by Roderick Conway Morris

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Intesa San Paolo, Vicenza
Annunciation (detail) by an unknown artist, Moscow late 16th century

The Missing Years: Filling Out the Story of Icons

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 3 July 1999


Davide Orler first set eyes on a Russian icon as a child at the end of World War II in his village in the Dolomites. A miniature piece, it had been brought back by one of the few to survive and make it home of the Italians sent to the Eastern Front. Later, Orler became an artist and antiques dealer in Venice, where he bought the first Russian icons of his own from visiting Bolshoi artists performing at the Fenice Opera House.

Over three decades Orler acquired more than 2,000 icons from various sources, and his obsession brought him to financial disaster. At this point the Banco Ambrosiano Veneto, which now forms part of the Intesa group, stepped in and paid off his debts in exchange for the right to choose what they wanted from his collection. Happily, the bank realized that Orler had some truly remarkable pieces, and instead of cashing them in, decided to retain the best pieces. And, at the urging of the icon expert John Lindsay Opie, they also decided to buy icons from earlier centuries that were unrepresented.

By chance, this coincided with the sale of Blanchette Rockefeller's small but superb collection of early 'golden age' icons, and several of these, along with other astute acquisitions on the international market, have given the Intesa collection an unusual sweep in quality and quantity stretching from the 13th to the 20th centuries.

The icons have now found a permanent home at the 17th-century baroque Palazzo Leoni Montanari in the center of Vicenza, where more than 130 examples of the nearly 500 icons kept there are on show.

The collection's extensive and varied holdings from the 17th to the 20th century, quite a number of them of imposing proportions, lend it special interest. Scholars and collectors in both East and West have tended to ignore developments in later centuries, leaving a vast tract of art historical territory almost totally unexplored.

According to conventional wisdom, the golden age of Russian icon painting degenerated in the 17th century into an imitative and sterile art devoid of new ideas and vitality. One reason for this view is that, on the whole, it is the better icons of earlier centuries that have come down to us, whereas from later periods there is a greater quantity of pieces of wildly varying quality, and little has so far been done to separate the wheat from the chaff. But a number of other factors has also been responsible for this notion of progressive, unredeemed decadence - factors that have yet to be seriously investigated.

After Peter the Great's radical reforms, the country's wealthy and educated elite generally took more interest in Western art than traditional icons, and indigenous religious art became increasingly marginalized as a kind of popular folk expression. We can, however, be grateful to Peter for introducing a law in 1710 that all pictures be dated and signed - an edict that was often resisted by consciously self-effacing icon painters, but which is proving vital in tracing the chronology of subsequent artistic trends.

At the same time, some of the most vigorous and successful religious art of later periods was associated with the Old Believers, who refused to accept Patriarch Nikon's reforms in the mid-17th century and were persecuted thereafter. Many Old Believers fled to remote parts of the country or led clandestine spiritual lives, and their art, which was passionately committed and often highly accomplished, was as anathema to the Tsarist absolutist establishment as samizdat literature was to the Soviet autocrats.

In fact, the Old Believers remained a secret depository of knowledge of Russian religious art of all ages, and when the first major exhibition of icons was held in Moscow in 1913, many of them were from the rich collections of Old Believer families.

But the 1913 show - which raised enormous interest and might have heralded a timely reassessment of icons throughout Russian history - was soon followed by the Bolshevik revolution, the closing of churches and the official persecution of religious art. Thus, it is only since the end of communism that Russian scholars have been free to tackle the subject fully.

Intelligently presented around a series of key themes - the Iconstasis, Feasts, Meditations, the Mother of God and so on - rather than in chronological order, the museum unfolds the wealth of permutations and innovations pursued by artists within the icon's theoretically rule-bound formats. There is also a section devoted to icon covers and their use of gold, silver, gemstones, pearls, coral, textiles and embroidery - an important art form in itself, given that much of the painted surface of many icons was hidden from view beneath these elaborate casings.

There are some beautiful early pieces here, but many later works well represent the compositional panache and exuberance of color that still gave icons of more recent date an arresting impact. A 17th-century 'Transfiguration and the Miracle of Florus and Laurus,' may have a folksy flavor (the two saints were strongly associated with horses, almost certainly preserving a link with lingering pagan beliefs), but it is a wonderfully dramatic and skillful piece of work, while an 18th-century 'St. Nicholas' is an exceptional portrait and a mesmerizing image of spirituality - to take but two examples from this revelatory display.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023