton, MA, about an hour drive from Boston, the modern facility displays hundreds of excellent Russian icons.  It was such a pleasant surprise to find this small museum; it is definitely one of my favorite New England hidden gems.

The Museum houses the personal collection of Gordon B. Lankton.  An executive at a plastic company, he bought his first icon at a flea market in Russia while on a business trip.  Mr. Lankton became fascinated by the style and imagery and returned from his subsequent business trips with more icons.  (Now new pieces are acquired through well-respected international auction house.)  With well over 100 icons, Mr. Lankton decided the collection would be best displayed at a museum, but a suitable organization could not be found in New York City or Boston.  He then decided to keep the icons in Clinton and so the current Museum was opened in 2006 in a renovated carpet factory.  The museum space is elegant and an excellent platform for enjoying the art.  The Museum now has over 500 icons and objects in its collection and has a friendly and informed staff.  With 12,000-17,000 visitors annually, you’re also likely to enjoy the works with some peace and quiet.

Images of the collection were taken by me, except the last one of the museum interior.

Mother of God Russian icon

"Vladimir Mother of God" circa 1680 (Museum of Russian Icons)

Russian icon damage

Lower central detail of "Vladimir Mother of God" showing candle damage (Museum of Russian Icons)

Saint Nicholas Russian Icon

"Saint Nicholas of Zaraisk, The Wonderworker and Holy Bishop of Myra with Scenes from his life" Suzdal School, 16th Century (Museum of Russian Icons)

cloth Russian icon

Detail from "Christ, Not Made by Hands (Allegory)", circa 1600 (Museum of Russian Icons)

Mary Magdalene Russian icon

"Mary Magdalene" circa 1890 (Museum of Russian Icons)

The honor system cafe (pay at the gift shop upstairs) is a nice touch with imported Russian treats, a hot beverage machine and these antique tea kettles.


Interior of the Museum

Modern interior of Museum of Russian Icons (Image from Wikipedia)


Surprising Iconography of John the Baptist

Traveling in Europe is so much more interesting if you understand the iconography of Christian art.  You can quickly recognize the stories played out in panel painting or identify individual saints on the facade of a Cathedral.  Once you get past the “who and what” fundamentals of a work of art, you can examine the execution and atheistic choices the artist made in depicting the Annunciation, the Descent from the Cross, St Peter or St Catherine.  That is, I thought I knew the major iconography of the Saints.

John the Baptist - El Greco

El Greco “John the Baptist”, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco

St. John the Baptist is easy to pick out of a line up: under dressed and in camel hair, many times with a staff or lamb and generally looking disheveled.  Given his importance, John is often one of the first Saints to be included in domestic devotional altarpieces and is usually placed prominently in larger groupings.

"The Last Judgement Triptych" by Hans Memling

John the Baptist (with the bare knee) sits on the right, the counterweight to Mary in this detail of “The Last Judgement Triptych” (1467-71) by Hans Memling (Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk)

Last week, I visited the Museum of Russian Icons in Clifton, MA.  (Their collection is incredible; I’ll post more on that soon.)  I was enjoying the range of Mary and Child iconography (hurray Hodegetria), when I noticed something really surprising.

"Smolensk Mother of God" by the monk Filaret (c. 1680), Museum of Russian Icons

“Smolensk Mother of God” by the monk Filaret (c. 1680), Museum of Russian Icons

On the left frame is a small winged angel Gabriel figure but on the right frame is St. John the Baptist with wings.  With the fur robe and scruffy face, it is undeniably John the Baptist.  I was really confused by this;  Saints are never depicted with wings.

"Smolensk Mother of God" by the monk Filaret (c. 1680), Museum of Russian Icons

Frame detail from “Smolensk Mother of God” by the monk Filaret (c. 1680), Museum of Russian Icons

While I did see other “regular” images of St. John the Baptist throughout the museum’s icons, wings popped up again in one other piece.  In the lower half of this work, there is a beheading scene (right) and the head being given to a woman (left) further providing evidence that the central figure is St. John the Baptist.

St. John the Baptist with Wings, Museum of Russian Icons

I was really intrigued by John the Baptist with wings so I talked with one of the museum docents.  In Russian iconography (like most Christian art), angels have wings.  But besides the seraphim, there is a set of angel that act as messengers.  Their wings symbolize the ability to communicate between the divine and humans.  For example, the three travelers/angels who visited Abraham are popular in Russian art.  One iconographic aspect of John the Baptist is his role as prophet declaring the arrival and ministry of the Christ.  In this way, John acts like a divine messenger and can therefore be shown with wings.  John is also the only Saint ever shown in Russian art with wings, perhaps given that he was Jesus’ cousin and played a critical role in the gospels.

Finding these angelic wings brings an interesting nuance to the John the Baptist visual program.  In the two cases I found, he is holding a scroll which is in line with the messenger role the wings suggest.  It is also a nice example of differences between the Western and Eastern Christian art traditions.  I wonder if the rules really are so strict for depiction with wings?  Could this divine messenger aspect apply to Old Testament prophets too?  That image would have to present a prophet in a heraldic way, but surely it’s possible.  I guess I have something new to look for in the catalog of Eastern Orthodox art!  But there you have it, St. John the Baptist with angel wings.

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