Eyeful of icons

Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs

Talk about the curative power of art—this icon, “3-Handed Mother of God,” is said to have healed a man’s severed hand.

Talk about the curative power of art—this icon, “3-Handed Mother of God,” is said to have healed a man’s severed hand.

Photo By David Robert

It was once said that writing about art was like dancing about architecture. It’s a good statement, and it points to how visual art possesses its own, sometimes unspoken (or unwritten) language. Who wants to read when they’re looking at pictures. anyway? But when the type of art being written about has so much hidden implication tucked away under its flat skins and designed features, our eyes start to realize that the art’s pattern is talking in symbols. That’s the case with the Nevada Museum of Art’s Russian icons exhibit, Tradition in Transition.

The show creates a state of curious wonderment as we gaze upon delicately painted, small wooden panels. Depicted are various saints, Jesus and the virgins Mary (many versions of virgins). A couple icons sport crowds of tiny figures going to or trying to stay out of what appears to be Hell, little demons included.

While some of the paintings are realistic reminders of lush Renaissance scenes, most forms are locked in an older, rigid style that defies obvious answers to the questions, “Just what does it all mean?” and “Why did the Russians hang on to this awkward way of painting?”

At this point, viewers are pushed to read the explanatory panels, thus engaging in art, yes, but also history. This is when the viewer, focusing on the skewed anatomy and overly simplified human forms, jumps off the “Wow-some-of-’em-couldn’t-draw-very-realistic-back- then” boat and realizes some key points about the style differences of Russian icons.

Debates about the style in which a religious icon could be rendered, we learn, centered on just how lifelike a saint should look. After all, one of the 10 Commandments forbade Christians to worship idols—too realistic, and the icon became an idol. With our modern-day desktop icons, it’s possible to represent an idea or concept without all the in-the-flesh details. But in choosing between the simpler Byzantine-styled saints or the fleshy/flashy new European style, iconographers and church-goers walked a fine line between worshipping and venerating.

This veneration is evident in the “oklads"—ornate, jewel-studded decorative encasements of silver or metal that were added to some icons as a way of sprucing them up. It was a game of “Mary wants to play dress up,” allowing artists’ favorite icon to change with the fashions of the time. On their own, the beautiful details of some of these oklads deserves our appreciation; they once again call our attention to how important style was to the Russian church and its patrons.

Details like these can be gleaned from the text on the walls at the NMA exhibition, but the story of one particular icon deserves special mention—it’s a curiosity beyond any offered explanation. The icon “3-Handed Mother of God” is from 1743. Like all the icons exhibited here, it’s a copy of a copy from earlier prototypes made centuries before. Apparently, a miraculous healing took place for a man named John of Damascus. After his hand had been severed by an overlord, John placed a silver version of his hand under the Virgin’s icon, uttered a prayer, and the icon healed him on the spot. Eventually, the hand was depicted as the Virgin’s third, and the rest is iconic history.