A Slice of Russia
Gilded icons, stark portraits, and a warm tea room
Around 1650, somewhere in what was then Russian territory, an artist transformed a piece of wood into a devotional object. On it, he painted a scene from The Presentation of Mary, a pivotal Christian theological event. The Gospel of James recounts that after God granted her elderly parents’ wish for a child, they dedicated the Virgin to His service and handed her over at age three to the high priest at the temple. She lived there for 12 years before rejoining the world.
That painting now hangs at the Museum of Russian Icons, in Clinton, Massachusetts. Founded by art collector and retired industrialist Gordon B. Lankton in 2006, the mseum holds more than 700 such objects—one of the world’s largest collections. They range from a circa 1450 panel depicting John the Baptist and minutely detailed liturgical calendars, on which each day is represented by a saint, to a circa 1600 set of arched doors through which the clergy enter the sanctuary, to an icon created in 2006 by Alyona Knyazeva depicting Saint Andrei Rublev, the famous medieval painter of icons and frescoes. The museum has its own tea room, and hosts performances, lectures, and workshops, along with rotating exhibits on Russian art and culture, such as the arresting photographs that explore lives and the landscape in Siberia Imagined and Reimagined, on display through January 10.
Icons are integral to the Russian Orthodox Church. “They are windows into the spiritual world,” museum docent Michael Popik explained during a recent tour. “And believers will say that it’s through the power of God that the icon can do things.” Yet depicting religious subjects was, even in the early centuries of Christianity, problematic. During the latter 700s, images were banned and burned, and protesters were cruelly punished. “There was always talk and conflict in Constantinople in the 700s and 800s about whether this violated the commandment ‘Thou shall not worship false idols,’” Popik says, stopping in front of a variation on the icon The Mother of God, known as The Mother of God of the Three Hands, a testament to those times. The monk Saint John Damascus had his hand cut off for his zealous devotion to icons, the story goes, and he held it while praying to be healed before the Mother of God icon. He soon fell asleep, and when he awoke, his hand was reattached, unscathed. In gratitude, he added a hand wrought from silver to the icon, leading to the creation of an entirely new icon that has been replicated ever since.
Icons may be simple painted wood, formal paintings covered with decorated metalwork through which only faces and hands can be seen, or even richly enameled and bejeweled, like the museum’s two-inch-square depiction of Saint George slaying the dragon. Typical for the art form is the palette limited to lush reds, blues, greens, and yellows—with spots of gold.
The Presentation of Mary icon features a folk-art style that is nevertheless quite intricate. It shows the principal players, all with golden haloes, on the steps of the temple, with onlookers and ornate Byzantine buildings in the background. “I love the architecture and the patterns,” says Tara Reddy Young ’96, the museum’s deputy director. “But it also captures this rite of passage. Even if you don’t know the story, you know what’s happening. And you wonder how her parents might be feeling about letting go of their three-year-old. There is something about how each icon tells a whole story in a single moment that is fascinating.”
Young, who was an art-history concentrator and joined the museum staff in 2010, is impressed by the icons’ elaborate forms. But she is also drawn to their universal themes, what they reveal about the power of visual language and how art is used throughout religious traditions. “There are so many ways to approach this artwork,” she says. “These icons open different doors for different visitors.” The museum receives a steady stream of church groups, seminary students, priests, and scholars. Yet most of the visitors to Clinton, about 15 miles northeast of Worcester, are not Orthodox believers, Young reports; they are intrigued by the story of the museum’s founding.
Lankton moved to the area in the 1960s and ultimately became president of Nypro, an international plastics injection molding company headquartered in Clinton, building it into a global manufacturer. He knew little about icons when, while traveling for work in 1989, he bought one at a Russian flea market. When his collection numbered around 100, he bought a former carpet factory in town, gutted the interior and restored the façade, put the artifacts on display, and opened the doors to the public. Now in his eighties, he is still active there, as a trustee, and at the separate downtown Gallery of African Art, to which he donated another impressive collection of works. His efforts are credited with spurring Clinton’s percolating revitalization. Other businesses have moved into rehabilitated buildings, the historic Strand Theatre was renovated and reopened in 1995, and a few new restaurants, such as Zaytoon, which serves excellent Middle Eastern food, have appeared in recent years.
Young encourages visitors to spend a day or two in the region: “People from Boston think we are really far away, but we’re not.” Within 15 to 20 minutes of the museum, she reports, are the Wachusett Reservoir (which offers local history lessons and walking and hiking trails), the Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Fruitlands Museum, the Worcester Art Museum, “and the Older Timer Restaurant. It’s an Irish pub and a real institution.”
The museum itself has also grown over the years. “We find that once people get over their apprehension and initial reactions of ‘I’m not Russian, what is the appeal of icons?’ and get through the door, they are completely amazed by the building and the collection,” Young says. “And the museum strives to make icons accessible. You don’t need any background in Russian art or history or religion, you just need an interest in learning.”