S. RANGARAJAN

Russian icons were an important part of "RUSSIA!", an exhibition held by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York.

AN icon is the painting of a sacred and holy person or an incident that evokes deep religious sentiments. Derived from the Greek word eikon, meaning an image or likeness, the icon is, for the believer, a means of communicating with the reverential figure the work portrays.The icon painters considered themselves to be believers first and did not think of their works as individual artistic achievements. Thus the iconographers, not wanting any personal glory or gain for themselves, preferred anonymity and did not sign their works. The only legend on the icon was the name of the saint or the holy figure depicted.

Long tradition

Russia was the illustrious inheritor of the Byzantine tradition of icon painting from the 10th Century and several types of icons flourished including the one called the Umilenis or "Tenderness", the image depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child.While icons were originally used in religious processions and in churches, from the beginning of the 15th Century, people placed them in their homes. Icons were painted on boards, mainly on bass wood, as linden was less sensitive to changes in humidity and was less likely to warp than other types of wood. A large icon was painted on several boards, which were then connected by pegs and the face of the icon was pasted over with canvas (pavoloka). Painted with tempera - pigments mixed with egg yolk - in colourful and luxurious icons, the work of the actual drawing was preceded by the brightening of the background.The icon painters, many of them monks, worked as a team in workshops in monasteries, strictly adhering to a set of rules or canon called the podlinnik, a handbook of traditional designs or patterns traced on the surface of the icon to create the desired and intended image. It was a purposeful task, with no improvisation or arbitrariness and one that always strictly followed the dictates of the church and ecclesiastical traditions. On account of such steadfastness to traditional formulations that icons representing the same subject, prepared centuries apart, looked so much like one another in form and colour that they looked like reproductions, though each one was an indistinguishable original.The history of Russia and the chronology of the Russian icons are so strongly and intricately bound to each other that they represent the two sides of a cultural coin.In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptised and he imposed Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the official religion of Russia. Consequently the visual culture of Orthodox Russia followed the model developed in Byzantium. In December 1237, the nomadic Eurasian army known as the Mongols or Tatars, invaded Russia and pillaged 14 cities, including Vladimir, the capital of the powerful Vladimir-Suzdal region and home to the most holy icon of Russia, the Virgin of Vladimir (also known as Our Lady of Vladimir), which depicts Mary embracing the infant Christ. This icon came to Russia from Byzantium as a gift in 1131.On this Russian soil of political strife and turmoil was born one of the greatest icon painters, Andrei Rublev (1360-1430). What makes Andrei Rublev as much an icon as the icons he created?Born at a time of monastic revival, Rublev, through his life in the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery, emphasised "fraternity, calm, love (toward) God spiritual self-improvement". His life and works served as the unifying force against the foreign Mongol yoke.Most of Rublev's surviving works were created in Moscow. With Theophanes the Greek, the leading painter in Russia at that time, Rublev in 1405 painted the Annunciation cathedral in Moscow. The walls of the cathedral - covered with frescoes and the floors paved in mosaics of jasper and agate - made the place an ideal spot for the baptism of the tsars and their betrothal. Though Theophanes and Rublev worked together to create hallowed and much revered cathedrals, both had different objectives.By the first decade of the 15th Century, Rublev was recognised as the Church's foremost artist. He was on his way to becoming a legend. The colours of the icons had a special significance. Blue and green, the earthy colours, stood for heaven, joy and hope; red symbolised the Holy Spirit's flame, "the passions of Christ, and the burning fire of faith and martyrdom". The betrayal by Judas was coloured in yellow and black represented Russia's old folk belief of gloom and despair of the non-believer.Rublev's "The Old Testament Trinity" is universally considered his masterpiece. The icon (circa 1410-20), now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, is taken as an all-encompassing symbol of unity and an image of divine love. The Church Council held in Moscow in 1551, prescribed in its statutes the official canon for the correct representation of the Trinity: "... to paint from ancient models, as painted by the Greek painters and as painted by Rublev... "Among the several other priceless works of Rublev, now housed in the Tretyakov gallery, is the three-metre long figure of Apostle Paul in blue lapis lazuli, the favourite colour of the artist-turned- monk. By employing elongated proportions, Rublev had made the painting look slender and weightless.

Comprehensive exhibition

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York in presenting "RUSSIA!", the most comprehensive exhibition of Russian art ever shown in the United States. This features the greatest works of Russian art from the 13th Century to the present, including icons, portraiture in both painting and sculpture from the 18th through the 20th Centuries and a selection of first-class Western European paintings and sculptures from the imperial art collections assembled by Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas I.The exhibition has been realised under the patronage of Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation. In organising this comprehensive and innovative exposition with 275 objects, the Guggenheim Museum had the support of, among others, the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery and the State Hermitage Museum.A significant number of the selected artworks have either rarely or never travelled abroad, notably: icons of Andrei Rublev and Dionysii. The exhibition presents one work by Rublev and Dionysii, as well as one of the most revered icons, the Virgin of Vladimir of 1514. For the Tretyakov Gallery, the U.S. presentation will be a curtain raiser for the 150th year anniversary of the Gallery to be celebrated in 2006, when the organisers are preparing themselves to overawe and overwhelm the art world with their collection of 130,000 items.