Louvre Exhibition Looks at Russian Icons, Past

APThe funerary ensemble of icons of Princess Sophie, left, and the cover of Saint Antoine’s reliquary at the exhibit.
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 other pieces 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 said Wednesday.

Irina Lebedeva, director of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery 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.”

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 Rublyov.

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

Two icons attributed to Rublyov, 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 Rublyov’s famed Chronicle of the Trinity icon.

The solid gold piece, set with pearls, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, was a gift from Tsar 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 Tsar Fyodor III, painted in 1686 in tempera and oil on paneled wood, his head framed in gold and his 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 into 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 “Holy Russia” exhibit runs through May 24. www.louvre.fr

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