There could not be a more fitting way to describe the Russian icon exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum (KofCMuseum.org) in New Haven, Conn., than through the official name of the show: "Windows Into Heaven."
This collection showcases more than 230 icons, spanning four centuries of Russian iconography. The exhibit runs through April 27, Divine Mercy Sunday.
The icons themselves immediately set the tone, identifying themselves as these "sacred windows," appropriately giving glimpses into heavenly realms.
Jesus and Mary
Upon entering the exhibit, my wife, Mary, and I came face-to-face with a magnificent icon of Christ the Pantocrator. This astonishing icon, one of the largest ones in the exhibit, dates to around 1860 and presents Christ as the Almighty, Ruler of All. It is one of the finest we’ve seen of Christ the Pantocrator. We offered a prayer right then and there.
Christ the Pantocrator is a foremost depiction of Our Lord in iconography. In fact, both Orthodox Churches and Eastern-rite Catholic Churches always feature an icon of Christ the Pantocrator. This depiction dates from the sixth or seventh century to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai and portrays a majestic Christ before a golden background.
The first gallery is fully devoted to Jesus Christ. The second is similarly devoted to the Blessed Mother, the Theotokos (God-Bearer, or, more specifically translated, the Birth-Giver of God), a title given to Mary by the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Even visitors unfamiliar with the style and purpose of icons can immediately respond to the atmosphere and gain valuable insights and understanding through the concise descriptions that accompany the icons.
For instance, why do the letters “IC” and “XC” usually appear on icons of Christ? They are abbreviations of the first and last letters, in Greek, of the name of Jesus.
Ever wonder why, in icons, Jesus usually has three “rays” of gold radiating around his head? Those rays represent his Divinity, meaning: “I Am Who Am.”
And did you know that St. Luke the Evangelist is traditionally credited with painting the first icons?
There were so many interesting icons, everywhere we looked. A small icon, circa 1700, depicts, from Luke’s Gospel, the Annunciation. Like many icons, this one is painted in customary egg tempura on wood. Gold leaf is also highly used.
Another icon, dating to 1830, in the Christ gallery, is a very colorful, detailed Nativity that consists of several separate scenes — the Birth of Christ, Adoration of the Magi, angels appearing to the shepherds and another angel appearing to St. Joseph — all in one panoramic icon.
Surprises on Tradition
Russian icons developed from the Byzantine tradition, which itself dates from the time when the Church was totally unified.
Some examples in this exhibit have surprising details not normally seen in icons. One in the Christ gallery is an 1820 Crucifixion scene that shows the influence of European or Western art from the Renaissance; the background is a distinct cityscape of Russian buildings. A school of iconography in Russia brought some Western influence into icons. Even the Mystic Last Supper from 1740 looks as if it were arranged by one of the Western Old Masters. So does the Face Not Made With Human Hands — showing Christ’s face on Veronica’s veil.
In the Blessed Mother, or Mother of God, gallery, another icon from 1700 depicts the Annunciation of Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, with brilliant reds and gold leaf in a room set with Russian furnishings.
Most of the icons in this exceptionally beautiful gallery also give visitors a clear understanding of the three fundamental types of icons of the Theotokos. There is the Eleusa, “Mother of Tenderness,” in which Mother and Child lean toward each other with love.
Next is the Hodegetria, or “She Who Shows the Way.” In this formal pose, the Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child with one arm and with her other hand gestures to him as the Way.
Third is the Orante, or, more often, Platytera, which means “More Spacious Than the Heavens.” Mary stands with arms outstretched in prayer, while the Christ Child stands inside a mandorla or aureole of light in front of her or as if he is in her womb.
Why do these icons of the Theotokos consistently bear the letters “MP-OP”? They are the Greek abbreviations for “Mother of God,” as the exhibit explains.
Several icons are copies of original miracle-working icons, like Our Lady of Kazan. Soon-to-be-St. John Paul II had what was considered the original Kazan icon of the Mother of God in his papal apartment for 11 years. The original was discovered mysteriously in Kazan by a young girl in 1579, and it was soon credited with miraculous healings and protection of the country in dire times. Our Lady of Kazan came to be called "the Protection of Russia." Being then, and now, one of Russia’s most revered icons, it was spirited out of Russia during the 1917 revolution and eventually arrived in Fatima, Portugal. In 1991, John Paul II had the Fatima shrine send the icon to him. When he could not return it to Russia himself, he sent a delegation to return it personally to Patriarch Alexi II.
This exhibit has exceptional representations from 1850 and 1860 of this Hodegetria-type icon, along with copies of other cherished icons, including Our Lady of Vladimir. A “Mother of Tenderness”-type icon, this one from 1790 looks very much like Our Lady of Czestochowa and is part of the traditional icons attributed to St. Luke.
More astonishing icons present the Theotokos in titles which are not as familiar in the Western Church. Several icons feature Our Lady of the Sign, a 1700 representation of the nearly 1,000-year-old original; an 18th-century Our Lady of the Doves; and a 213-year-old Mother of God, The Joy of All Who Sorrow. And an 1840 icon has more than 120 postage-stamp-sized icons of Mary, surrounding a star in the center.
Some icons have elaborate rizas of silver or pearls covering all but the face and hands of Jesus and Mary.
Angels and Saints
The third gallery houses icons of saints and commemorations of liturgical feasts, while the smaller fourth gallery contains liturgical treasures, such as crucifixes and items used by bishops.
After icons of Jesus and the Blessed Mother, icons of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra are among the most common. Here, one presents Nicholas holding the Gospels, with Jesus on one side of him and the Blessed Mother on the other. Both stand on clouds.
Another unusual icon has at the bottom the words, faded now, of a song dedicated to Nicholas and the city of Bari, Italy, where his remains are buried.
Angels are well represented, too. St. Michael the Archangel as a warrior on a winged red horse blows a trumpet signifying the Second Coming of Christ. St. Gabriel, in a “newer” icon from 1900, appears in an incredibly ornate gold metal frame of three-dimensional leaves and flowers.
All of the icons draw one into the mystery of faith.
From start to finish, visiting this exhibit is less like a museum trip and more like a pilgrimage.
This version is longer than
the original print version.
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.