Natural and unnatural creatures will be the focus of this exhibition at the Museum of Russian Icons. Fantastic Beasts in Iconography will include 50 icons and artifacts that spotlight the origins, symbolism, stories, and myriad of representations of animals in icons. The family-friendly exhibit will include over 50 icons and artifacts along with six mounted dragon heads created by Worcester artist, Hilary Scott.
For thousands of years, animals have appeared in art and in literature as symbols to help tell a story or to teach a moral lesson. Lists called bestiaries catalogued animals, along with illustrations and information about their characteristics and their symbolic meaning. Bestiaries were popular from the 1st century through the medieval period and ensured consistency in the way animals were portrayed in art. Though we now know that some of the animals recorded in bestiaries are imaginary, all of the animals catalogued were believed to be real at the time.
In Christian art, many animals had special symbolism related to the Bible. Their depiction was also a way that Christian beliefs could be portrayed secretly during times of persecution. This exhibition features icons from the Museum’s collection that show the various ways animals and other beasts have been used in Russian Orthodox art. They illustrate Biblical stories, represent good and evil, connote particular saints, and even personify hell. A special highlight of this exhibition is the only known unicorn depicted in a Russian icon.
Along with standard animals such as doves, lions and donkeys, unnatural beasts also figure prominently in icons and mythology. Hellmouth is a representation of Hell depicted as the cavernous mouth of a monster. The image appeared in Anglo-Saxon art between the 5th and 11th centuries, and then spread throughout Europe, primarily in depictions of the Last Judgment. The Hellmouth can even be found in popular culture: in the cult favorite television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hellmouths—portals between heaven and hell—are found in California and Ohio. The countless types of dragons that appear in icons, myths and legends can generally be divided into two main categories: Eastern dragons and Western dragons. The distinction between the two types occurs both in depiction and in attributes. Eastern dragons typically appear as snake-like creatures that do not have wings. Western dragons are usually larger and more lizard-like than Eastern dragons. They tend to have rough scales or spikes, breathe fire, and almost always have wings and four legs.
FROM THE VAULT: ICONS OF ETHIOPIA
This exhibit features a mix of Ethiopian icons, silver hand crosses, and artifacts from the Museum’s collection dating from the 19th and 20th century. Many of the icons were purchased from a gallery in Berlin, Germany between 2011 and 2014 including a Mother of God fresco, from the late 18th century that had been removed from the wall and transferred to canvas.
Ethiopian iconography, which didn’t appear until the 16th century, is easily recognized by the stylized and graphically bold figures with large, almond-shaped eyes painted in bright and vivid colors. These icons could be found in monasteries, churches, and the homes of the wealthy.
A newly acquired “magic scroll” will also be on view in the exhibit. This traditional Ethiopian art form is based on ancient beliefs that illnesses and other crises were the work of demons. A cleric of the Ethiopian Church would create the scroll, customized to the height of the patron and inscribed with healing prayers, and stories of saints and angels triumphing over Satan. They were written in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopia. The scrolls were believed to have protective and healing powers, and were always carried by the owner. Russell says, “The practice of creating and using magic scrolls continues today, despite attempts by Church officials to eliminate what they see as a superstitious tradition.”
PONDERING MARY: HER STORY THROUGH ICONS
March 11 – May 21, 2017
This exhibit will explore Mary’s life as portrayed in icons; how her relationship with her Son has defined her; and how the Russian people have viewed her complex role in salvation.
Mary’s role in Christianity grew out of her role as Jesus’ mother. As early Christians tried to figure out who Jesus was and how he related to God, they also began asking questions about Mary: If Jesus was entirely divine from the beginning of his life on earth—as the Council of Nicaea declared in 325—then how was Mary Jesus’ mother? Did she only give birth to the human Jesus? Or did she also give birth to the divine Jesus, the Son of God?
Over the centuries as Western devotion to her grew, Mary became important in her own right, apart from her Son. She gained titles as Co-Redemptrix and Queen of Heaven. Specific devotions to her, such as the Rosary, came into being. As her cult grew in strength, Western pictures of her began to see her not as mature woman but as a slim, young woman with flowing hair, who was both sweet and compassionate, with a demure humility.
In the East, however, the Virgin never attained a cult apart from her Son. As you will see in these icons, seldom is she portrayed without some relationship to Christ. From the beginning, she was portrayed as one in full possession of her powers. She is never portrayed as the young, adoring mother so often found on our Christmas cards. Rather she is a woman who has born life and death, seen joy and grief, and has “pondered all these things in her heart.”
Reverend Chris Visminas curated this exhibit. She is an ordained Episcopal Minister, holds a B. A. in theology from Duquesne University, and a M. A. in theology from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
TWO IMPERIAL ICONS
October 15, 2016–May 14, 2017
These two important Imperial Presentation icons by Faberge and Kurliukov, were created as gifts for the 1908 wedding of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna the Younger (1890-1958) to Prince Willem of Sweden, Duke of Sodermanland.
The “Feodorovskaya Mother of God” by Faberge, was a gift from the St. Petersburg Nobility Assembly, and an icon of the “Image Made Without Hands” by Kurliukov in the pan-Slavic style, was a gift from the Moscow Merchants’ Association.
These two icons represent the differences in style and political intentions of the two groups of donors. Gifts to Russian Grand Duchesses were known for their extravagance.
HOLY FOOLS TO WONDER WORKERS: SAINTS OF THE ORTHODOX FAITH
November 19, 2016–February 26, 2017
Holy Fools to Wonder Workers will feature 30 icons from the Museum’s collection that are not regularly on view. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to explore different types of saints celebrated by the Orthodox Church, from Prophets of the Old Testament to the Monastics living in rural Russia. Popular saints such as Nicholas and George will be shown alongside those who are lesser known but equally fascinating figures. There is Simeon the Stylite, who lived for many years atop a pillar, and Saint Mary of Egypt, a repentant sinner who lived alone in the deserts of Egypt.
Saints play an integral role in the Orthodox Church: they serve as models of Christianity and are believed to function as intercessors, forming a link between the secular world and the holy. In the early days of Christianity saints included biblical figures, Church leaders, and the growing ranks of passionate Christians who willingly died for their faith. As the Church grew, people were remembered for their great piety and works of faith.
A saint is recognized within a localized region long before the Holy Synod and Hierarch begin the formal process of Glorification, also called Canonization. The Glorification process involves an investigation of the holy person’s life, any of their writings, and of any miracles attributed to them. After this process, the life of the saint is officially recorded, an icon is created, and an annual Feast Day is set, often the date of the saint’s death.
Each day of the Liturgical Year commemorates several saints; some are celebrated internationally while others are only remembered in small communities. Monarchs and peasants, warriors and monks alike have found places in the lists of the Church and the hearts of the faithful.
IN COMPANY WITH ANGELS: SEVEN REDISCOVERED TIFFANY WINDOWS
July 14 – October 16, 2016
“Angels Representing Seven Churches,” the central element of this exhibit, is a set of free-standing, eight-foot tall, windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1902 at Tiffany Studios in New York City. Originally commissioned for a church in Cincinnati, the seven windows depict angels which are almost life-size, illustrating passages from the Bible’s Book of Revelation. Although they form a set, each angel, named according to their Biblical reference, has different characteristics—and a unique personality—depicted in glass through the artistry of Tiffany Studio.
As an estimated half of Tiffany’s church windows have been lost, the tour of this full set of seven rediscovered windows is a unique opportunity to appreciate both Tiffany’s art and his craftsmanship in an intimate museum setting. But more than an artistic tour de force, and more than an interpretation of a set of biblical passages, the story of the Seven Angels weaves together history, art and spirituality. The exhibit includes not only the dramatic Tiffany windows, but is also supported by interpretive text, illustrations, and music.
TOYS, TRINKETS, AND TREASURES: THE STORY OF THE NESTING DOLL
February 11– June 26, 2016
Russian Matryoshka dolls, often painted to depict peasants, have become an icon of Russian culture. The bright colors, distinctive shapes, and the imaginative concepts have delighted generations of children and are thoroughly recognizable to young and old alike. The Museum of Russian Icons unveiled its newest addition, a collection of nesting dolls from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Japan and other countries. These dolls came to the Museum through the generosity of collector Pamela Kruskal who gifted 370 sets in the summer of 2015. The collection contains the story of the nesting doll which extends well beyond the well-known Russian dolls of the 20th century.
DISCOVERING ST. NICHOLAS
November 20, 2015–January 23, 2016
The traveling exhibit Discovering Santa Claus originated from the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, Michigan. The exhibition showcased a vast collection of art, icons, symbols, toys, statues and other treasures from around the world.
FEASTS: EARTHLY CELEBRATIONS OF HEAVENLY EVENTS
September 26–November 7, 2015
This exhibition showcased more than 30 rare icons depicting significant Russian Orthodox feast days, commemorating the annual cycle of holy days, the veneration of saints and the Church’s twelve major feast days.
BYZANTIUM TO RUSSIA: THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF RUSSIAN ICONS
Featuring icons from London’s British Museum
May 2– September 12, 2015
Byzantium to Russia was curated by Gordon B. Lankton, Dr. Raoul Smith and Kent dur Russell, and organized by the Museum of Russian Icons. A selection of 35 icons and 30 objects from the British Museum traced the stylistic development of sacred art from the center of Christian civilization to the introduction of Christianity to Russia. The show included icons as well as Byzantine cast metal objects, ivories and engraved gems. This is the first time that the British Museum, London, has lent St John the Baptist (Constantinople c. 1300) and the famous St George and the Dragon (known as the “Black George” Novgorod late 14th century).
THE VIBRANT ART AND STORIED HISTORY OF ETHIOPIAN ICONS
60 Icons & Artifacts from a Private European Collection
January 23–April 18, 2015
The Vibrant Art and Storied History of Ethiopian Icons illustrated the Christian traditions of this legendary East African nation. The exhibition featured 60 small-scale icons, triptychs, and illuminated manuscripts from the 16th century to the present. Several cast-brass processional crosses with intricate designs from the Museum’s own collection, as well as some small pendant crosses fundamental to sacred vestments, icons and a stone-carved triptych were also included.
SIBERIA IMAGINED AND REIMAGINED
September 13, 2014– January 10, 2015
From the everyday to the bizarre, 130 unique and powerful photos by Russian photographers. This exhibit brought photographs of Siberia by Russian photographers to the American public for the first time. Countless images of Siberia by non-Russian photographers have been published and those depictions have shaped perceptions around the world. Siberia Imagined and Reimagined offered an insider’s view.