Photo: Eric Tadsen for the Chazen Museum of Art
Unknown (Russian), The Virgin of the Sign (Blachernitissa), late 16th–early 17th century, tempera on wood with gilt.
Nowadays, we tend to think of art as a vehicle for self-expression, something an individual creates to convey his or her own feelings and ideas. We place a premium on the singular vision of the artist.
Those 21st century values, however, did not always hold sway. One of many examples is Russian icon painting, highlighted now through June 5 in the Holy Image, Sacred Presence: Russian Icons, 1500-1900 exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art. For icon painters, adherence to tradition was favored over novelty, since the most important concern was the efficacy of these images as avenues for religious devotion.
As the exhibition notes, Russian icons were "a point of access to the sacred." And whether one believes in Eastern Orthodox faith traditions or not, the roughly 30 examples on view -- all drawn from the Chazen's permanent collection -- are intriguing pieces of cultural history.
This was art that was meant to be used: icons depicting Christ and various saints facilitated prayer not only in churches, but also in homes, street processions and even while traveling.
A tiny "Portable Icon Triptych of the De?sis" (dating to the late 18th or 19th century) is small enough that it could have been worn around someone's neck. The images painted on small wooden panels are framed by a brass and enamel revetment (a type of case for icons), and their function would have been to provide protection to travelers.
Other icons in the show are larger-scale and have even more elaborate revetments made of fine metals and semi-precious stones. It's fascinating to see the different styles of revetments, including the type known as an "oklad," which has little cutouts that only reveal the faces, hands and feet of the holy figures in the painting within.
These encased icons are an unusual fusion of painting, metalwork, religious narrative and sacred object. The metal revetments also enhanced the spiritual allure of the icon paintings, since the shiny surfaces would glow by candlelight.
Most appealing to me were the icons painted in the 19th century, but in a 16th century style. They look surprisingly modern to contemporary eyes, with a sense of stylization, flatness and geometric patterning. It's not hard to see how some 20th century artists drew inspiration from icon traditions.
The core of the Chazen's icon collection comes from Joseph E. Davies, a UW alum who was the American ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1937-38. A number of educational events will accompany the show, beginning with a lecture on Thurs., March 24; for details on all events, visit the Chazen's website.