Louvre sheds western light on Russia’s icons and medieval past with first-of-its-kind exhibit

By Angela Charlton, AP
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Louvre sheds western light on Russian icons, past

PARIS — Russian icons, with their somber tones and gold-framed visages, perplex many western art viewers. The Louvre Museum is seeking to lift that mystery by throwing its influential spotlight on the icons, and nearly 1,000 years of Russian history and art.

In an exhibit unlike any ever mounted and tinged with diplomatic ambitions, the Louvre has pulled together artworks that have never left Russia and from around Europe, from carved cathedral doors to gold-woven robes and precious iconostasis panels. “Holy Russia” opens to the public Friday.

“My hope, and the Louvre’s hope, is that people coming to the exhibit and visiting it can catch the specificity of Orthodox Russian art. Because it’s not Byzantine art, it’s not Christian art, it’s not oriental art, it’s Russian art. This is the heart of the matter,” curator Jannic Durand told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Irina Lebedeva, director of Moscow’s Tretyakov Museum and a key contributor to the Louvre exhibit, agreed. “We would like to offer the possibility to western viewers of understanding our mentality. We are distinct,” she told AP.

Western visitors accustomed to illuminated rapture in images of saints, such as those found in masterpieces upstairs in the Louvre’s permanent displays, find in the Holy Russia exhibit something quite different: saints bearing steady, subtle gazes, their faces darkened by shadows, their poses rigid.

The first major image in the exhibit, a 14th-century painting on wood of Saints Boris and Gleb, shows two martyrs standing in identical poses, framed in rich, textured gold leaf. Their father, Prince Vladimir, formally converted Russia to Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century, and the two were killed by a half brother.

That sets the historical stage for the exhibit, which begins with Russia’s conversion and runs through Peter the Great’s assumption of power at the end of the 17th century — cutting off just as Russian art undergoes a revolution, turning toward western influences.

On the way, the exhibit traces the emergence of Novgorod as a seat of Russian power via such items as a jewel-laden, 12th-century procession cross. Spiritual center Suzdal contributed critical items to the exhibit, including soaring bronze doors to its Cathedral of the Nativity, made in the 13th century by pouring mercury over etchings of tales from Jesus’ life.

“Such an exhibit has never happened before, in Russia or anywhere,” Lebedeva said. Bringing together pieces such as the doors, carefully transported from monasteries, churches and museums around Russia, “is a very expensive, very difficult project.”

A guardian angel watches over much of the exhibit: icon painter Andrei Rublev.

“There is painting before Rublev, and painting after him. There is something new in the painting after Rublev. There are new dimensions, a simultaneous softness and strength, that make Rublev’s role essential,” Durand said.

Two icons attributed to Rublev, the Virgin of Vladimir and one of Saint John the Baptist from the early 15th century, are on display, and his influence is felt in many of the later pieces.

The most eye-catching item of the exhibit is an oklad, or covering, designed for Rublev’s famed Chronicle of the Trinity icon.

The solid gold piece, set with pearls, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, was a gift from Czar Boris Godunov in 1599 to the church. This exhibit marks the first time it has ever left Russia, Durand said.

The curators take pains to illustrate Byzantine inspirations but also how Russia developed its own artistic style.

Religion defined Russian art throughout the period on display. “These works are not just aesthetic but religious. They give a spiritual basis for what is Russia,” Lebedeva said.

The last two items tell a powerful tale.

On the left hangs a life-size funeral portrait of Czar Fyodor III, painted in 1686 in tempera and oil on paneled wood, his head framed in gold and body draped in floor-length medieval robes.

On the right hangs a portrait of similar proportions of Fyodor’s half brother, Peter the Great, painted just 12 years later in London. He stands in a flowing, open cape, his head bare and eyes gazing off in the distance, his assured stance mimicking those in paintings of other European monarchs of the time.

The provenance of the painting reflects Peter’s drive to westernize that revolutionized Russia and its relations with the world: It comes on loan from Queen Elizabeth II’s personal collection.

The presidents of Russia and France enjoyed a sneak preview Tuesday of the Louvre show. Dmitry Medvedev, visiting Paris, showed off the pieces to Nicolas Sarkozy — in particular, perhaps given his audience, the more modern pieces relating to his native St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great.

The exhibit is the centerpiece of a year of French-Russian cultural exchanges meant to highlight growing cooperation between the countries, from investments to military deals. France sent hundreds of works to a Picasso exhibit recently opened in Moscow, and both countries will exchange concerts, ballets and film showings throughout the year.

The Holy Russia exhibit runs through May 24.


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