The given collection of antique Russian icons was brought together during the course of several decades, acquiring its own, unique, highly recognizable style and value. It primarily comprises traditional religious works of art of the 19th century, including numerous first-class pieces made in the most notable iconographic centers of the Russian Empire – the renowned villages of the Vladimir Province – Palekh, Mstyora, Kholuy. A separate strand is represented by Old Believer iconographic workshops of Guslitsy and Vetka, whose stylizations won both prominence and extreme popularity in the given period. Executed in the traditional egg-tempera technique, these icons clearly belong to the great workshops of central Russia and are noted for their varied subjects and artistry.
First and foremost, the collection includes a wide range of antique Russian icons dedicated to the Resurrection – The Harrowing of Hades, with major Church Feasts; these icons were known in Imperial period Russia as “polnitsy” (“full-cycle icons”). Such complex iconographic schemes allowed an artist to bring together all of the major events of the Gospel narrative on a single panel – which guaranteed the popularity of these icons among all Russian social classes. Palekh iconographers were especially fond of this subject-line, retaining a remarkable high level of artistic execution, with their instantly recognizable “miniature” painting style. The collection currently includes a number of early Palekh icons (produced in the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries), with a detailed, refined, and highly emotional painting style. These are complemented by later period icons, with their growing simplicity and “laid back” approach to the artwork.
Several Resurrection icons of the second half of the 18th century were created under the increasing influence of Baroque art, with the artist’s dominant orientation on Western European Art. This influence is especially evident in the floating figure of Christ – rising above the tomb in his long, flowing robes, with the Temple guard depicted stricken down in awe and amazement. Separate attention should be given to the late 18th-century icon, which can most certainly be linked with the Yaroslavl school. It is not only an exceptional work of art, brilliant in its painting-style and craftsmanship; it is also a unique historic artifact, containing the owners inscription, which unravels details of its provenance and its exact localization in the early 20th century.
Another jewel of the collection is the yearly Menaion icon complex, painted in Palekh in the second quarter of the 19th century. This comprise a series of 12 antique Russian icons with the depictions of the saints and feast for each successive month of the ecclesiastical year – from September to August. These Menaion icons are noted for their extended number of saints, and the unique, highly detailed iconographic schemes of the Feasts. The fact that the given complex contains all twelve icons – each in perfectly preserved condition – makes it an invaluable rarity among private and state collections.
Several antique Russian icons are noted for their complex, compositional iconography, which includes the main Feasts of the Church year, depictions of the Prophets, Church Fathers, Russian Holy Hierarchs, venerated Marian images, and a large number of selected saints. This “iconostasis-like” principle of combining various scenes became quite popular in the Imperial era; usually the selection and placement of scenes reflects a special meaning and the main events or relationships in the life of the icon’s owner. In this particular group one finds the icon of the Resurrection – the Harrowing of Hades with selected saints; the New Testament Trinity with the Feasts and Evangelists; and the depiction of the tall iconostasis, known among the Russians as The Iconostasis or The Church. The latter type served for special prayer services in home chapels and churches, for example – for wedding ceremonies; this made these icons very popular among the “priest” strain of the Old Believers (the “popovtsy”).
Another group or strand in the collection is comprised of hagiographical icons, highly venerated by the Russian Orthodox faithful. This includes several masterpieces painted in Vetka – one of the largest centers of the Old Believers (the “popovtsy”) on the western borders of the Russian Empire. Among these one finds the hagiographical icons of St. Catherine and St. Alexius – the Man of God, which are incredibly decorative and have a vivid artistry and resounding color work to them. One of the leading trends in late 18th-early 19th century art, highly widespread among the Old Believers, is the so-called “traditionalist” movement, perfectly represented by the small icon of Saint John the Baptist with 12 hagiographical scenes, painted on a centuries-old panel. Also popular among the Old Believers were icons of Saint Charalambos – the protector from sudden death without repentance, the patron of livestock and the guardian of the crops. The icon of St. Charalambos of Magneisa – painted in the first half of the 19th century in Palekh – was previously decorated by an elaborate oklad cover, ornamented with enamels and precious stones; this is attested to by a detailed inscription, found on the reverse of the panel. Another Old Believer center – Guslitsy (located in the Moscow Province) – is also represented in the collection, namely – by the hagiographical icons of the Prophet Elias, Saints Cosmas and Damian, and St. Sergius of Radonezh – all of which reflect this center’s traditionalist trends and subtle color scheme.
Some Marian icons – with cycles dedicated to their respective legends – deserve our special attention as well. All of these antique Russian icons were painted in the Vladimir provincial iconographic centers in the second half or end of the 19th century. The Feodorovskaya Icon of the Mother of God is of particular interest. The inscription on the reverse of the panel attests to the fact that on January 9, 1894, the icon was given to the Reverend Abbess Nectaria on the day of her enthronement in the Seraphim-Ponetaevsk Monastery. It was a gift from the Archimandrite Theodosius (Sobolev) – a cleric who was brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as a martyr in 2003. The icon of the Tikhvin Mother of God, with a cycle of border scenes representing its legend, includes two incredibly rare depictions of Saint Martyrius of Zelenetsk. This element makes the given icon a piece of extreme significance for collectors. The Unexpected Joy icon, in turn, has an extraordinary iconographic scheme, which includes a cycle of border scenes with Marian Feasts and Old Testament prophecies regarding the Holy Virgin. It is possible that this icon is directly linked to its first known prototype and its native shrine – the Church of the Unburnt Bush in Khamovniki.
This particular collection of antique Russian icons perfectly reflects the remarkable stylistic variance of Imperial-period Russian iconography. Its special trait is the large number of small, compact icons, originally meant for family prayer, home chapels, and prayer corners. This is clearly reflected in the iconographic schemes, supplemented by the images of certain patron saints and feasts, selected by the commissioner.