Russian Icon in Latin America

Russian Icon in Latin America

First of all, it should be noted that the history and presence of the Orthodox icon in the Latin American world are strongly associated with the process of the Russian emigration. The first Russians started migrating to Latin American countries as early as the 19th century. However, the Russian diaspora in Latin America was largely formed by three major migration waves. The first took place in the 1920s and was caused by the October Revolution and the Civil War. The second one was caused by World War II, which brought many Russian refugees from devastated Europe to Latin America. The third wave occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union. All these migrants brought with them to Latin American countries Russian icons, the symbols of their faith and religion.

For many Russians in Latin America, the church has always been the center of the community, supporting their national and cultural identity. The first Orthodox parish was opened in Buenos Aires in 1888 soon after establishing diplomatic relations between Russia and the Argentine Republic. In the early 20th century, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the first Russian Orthodox Church in the Latin American world, was also built there. The imperial family funded its construction. The cathedral’s interiors were decorated with 19th-century icons donated by acolytes and servants of the Moscow Kremlin cathedrals. By the 1930s, there were sixteen Orthodox churches in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay). The number increased significantly after the 1940s1. The churches were adorned with Russian prayer images given by the emigrants.

Apart from Orthodox Russians, there is another emigration branch in Latin America called Old Believers. Many of them settled in Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina (as well as in Uruguay, Chile, and Paraguay) in the 1920-1930s. Old Believers usually have secluded and isolated communities, such as the largest one in the city of Toboroci in the Santa Cruz Department in Bolivia. Nevertheless, Old Believers’ cultural artifacts brought by the emigrants in the last century have become part of many private collections.

The Russian icon is part of international relations, strengthening political and cultural links between the Latin world and Russia. It is enough to recall the Russian Days in Latin America in 20082. The Reigning icon of the Mother of God dating back to the late 18th century was the main symbol of the celebration. It traveled through all ten cities of the program, from Havana to Asunción3. However, the Russian icon in Latin America is not a thing-in-itself or a cult object meant to be used by the Russian community only. On the contrary, icon painting is deeply penetrating the cultural space surrounding it, adapting and transforming it simultaneously.

In this connection, it should be noted that being in Latin America, Orthodox iconography has become part of a wonderful, syncretic world of images and beliefs. For centuries, this world has fancifully blended different cultures, in particular pre-Columbian religions and Catholicism. The most striking example is the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, which is associated in Mexico with Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess and Earth mother. For instance, the influence of Russian iconography on the local tradition can be seen in the great popularity of Andrei Rublev’s image of the Holy Trinity, which has also been adopted by Catholic art. The iconography of Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin of Vladimir is highly valued and widespread. Currently, it is fully integrated into the local culture. A good example is a Benedictine abbey in Tepeyac, the place of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the image of the Holy Trinity plays a prominent role.

The vocabulary of Latin American canonical images was also enriched by the language of the Orthodox icon and due to certain creative individuals. For example, the Russian and Latin American traditions of iconic images are closely intertwined in the artworks of Tatiana Popovich. In the middle of the 1980s, Popovich began to exhibit her icons and frescoes in Mexico. Following her first shows, she received commissions for murals in universities, hotels, restaurants, and religious buildings. A few years ago, Tatiana Popovich had the opportunity to paint two Catholic churches in Tepoztlán, Mexico (Morelos State) – the churches of the Archangel Michael and the Apostle Santiago Tepetlapa. The former is decorated with a fresco depicting the four archangels inspired by Andrei Rublev’s Archangel Michael. In the second church, the images of Christ Almighty and the four evangelists refer directly to Russian iconography.

Popovich’s art has contributed to the widespread recognition of Russian icons in Mexico and the promotion of Orthodox sacred images among a wide variety of populations. Many Russian icon shows also contribute to establishing a dialogue between the cultures, for example, the 2017 exhibition “Windows in the Sky” at the Museo del Carmen Alto in Quito, Ecuador, maintained a dialogue between Russian icons from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton and Carmelite art from the Museum’s collection.

The exhibitions held in Latin America in recent decades greatly contributed to the knowledge of Russian icons and the growing interest in Old Russian art. It is worth beginning with two extremely important exhibitions of the 2000s. The first was “Icons of Russia” at the Recoleta Cultural Center in Buenos Aires (2000), with artworks from the Moscow Kremlin Museums. The second exhibition, “500 Years of Russian Art,” featured 53 pieces from the State Tretyakov Gallery, covering Russian iconography from its origins to the 19th century. It is also worth mentioning such exhibitions as “Treasures of the Russian World” at the Museum of Modern Art in Toluca, Mexico, (2011), “Icons of the Mother of God of the Russian Orthodox Church” at the Pavilion of Fine Arts at the Catholic University of Argentina in Buenos Aires (2012), “Holy Images” at the Catholic University of Argentina in Parana (2019), “Treasures of the Russian Empire” at the Telegraph Museum in Mexico City (2019), and many others. Among the latest projects is “Holy Images” held at the Las Colonias Cultural Hall in Cerrito, Argentina’s Paraná department. Most of these exhibitions were organized in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian embassies.

Traditionally, collectors play a major role in the popularization of Russian icons in the Latin world. Let’s take an example of a married couple of Russian descent, Paula and Nicholas von Koenigsberg. There is little information about their past, but it is known that in 1939, they moved to New York where they ran a gallery called Le Passé for 15 years. The Koenigsbergs also had an office in Mexico City, through which they established a connection with art dealers from all over South America. The couple arrived in Argentina in 1943 and opened a gallery on Avenida Figueroa Alcorta. Despite provenance issues surrounding the works, the Koenigsberg collection served as the primary material for major exhibitions of ancient Russian art at the National Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Spanish American Art, and the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Buenos Aires in 1945, 1961, and 19704.

Probably, the most famous private collection of Orthodox icons in the Latin American world belonged to María Loreto Marín Estévez. Starting from 1060, it was formed from icons and applied art pieces acquired by Estévez at religious communities and private businesses in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and other Latin American countries, as well as the U.S. and Europe. In 2010, Estévez donated her collection to the Universidad de Los Andes, where it was transformed into an art museum. This event turned into a major educational and research project. The University set up a restoration workshop to study, conserve, and catalog the works in the collection. The Art Museum of the Universidad de Los Andes has become a meeting point of two cultural universes and a place to draw parallels between Russian and local culture – Orthodox iconography and the Andean southern art of the Viceroyalty period, which forms another part of the permanent exhibition.

Despite the dynamic “exhibition life” of Russian icons, they are still rarely found in Latin American museum collections. Besides Chile, Russian iconography is represented at the Museo del Carmen Alto (Quito, Ecuador) and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Cuba, mentioned above. In 2015, the latter opened the first virtual branch of the Russian Museum in Latin America. It is known to have one of the largest collections of Russian icons in the world. As a result, visitors can remotely experience the treasures of the Russian iconographic tradition. The plans also included the establishment of a real branch. If they are implemented, it will be a major step along the journey that the Russian iconography has yet to make in the Latin American world.


1A decade ago, there were already 30 Russian Orthodox churches and 50 Russian Orthodox parishes in Latin America. In addition to the countries mentioned above, there are large Russian communities and Russian Orthodox churches in Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Cuba.

2The event was largely organized to celebrate the unification of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) after the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion in 2007.

3The full list of cities: Havana (Cuba), San Jose (Costa Rica), Caracas (Venezuela), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), São Paulo (Brazil), Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata (Argentina), Santiago (Chile), and Asunción (Paraguay)

4 1) Exposición de obras maestras colección P. de Koenigsberg, (1945), Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires

2) Exposición de arte ruso antiguo, (1961), Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano, Buenos Aires

3) Iconos rusos, colección Paula von Koenigsberg (1970), Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo, Buenos Aires