Vera Shevzov

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Summer 2012): 6-8.

Museum Curators Versus Church Clerics

The exhibit “Caution! Religion” spurred debate about museums which played a tremendous role in preserving icons. The modern transformation of numerous icons into “art” prolonged their life in the Soviet period, saving them from destruction, either through decay or iconoclastic zeal. However, the politics of restoration and preservation, even in the early decades of the twentieth century, were fraught with tensions. Today, controversies have flared once again over competing definitions of art and the sacred and the use and misuse of the icon.

From a traditional Orthodox perspective, the icon’s proper place—its “home”—is the sacred space of a church, chapel, or devotional icon corner. However, from a broader cultural perspective, as a “monument of early Russian painting,” an icon’s appropriate viewing place might also be a museum, on display for the aesthetic appreciation of everyone. Curators and museum employees often approach their work in their own spiritual terms. For both Orthodox faithful and museum curators, the conditions of an icon’s display are of the utmost importance because the icon’s life is at stake. Curators worry about climate and lighting, clergy about liturgy and prayer. Precisely what signals life for an icon from the Orthodox perspective—candles, incense—can eventually spell death for an ancient work of art. Caught between museums and churches, ancient icons in post-Soviet Russia often become involved in a tug-of-war between competing notions of ownership and belonging.

Recently, clergymen and curators from the Tretiakov Gallery found a mutually satisfactoryolution regarding the Vladimir Mother of God icon. Sensitive to its fragility, the gallery’s curators became understandably concerned when, in 1993, President Boris Yeltsin issued a directive allowing the Vladimir icon to be used in liturgical services. After one such outing, the icon was returned damaged. In response, the director of the Tretiakov’s division of old Russian art insisted, “The icon has protected us for many centuries; now it is our turn to protect it. It has already put in its time, and there is almost nothing left of the painting.” The eventual compromise was a “museum-church” located on museum grounds. In addition to an active liturgical space in which the icon can thrive, the building also boasts a controlled climate and a special case for the icon that preserves it from harmful smoke and incense.

Diverse Iconographic Styles

Whether located in churches or museums, icons pose a visual challenge to those who gaze upon them, no less now than in prerevolutionary Russia. The sheer variety in style and technique prompts a reconsideration of the now-classical narrative of the history of the Russian icon. The standard history situates the icon’s developmental high point in the fifteenth century and then traces a gradual decline that accelerates with the influences of Western art from the seventeenth century onward. This narrative raises the question of relationships among style, perceived quality, and iconic “authenticity.” What visually distinguishes an icon from art or a painting that depicts scenes or persons from the history of Orthodox Christianity? In her work on Russian icons in the twentieth century, art historian Irina Yazykova maintains that the answer to this question today remains murkier than ever. As a case in point, she examines the images in Moscow’s recently rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The iconographic style of most of its images, she maintains, does not in fact correspond to what most Orthodox traditionalists would deem authentic. In her estimation, its wide array of styles might best be categorized as “ecclesial postmodernism.”

Print and Internet Icons

Perhaps most immediate in terms of Russia’s viewing public are the challenges that consumer culture, technology, and the marketplace pose. In the nineteenth century, the machine production of icons in Russia elicited unease among some believers. In their estimation, without the direct involvement of the human hand and spirit, the machine-produced images could not help but be a qualitatively different product. Analogous concerns arise today with regard to icon production and the internet. While computer technology has contributed substantially to technical advancements in icon restoration, it has also raised concerns about iconographic production. Is an image of an icon downloaded off the virtual space of the internet, for instance, indeed an icon suitable for prayer?

The Icon on Film

Even more problematic is the relationship of the icon to the medium of film. Church and cinema have a history of tension, and that relationship has entered a new phase in the post-Soviet era. Renewed interest in Orthodoxy among certain cinematographers, coupled with a missionary mind-set, has resulted in the proliferation of Orthodox film festivals and in discussions about Orthodox forms of film. Two examples of cinematic events in Russia that drew particular attention to the problems associated with the icon and film are Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Pavel Lungin’s The Island (Ostrov, 2006).

Gibson’s Passion of the Christ

Despite the fact that Russia’s public was rarely exposed to cinematic portrayals of Jesus under Soviet rule, filmgoers, including Orthodox believers, displayed the same range of reactions to Gibson’s cinematic “icon” of Christ as did their more Hollywood-savvy American counterparts. Some viewers, including Orthodox clergy, judged it a remarkably accurate presentation of the last twelve hours of Jesus’ life and saw no reason not to watch it. Others, however, were more reserved in their response. One reviewer, for instance, argued that Orthodox viewers in particular have difficulty watching films about Jesus since their gazes are conditioned from their youth by iconography. A cinematic Jesus, in this sense, could never be seen as an authentic depiction of Christ comparable to an icon. Similarly, though recommending the film on various levels, Andrei Kuraev, an Orthodox deacon and public intellectual, voiced his overall misgivings about the “Jesus film” genre. No cinematic depiction of Christ, in his estimation, could ever be iconic The face of the actor takes the place of the genuine Face (Lik), thereby making it easy to forget that “the Christ of prayer is not the Christ of film.”

Lungin’s The Island

What if, however, a film happened to be expressly Orthodox? The question is becoming more relevant in contemporary Russia as a specifically Orthodox film industry develops. The recent unexpected success of Lungin’s The Island, which garnered five Nika awards, has stirred misgivings, even in the mainstream press. Hailed as “the first Orthodox film,” it drew wide praise from Orthodox believers, including Patriarch Alexis II; it also spurred tourism and pilgrimages to monasteries. The Island depicts the story of Father Anatoly, a holy fool and type of elder with a haunting past who lives in the remote frozen regions of the Russian north. The film drew unexpected numbers of believers and nonbelievers alike.

Despite its broad appeal and despite the fact that the film is now sold in churches alongside icons, some believers question its spiritual credentials. According to Sophia Ishchenko, a nun and president of the annual film festival Vstecha held in Kaluga, Orthodox films in general are characterized by three components: theocentricity, Orthodox ethics, and an Orthodox aesthetic informed by iconography. Lungin’s film, in the eyes of some, failed on the first front. Instead of lifting the gaze of viewers beyond the boundaries of this world, The Island, critics maintain, fixes the gaze on Anatoly himself.

Writing on the eve of the 1917 Revolution, his impressions still fresh following the rediscovery of the Old Russian icon, philosopher Evgeny Trubetskoy maintained that as great works of art, icons are best approached as royalty: “It would be impertinent to speak to them; one must stand before them and deferentially wait for them to speak first.” Embracing both image and beholder, a comprehensive understanding of the icon in modern and postmodern times invariably includes an examination of response and respondent. At the outset of the twentieth century it was evident that the icon was speaking in contexts that lay beyond the boundaries of the faith community. It had entered the discursive worlds of philosophy, art, cinematography, politics, and economics, in which deference and waiting were not necessarily viewed as virtues. Still situated in these various worlds, the icon continues to beckon the beholder in ways it leaves to us to understand.♦

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Vera Shevzov, “Afterword,” in Alter Icons: The Russian Icon and Modernity ed. by Jefferson J. A. Gatrall and Douglas Greenfield (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 246-56.

Vera Shevzov is professor of religion, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.