Tag: russian icons

Book Review: Hidden and Triumphant

 

Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, by Irina Yazykova (translated by Paul Grenier), is a short work on how Russian Orthodox iconography, and indeed Christianity itself, survived the Soviets, found renewal in the Russian diaspora, survived the Nazis, spread into the greater Orthodox diaspora abroad, and returned home to its roots. As destructive as the Soviets were in their closure, desecration, and demolition of churches, not only were they unable to ever entirely squelch Christianity, but the very people they exiled were able to maintain the faith and provide outside inspiration and support to their people trapped within their homeland.

That traditional iconography survived the Soviets is remarkable in itself, yet that it survived at all as more than a novelty or as primitive folk art is just as significant.  Iconography, introduced during the conversion of Kievan Rus by Byzantium, developed its own Russian voice and style in the centuries after Byzantium’s conquest by the Ottomans, entering into a sort of golden age under such masters as Rublev during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Yet first, due to the schism with the Old Believers, and especially under the modernizing reforms of Peter the Great, much of that history was deliberately destroyed or hidden away.  From the time of Peter up until the eve of the disaster of World War I, Russian liturgical art was very often little distinguished from that of western European styles, save that its topics remained Orthodox and Russian in character.  Older, traditional icons, blackened with age and soot, were removed and relegated to barns or backwater churches far from the artistic centers of the major cities, and nearly the only practitioners of traditional iconography were rural artists or peasants.  Yet in that final generation before the Great War, these old masters were being rediscovered as these older panels were unearthed, cleaned, and restored, often for the first time in centuries, and Russian artists set about re-appraising their older traditions.

World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution ended that renewal at home.  And yet, as many Orthodox Russians fled the newly-created Soviet Union, they took with them these rediscovered forms, and in their communities of the diaspora, particularly in France, they laid the foundation for new schools of Russian liturgical art.  Yazykova profiles a number of such artists as they created new works for their churches in exile, and how they influenced new generations of iconographers, or changed what had been traditional roles.  In pre-Revolutionary Russia, for instance, only men could be iconographers in paint, while women were restricted to embroidered forms, yet with such a small community abroad, and the need to construct new churches in the expatriate communities, women stepped forward for the first time as skilled iconographers in their own right.  Sister Joanna Reitlinger, for instance, was a prolific artist, as was the highly skilled Mother Juliana (nee Maria Nikolaevna Sokolova), both of whom returned to Russia after the death of Stalin in order to continue their work and teach Russians (often in secret) in their own lands again.