A Celebration of All Things Cultural, Artistic, and Entertaining in Madison
Mar 23, 2011
I’ve long been struck by the personal nature of faith. While some express their religion or spirituality publicly and in fellowship with others, I’m more interested in how people approach the divine in private.
The Chazen Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, Holy Image, Sacred Presence: Russian Icons, 1500–1900 features nearly forty religious icons from the museum’s permanent collection.
Most of the works are small, as they were intended for use in private homes. The devoted didn’t worship the works directly; rather, the icons served as “a point of access to the sacred.” While icons date back to the second-century Roman Empire, they were an integral part of Orthodox Christian worship through Russia’s 1917 Revolution.
The exhibition offers a surprising amount of variety, and not necessarily in a chronological evolution.
Two works from circa 1900 depict saints Barbara and Sergei of Radonezh. They’re symmetrical, with the saints staring straight ahead and holding objects, with gilded patterning around each. Next to these is “Saint Theodore of Tryon,” an icon from the nineteenth century. Baroque-style framing surrounds the saint, who’s shown more realistically with his body turned slightly.
Exhibition plaques explain that early Russian icons conformed to Byzantine forms but painters eventually developed their own styles, introducing new themes and local saints. As early as the seventeenth century, icon painters began to follow European artists and adopt a more illusionistic style.
In “The Miraculous Draft of Fishes” from eighteenth to nineteenth century, for instance, the artist employed a sense of perspective in landscape and rendered figures overlapping one another. The figures are hardly static; they bend, stand and move throughout the composition.
Some works are larger in scale, such as “The Virgin of the Sign” from seventeenth century (shown above). The Virgin Mary is shown within a circle, with baby Jesus within another circle at her middle. In the corners are winged beings with human faces that look in on this symmetrical and tightly ordered scene.
Several of the icons are displayed with revetments, protective metal covers embellished with metals and gems. The inclusion is further testament to the personal and important role religious icons played in everyday life.
Holy Image, Sacred Presence runs through June 5 at the Chazen. For more information, visit chazen.wisc.edu.
Images courtesy of the Chazen.