Orthodox Christians revere Russian icons as sacred devotional pieces. However, to others around the world, they’re magnificent treasures, collected and cherished for their beauty, artistry, and history. Simply put, the appeal of Russian icons is international, extending beyond religious or ethnic background. With this in mind, the museum at Knights of Columbus International Headquarters in New Haven CT (where the organisation was founded) is presenting Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons and Treasures, which will run for more than a year… through 27 April 2014. The exhibition opened in time for Orthodox Easter on Sunday, 5 May. Many Orthodox Christian churches, including the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, celebrate Easter Sunday based on the Julian calendar.
The exhibition features about 325 icons and liturgical pieces, most of which are on loan from a private collector who requested to remain anonymous. A few pieces are from the museum’s permanent collection. Museum Curator Mary Lou Cummings said the exhibition is visually stunning, no matter how one views iconography. The exhibition points out that iconographic customs have endured for more than a millennium and that they “offer a story of spirituality, tradition and cultures, shaped by the triumphs and struggle of Russian Christians through their country’s 12 centuries”, according to information provided in the exhibition.
The museum said in a statement, “Orthodox Christianity, adopted from the Byzantine Empire (sic) in Constantinople (now Istanbul), was instituted as the state religion in Kiev by Prince Vladimir in 988 AD, and spread across all of Russia. One of the most important elements of the Orthodox faith that followed from Constantinople was the sacred art of iconography. These highly-venerated images spread across Russia … fostering religious understanding and devotion among the people of Kievan Rus in the present-day Ukraine, Belarus, and northwest Russia … with nearly every home having a sacred (or prayer) corner containing one or more icons. … Iconographers historically prayed or fasted before and during the creation of an icon”.
According to the exhibition’s introductory text, Prayer to, and veneration of, icons “was understood to be an encounter with God, His saints, and angels”. Cummings added that Orthodox Christians consider icons as conduits for prayers or “windows into heaven” and they “aren’t created to be artwork”. She said that many of the icons on view are centuries old, thus, predating the Bolshevik Revolution of the early 20th century.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said, “Icons have been synonymous with Christian prayer and practice for centuries. One of the great traditions of Eastern Christianity, icons are less-well-known here, and we’re pleased that this exhibit will enable residents of the Northeast to grow in their understanding of the history and religious significance of these windows into heaven”. According to the museum, “Traditionally, icons were painted in egg tempera on wood and often accented with gold-leaf or covered with ornately-gilt metal covers called rizas. Rich in symbolism, they’re still used extensively in Orthodox churches and monasteries, and many Russian homes have icons hanging on the wall in a ‘Beautiful (or prayer) Corner’. Today, Russian Orthodox icons are renowned throughout the world”. Cummings said that the exhibition has four distinct sections, each devoted to specific icons:
IF YOU GO
Knights of Columbus Museum, 1 State St, New Haven CT. Open daily from 10.00 to 17.00, admission and parking are free. Call (203) 865 0400 or visit kofcmuseum.org.
2 May 2013