The Path of the Russian Icon to America. The Collection of Oleg Kushnirskiy
These days, the Russian icon has found its place among the masterpieces of world art. The ancient pieces are kept in the major European and American museums, as well as in foreign private collections. The first Western collections began to be formed in the 1920s – 1930s when the general public was able to get to know the phenomenon of Old Russian painting more closely.
In Russia, the interest in icons as collectibles emerged much earlier, between the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the first collectors was the Stroganov family, the prominent manufacturers who grew rich in salt mining1. They commissioned many icons, embroidery, and church utensils to decorate their home churches in Solvychegodsk. They also owned workshops and cooperated with the capital’s isographers. The Stroganovs opted for petty and miniature painting. These were traditionally small images meant for both prayer and admiration of their beauty. Until the late 19th century, the Stroganov family’s paintings were seen by medieval art researchers and collectors as masterpieces of Old Russian painting – this was until the icons of the 14th and 16th centuries were discovered.
The icon collectors are also found in the 18th century2. These were Old Believers, the faithful who did not accept Patriarch Nikon’s radical reforms, which led to a schism in the Russian Church in the middle of the 17th century. The state and the Church persecuted Old Believers for two centuries. However, the latter remained true to the pre-reform practices; they valued ancient images painted before the schism and actively searched for them throughout Russia. The first icon collections were formed in Old Believers’ settlements in remote suburbs and impenetrable forests. Antiquities from all over the country gradually filled churches, hermitages, and prayer rooms. When interest in Russian icons increased in the middle of the 19th century, Old Believers were the only experts in the field. They had an excellent understanding of techniques, styles, and different artistic centers, distinguishing Novgorod, Moscow, Tikhvin, Korsun, and other icon types and styles. The Stroganov icons were particularly prized for their refined painting style and small sizes, which was important because Old Believers could not settle permanently, being constantly afraid of persecution. The preferences of Old Believers, who were regular clients of icon painters, and their love for miniature painting led to creating a new genre of Russian religious art. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the unique style was adopted and creatively rethought by the iconographers of the Vladimir Province, first and foremost in Palekh and later in Mstyora.
Due to the interest in pre-Petrine Russian history and culture, which was caused by the reaction to the events of the Patriotic War of 1812, a new type of collector appeared. Scholars, bibliophiles, and antique restorers joined pious Old Believers; large collections of icon paintings were gradually formed. Both historians and art critics showed their interest in Russian antiquities and began studying and publishing them.
The “discovery” of the medieval icon as fine art, however, took place only during the reign of Nicholas II. Up to that time, Russian icon painting was considered “young” (the 17th century was thought to be a starting point for its history) and a secondary phenomenon devoid of any aesthetic interest3. Thanks to the efforts of the restorers, pieces of the 14th-16th centuries were cleared of soot and age-old layers. They amazed contemporaries with the brilliance of colors and profound spiritual content. The exhibition project of 1913 dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty drew a wide response. The general public finally saw the antique icon revealed by the restorers. Pavel Muratov, one of the first researchers of such icons, was accurate in saying that “Russia suddenly became the sole owner of a marvelous artistic treasure,”4 which was greatly appreciated by European artists. Russian icons were greatly admired by Henri Matisse who called them “true great art,” a “mystical flower” that “reveals the soul of the people who painted them.”
The sensational phenomenon led to a true “icon boom.” Not only scholars and restorers but also major bankers, industrialists, merchants, artists, and iconographers were affected by this “boom.” This passion for ancient images led to a drastic increase in the price of these artworks, and an antique icon market began to take shape. It was the time of appearance of the largest collections of I.S. Ostroukhov, N.P. Likhachev, A.V. Morozov, S.P. Ryabushinsky, and P.I. Shchukin, which formed the basis for the collections of the leading Russian state museums.
The “discovery” of the antique Russian icon coincided tragically with the revolutionary events of 1917 and the following Civil War (1917-1922). The new Bolshevik government declared “war” against the Church, its main rival in the struggle to influence the minds of the masses. In 1922, the government began to confiscate religious property. The official goal was to raise money to help the starving people of the Volga Region. In fact, less than half of the funds collected were never sent to the affected population. The Soviet government hoped to sell the remaining valuables to the West, thus replenishing the state budget5.
At the time, the very notion of private property had vanished. Imperial residences, noble mansions, and estates were being looted. The furious mob driven by hatred of the “class of oppressors and exploiters” often destroyed every valuable item they could find. Artworks, symbols of the “decaying” bourgeoisie, now had to be competently used in the name of building a new socialist state. Thus, cultural valuables acquired the status of a commodity. In 1920, the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Trade of the RSFSR was established. The decisions about what would be sold there and at what price were made at the party top. The export included items that belonged to the royal family, paintings by the greatest Western masters, and jewelry from the closed churches and monasteries of the immense Mother Russia. This is how the total plundering of the cultural heritage of the Russian people, one of the most terrible in the history of the 20th century, began.
Thousands of family icons were taken away by white emigrants leaving their homeland. Some people believed they were not leaving forever and hoped to return; others were expelled. Thus, the path of the Russian icon to the West was laid open. Many of the exported treasures soon found their way to the antique markets of Europe and America. This phenomenon became widespread in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Soviet government was openly selling icons through special organizations and stores, such as Torgsin (State Corporation for Trade With Foreigners) and Leningrad Antikvariat.
The Russian icon was gradually gaining popularity abroad, becoming “one of the eternal world art values.”6 Its fame came from the exhibition organized in 1929, which traveled throughout several European countries (Germany, Austria, and Great Britain) with triumph. In 1930, it was displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. More than 130 icons of the 12th-19th centuries from the Tretyakov Gallery, the State Historical Museum, the Russian Museum, the Central State Restoration Workshops, and a number of Soviet provincial museums were exhibited there. The geography of the exhibition during its year and a half stay in America was quite impressive: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Worcester Art Museum, the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and others. The museum halls were filled with viewers astonished by the beauty of Old Russian painting7. This exhibition established the “trend” for Russian icons, giving rise to the first foreign collections, including those in the United States.
The American collectors of the 1930s-1950s were mostly businessmen and representatives of diplomatic missions or large traders. They were able to acquire icons directly in the USSR through Antikvariat and the vaults of state museums. For example, this is how the well-known collection of George R. Khan (1890-1979) emerged. In the 1940s-1960s, it was repeatedly exhibited at the museums and galleries in the United States, and in 1980, after the owner’s death, it was sold at Christie’s auction8. The Davises, who came to the Soviet Union in 1937 on a diplomatic mission (Joseph Davis was appointed the US Ambassador to the USSR), also became interested in Russian icons. Later, their collection featuring 84 pieces of Russian religious paintings of the 16th-19th centuries ended up in the Hillwood Museum9. Another private collection (over 300 icons dating from the 15th-19th centuries), which had been formed by the member of the wealthy San Diego family Amy Putnam since the 1930s, constituted the foundation of the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego10.
The Soviet government, being interested in icon sales, took a number of measures to make it easier to export antiques from the USSR. According to the law of January 2, 193011, the customs were only required to submit an invoice from a commission store12. Western tourists primarily bought the pieces of the 17th-19th centuries, viewing them as an exotic souvenir13 rather than an artistic masterpiece. At the time, Armand Hammer entered the scene. He carried out bulk purchases of antiques in the USSR and established their distribution in large supermarkets in the United States14. The items he was selling were presented as “treasures of the Romanovs.” These included icons, mostly late pieces but in precious settings. Americans often purchased several images at once and hung them on a wall in groups to complement home interiors. This “carpet” way of hanging and the brilliance of the precious metals, stones, and enamels created a particular aesthetic perception of the Russian icon in America.
The second wave of art export from the USSR began in the 1960s during the Khrushchev thaw and was accompanied by great challenges. This time, the export and sale of icons were forbidden. One could be accused of speculation for such activity. In those years, the country began a campaign to eliminate “unpromising villages.” Thousands of icons kept in abandoned houses were destroyed. At the same time, locals were ordered to ravage churches and burn church property. God-fearing old women were forced to save icons from the fires literally. At the time, Soviet intellectuals (artists, writers, doctors, and scholars15) migrated to the Russian provinces. Many were inspired by Vladimir Soloukhin’s book “Black Boards (Notes of a Beginning Collector)” published in 1969. Fascinated by the miraculous discovery of icons, which moved them on the path of collecting and searching, those romantic artists saved them from destruction and restored hundreds of ancient Russian artworks. The treasures were mostly kept in the private homes of the seekers. It was an underground activity, a kind of closed interest club16. The secrecy was necessary because of the vigilant oversight of the authorities and the persecution of dissidents during the 1970s and those who defended civil liberties in the USSR17. Writers Y.M. Daniel and A.D. Sinyavsky were put on trial, the journalist and publisher A.I. Ginzburg and K.A. Lubarsky were jailed, and in 1974, Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the country. Collecting icons became a dangerous business. The police conducted raids, and confiscated works of art were burned in the police stations, all legitimately18.
In the 1970s, following the Romantic artists, the province was taken over by lovers of profit who organized the illegal sale of icons abroad through embassy channels with diplomatic immunity. Icons were exported in suitcases that were stuffed “up to the eyeballs”; larger images were sawed in half – it gave birth to the term “suitcase sawing,” which is used by the representatives of the antique business. Revitalization of the antique market in the early 1970s was facilitated by the active emigration of Jews when more than 70,000 left the USSR in five years. Each family member was allowed to take out five icons that had no artistic value19. At the time, numerous 19th-century pieces created in the Vladimir iconographic villages (Palekh, Mstyora, Kholui), as well as images in precious settings, were exported.
A huge amount of Russian icons flooded Europe during Perestroika in the late 1980s and early 1990s when all borders were opened. From then on, they were delivered by buses and trucks20. Mostly late works of religious art of the 18th-19th centuries of low quality were exported, and these ended up on Western flea markets in abundance. Prices for icons fell drastically, but interest in them did not vanish. Many Western collectors began to build their collections during those years. Among them was the entrepreneur Gordon Lankton. In 2006, in a small town of Clinton, Massachusetts, he opened his own Museum of Russian icons, which today counts more than 400 pieces of the 15th-19th centuries.
Perestroika changed the attitude toward works of Russian religious art in their homeland. In the early 1990s, a legal market emerged, and iconographic items appeared in antique stores. At the time, Russian icons drew many connoisseurs of antiquity. Oleg Kushnirskiy, who formed his own collection in New York in the 1990s, could not resist their beauty too.
Collecting is a passion that usually arises suddenly and thrills, keeping one in suspense for the rest of their life. That is what happened to Oleg Kushnirskiy (b. 1960). He became interested in art in 1975 after moving from Ukraine to Leningrad where he graduated from the College of Pharmacy on Tatarsky Lane. During his studies, Oleg Kushnirskiy was fond of photography. A common hobby gradually turned into a profession. On behalf of the Russian National Library, Oleg traveled around the USSR. His photographs were to show the authentic life of the provincial hinterland. Oleg was inspired by the romance of the journeys, the preserved ancient rural life, the mystery of the search, and the joy of possible discovery. Like many creative people of the time, he was fascinated by the beauty of ancient Russian painting. He began to buy books on the history of iconography, visited museums, and became truly immersed in Russian religious art. This was the beginning of his dream of having his own icon collection, which he realized only in America.
In 1992, Oleg Kushnirskiy moved to New York where he dreamed of living since childhood. He started working at the famous New York Antiques Market in Chelsea right away. It was an iconic place that in the 1990s attracted many buyers and sellers from all over the world. Andy Warhol, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Jackson, and other celebrities could be easily met there. The owners of local galleries and stores invited Oleg to make a professional shooting of the works. Gradually, he went headlong into the world of antiques and rare things. He was seduced by chance to find a masterpiece among the thousands of art objects there.
Assembled in the 1990s, the collection reflected the diversity of its owner’s artistic interests. It included precious enamel items, Old Believer works of copper casting, and agitational porcelain. However, the most valuable part (and the only one still not sold by the collector) was Russian icon art of the 17th-19th centuries, mainly works by Palekh and Mstyora masters. They attracted Oleg Kushnirskiy by their refinement and miniature painting, as well as good preservation. The sources of supply were varied. Most of the images were purchased from well-known collectors and dealers of antiques, who lived in America or emigrated to the United States at different times: Mikhail Itskovich, Mikhail Zvyagin, Yona Zaidelman, Vladimir Kosykin, Alex Gordon, David Ashville, Willie Tishenko, Sebastian Day, and Alexander Abramov.
Oleg Kushnirskiy is well known in the museum community. He works with renowned auction houses and galleries throughout the United States and Great Britain and is closely related to the most influential people in the field. Like any collector, Oleg dreamed of making his collection accessible and showing it not only to friends and specialists but also to the general public. One of his main goals was to popularize Russian icons among Western audiences and show his works in university halls, small museums, and galleries. His dream was partly realized: the icons collected by Oleg Kushnirskiy were scientifically cataloged, allowing today’s readers to appreciate the true beauty of religious painting from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.
Any collection is not only its owner’s face. It is a mirror-like reflection of the secret impulses of their soul, which becomes a kind of spiritual portrait of the collector, the result of years of searching. Some prefer ancient works of Russian religious art, while others focus on rare iconographic pieces or purposefully seek out icons created in a particular art center. Everyone has their selection criteria. Over the past two decades, there has been a definite “gravitation” among collectors toward monuments of the New Age, those created between the 18th and early 20th centuries. These trends are due to several reasons, and, first of all, due to an extreme scarcity of ancient works that are almost impossible to find in the remote Russian villages – neither in an attic nor in an abandoned church. The period of the romantic search, which was actively pursued in the 1960s and the 1970s, is long in the past. For this reason, medieval icons appearing on the antique market are becoming a rarity. On the other hand, late examples of iconography were of little interest to both collectors and specialists until recently. They have begun to be studied only since the 1990s. Over the past two decades, scholars have examined many new icons, clarifying the evolution of the Russian religious art of the New Age and discovering numerous art centers and the names of iconographers and iconography workshops.
Oleg Kushnirskiy’s collection includes 45 works of Russian iconography, dating from the 17th to the early 20th centuries. It is dominated by the traditional icons made in egg tempera technique and based on antique pieces. Most of them were created in the icon painting villages of the Vladimir Province (Palekh, Mstyora, and Kholuy), some came from the Old Believers’ Guslitsy and Vetka, and some originated in the workshops of Central Russia. An overall look at the collection shows the owner’s love for small, petty images with an abundance of miniature border scenes surrounding the central panel. Oleg Kushnirskiy’s aesthetic preferences predetermined a certain set of subjects: the Resurrection – the Harrowing of Hades with the feasts, selected saints with their hagiographies, revered images of the Mother of God with the scenes of tales and miracles.
The described criteria correspond to the oldest work of this collection – the icon “Crucifixion, with the Passions of Christ and the Feasts in 16 border scenes.” It was made by a Volga master in the middle of the 17th century and was subjected to an antique Old Believer restoration in the first half of the 19th century. Old Believers especially valued the pre-Patriarch Nikon images (painted before the church reforms of the 1650 – the 1660s). They were obtained in different parts of the country and restored, giving them a “magnificent” look. The ancient paintings were often transferred with the primer onto a new wooden base. Why? Perhaps, they wanted to hide the signs of the image’s former use so that it could not be “identified.” Or maybe the reason was the strong warping (deformation) of the ancient board, which often interfered with the manufacture of the precious setting. Occasionally, iconographers re-used an ancient wooden base to create a new piece. A good example is the icon of the Prophet John the Baptist, the Angel of the Desert, with 12 border scenes (Cat. No.5).
The development of traditional iconography and Old Believer restoration techniques in the last third of the 18th century were facilitated by the authorities’ loyalty, the cease of persecution, and numerous permissions allowing the construction of churches and chapels and the opening of house prayer rooms. Their decoration required many traditional icons. The growth in demand led to new art centers and became a powerful impetus for the flourishing of existing provincial and capital workshops.
At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the ancient icon painting village of Palekh in Vladimir Province experienced a true heyday. Palekh art is one of the most significant painting phenomena of Imperial Russia. Local iconographers worked in different directions, focusing on the “big” styles in painting. The Baroque tradition was clearly and uniquely manifested here. However, the recognizable “face” of the Palekh icon was formed in the era of classicism, in the last third of the 18th century. The works of that time demonstrate the aspiration to general harmony, the strictness of the rhythm, and the purity of the images. The color palette became brighter, the color itself was now more local, the composition got smoother, the movements and gestures of the figures were more static. This all caused a growing interest in the traditional pre-Nikon icon painting. Local artists began to focus on the traditions of Stroganov art of the first half of the 17th century. The Palekh style was especially in demand among Old Believers, but it soon gained interest among supporters of the official Church as well, which resulted in a large number of orders.
By the end of the 18th century, Palekh developed several stable iconographic patterns that would be widely used in the next century. These include multi-component icons titled “The Hexahemeron” (Cat. No.26). Traditionally, they feature the feasts falling on the six days of the week and the images of the Sabbath of All Saints, the Etymasia, and the Deesis. At the turn of the 18th – 19th centuries, this iconographic version was considerably redesigned in the workshop of V.I. Khokhlov, a Palekh icon painter who added the scenes of the Creation and the figures of the saints to the icon borders. This resulted in a composition distinguished by its peculiar structure and recognizable coloring, which allows recognizing Palekh works in most of the late Hexahemeron pieces survived to this day.
Palekh workshops widely established the production of icons with the scenes of the Resurrection – the Harrowing of Hades, surrounded by the Great Feasts and the cycle of the Passions of Christ. The iconographers called such works “polnitsa,” as the full range of the most important church feasts was concentrated on a single plane. The versatile nature of these works predetermined their popularity in all social classes. They often played a role of a peculiar “agrarian” calendar associated with the village’s daily life. The demand for the subject led to its widespread reproduction in icons, and the masters were ready to meet any customer’s preferences and financial means.
Two icons (Cat. No.7 and No.8) are some of the earliest examples of “polnitsa” icons created at the end of the 18th century, which can be fairly attributed to the reference works of Palekh in its heyday. The unique iconographic style of this center manifests itself in the refinement and detailing of miniature painting, a specific “canon” of elongated proportions of saint figures with small rounded heads and exquisite limbs. The early works are executed in a lively manner devoid of standardization, with the flying rhythm of pinnacle slides, the abundance of fine ornaments completely covering architectural structures, interior items, numerous fabrics, and veils. The expressiveness of the artistic image is emphasized by the frame with an intricate gold pattern, which encircles the cycles of borders (another recognizable detail of Palekh art).
The catalog features 13 icons “The Resurrection – the Harrowing of Hades, with the Feasts” painted by the Palekh masters or produced under their evident influence throughout the 19th century (Cat. No.9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 18, 22, 24, 25, 32, 35, 37, 38). Despite the apparent serial nature of the production, all the images are distinguished by the high quality of miniature painting and a noticeable variety of individual plots. The published materials show the evolution of the Palekh icon painting: a gradual standardization of the techniques, a tendency toward more polished and somewhat dry brushwork, and a lower brightness and diversity of the color palette, which would become muddy and gloomy by the end of the 19th century.
A series of icons intended for the home (Cat. No.14, 22, 36) are associated with the Palekh art of the second third of the 19th century. The Resurrection – the Harrowing of Hades scene is preserved in the middle section, which can be surrounded not only by the major calendar feasts of the year, revered icons of the Virgin, and selected saints who were prayed to during the challenges and illnesses but also by the annual menaion. The emergence of such works is connected with the main tendencies of the New Age art, aimed at the iconostasis principle of the prayer image and its calendar versatility.
The collection features a rare complete set of the annual menaion icons painted by a Palekh master in the mid-19th century (Cat. No.16). It consists of 12 icons depicting saints and feasts arranged in the calendar order of memorial days (from September to August). In these works, one can see the miniaturization of painting favored by Palekh masters, which preserves all details of the narrative, a tendency toward the traditional icon painting style, a masterful compositional solution of many complicated scenes, finely executed “board painting” with tonal stretches and refined whitewash ornamentation.
The collection is completed by a range of works produced in several major Old Believer centers of the 19th century. Old Believers settled in a quite large area along the course of the Guslitsa River in the eastern suburbs of Moscow. The formation of the local artistic style was influenced by the nearby icon painting villages of the Vladimir Province, primarily Palekh. Orientation toward Palekh works (compositional basis, the methods of delineating the garments using bleached undertones) is particularly evident in the image of Elijah the Prophet, with the scenes from his life (Cat. No.28). At the same time, the dark coloring with a predominance of brown, green, white, and red colors, the manner of painting mountains and drawing architectural scenes and clouds are typical for Guslitsy masters. Several other hagiographic icons in the collection are also associated with the Guslitsy art: the Martyrs Cosmas and Damian of Asia (Cat. No.27), the Venerable Macarius of Unzha (Cat. No.29), and Saint Sergius of Radonezh (Cat. No.30).
Masters of Vetka (a small region on the western outskirts of the Russian Empire, where Old Believers-Popovtsy lived; the territory of the modern Gomel, Chernigov, Novozybkov, Klintsovsky districts of Belarus) created two hagiographic icons – the Great Martyr Catherine and Saint Alexius, the Man of God – and the “Iconostasis” (Cat. No.19-21). Vetka icons are picturesque and highly decorative, with bright and sonorous coloring dominated by red and crimson, great rich ornaments in the clothing (the motif of bouquets with lush flowers) and in the border scenes of the icons. They also always contain gold painted with different patterns using decorative lines. The small image of the high Russian iconostasis is especially noteworthy. Various church sacraments (often the wedding ceremony) were administered in front of such images that were primarily intended for the home prayer room, chapel, or temple, hence the popularity of this iconography.
Several icons (Cat. No.2, 3) were made under the influence of the baroque style that prevailed in Russian art of the second third of the 18th century. At the time, icon painters often turned to various Western European engravings, which led to the appearance of new, previously unknown subjects. In particular, the scene of the Rising from the Tomb, known to Russian masters since the 16th century, acquired an independent meaning. Following the Western original, they depicted the Savior hovering above the tomb in flying clothes, with crossed legs and a standard in His hands, while soldiers guarding the cave were shown falling in amazement around Him. The composition often included the figure of an angel holding the open lid of the coffin. The triumphal nature of the scene was in tune with the era’s mood and actually replaced the traditional depiction of the “Harrowing in Hades.” This iconographic style was also popular among iconographers of the 19th century (Cat.No.17 and 45). It was often referred to during the Second Baroque period, a retrospective trend in the art of the 1830 – the 1850s.
The Mother of God images with extended border scenes in the published collection should be given special attention. The iconographic concept of one of them is unique. It represents an icon of the Mother of God “The Unexpected Joy” (Cat. No.31) surrounded by the border scenes with the main feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Nativity of the Virgin, Presentation to the Temple, Annunciation, Dormition) and Old Testament prototypes of the Virgin Mary. It is possible that the peculiarities of the piece are associated with the place of the glorification of the miraculous image of the Mother of God “The Unexpected Joy,” which took place in the Moscow church of the Unburnt Bush in Khamovniki in 1837. Another icon, The Tikhvin Mother of God, stands out with rare scenes from the life of the Venerable Martyrius of Zelenetsk, the founder of the Holy Trinity Zelenetsk Monastery, included in The Tale surrounding the center image (Cat. No.34). Such works were held in high esteem by Old Believers and were ordered for hermitages or home prayer rooms. The Feodorovskaya icon of the Mother of God is of particular interest. It is a copy of the revered shrine of Kostroma, which, according to the legend, was located in the Gorodets Monastery in Nizhny Novgorod in ancient times (Cat. No.41). The inscription on the back mentions the giver – Archimandrite Feodosy (Sobolev), a priest brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church as a martyr in 2003. The image was presented on his behalf to the Venerable Nektariya on the very day she was elevated to the rank of hegumen of the Seraphim-Ponetaevsk Monastery in the Nizhni Novgorod region, on January 9, 1894.
Several icons in the collection have preserved information about the customer, origin, or use. It is a magnificent example of the late 18th-century Yaroslavl icon-painting with a scene of the Resurrection of Christ with feasts (Cat. No.4). The inscription on the back says that the icon was purchased in Moscow in 1915 and consecrated at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross in the village of Palekh. Presumably, its owners were the Suslov family of Palekh icon painters. They could be attracted by the resonance and virtuosity of the miniature style of this small work, which Palekh icon painters greatly appreciated. Another “polnitsa” icon of the first quarter of the 19th century (Cat. No.10) is also related to the Palekh masters. On the back, there is a reference to I.Ya. Gorshechnikov, a famous icon painter and Palekh iconographer who worked in St. Petersburg in the 1840s-1880s. One more work by the Palekh village masters, the hagiographic image of the Holy Martyr Charalambos of the first third of the 19th century (Cat. No. 11), contains a detailed description of a precious riza commissioned for the icon around the mid-19th century, which was not preserved to this day. The text gives us an idea of a splendid chased frame made in the Rococo style and decorated with precious stones and enamel inlays. Undoubtedly, such a rich decoration testifies to this work’s special significance and reverence.
Several icons were created in Mstyora in Vladimir Province, which became the largest icon painting center in Russia in the mid-19th century. The peculiarity of the local tradition and the rapid development of the craft are closely connected with numerous commissions from Old Believers. They constituted the majority of the residents of the Bogoyavlenskaya Sloboda on the Mstyora River. The preferences and values of the representatives of ancient piety predetermined the image of the Mstyora icon. It was so devoted to the iconographic tradition that it was often considered “pre-Nikon,” and the craftsmen who worked using the old icon painting technique were called “old-timers.” They not only copied the technique, style, and iconography but also often “aged” the icons, using old boards and dark colors, imitating tarnished oil, causing artificial damage to the painting, and placing crackles on the surface, which is clearly visible in one of the published icons of the Resurrection – the Harrowing of Hades, with the Feasts (Cat. No.39). Mstyora iconographers also painted expensive, carefully made icons to order, demonstrating their ability to work in the traditions of various schools of ancient Russian iconography (Cat. No.40, 42).
The publication of Oleg Kushnirskiy’s entire collection expands our understanding of the artistic development of several regions of the Russian Empire, primarily the iconographic villages of the Vladimir Province of the 19th century. Besides, it pursues the main goal set by the owner: to popularize Russian iconography abroad and to acquaint contemporary society with the lost religious lifestyle of the various social classes in Imperial Russia.
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