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ExhibitionHoly Image, Sacred Presence: Russian Icons, 1500–1900

Mar 12–Jun 5, 2011

The icon is a distinctive form of holy image in Eastern Orthodox cultures, intended to evoke sacred presence by appealing to the senses. Holy Image, Sacred Presence: Russian Icons, 1500–1900 will present about thirty works from the museum’s permanent collection to explore the distinctive devotional functions, religious experiences, iconography, and changing styles of Russian icons from the sixteenth to early twentieth centuries. Examples include a mandylion (miraculous image of the face of Jesus), proskynetaria and iconostasis panels from Orthodox churches, and small devotional icons for private use. The exhibition is on view March 12–June 5, 2011.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, many monasteries and churches were closed and the best icons were collected in state museums. Those dating from the eleventh to seventeenth centuries were prized as representing traditional Russian culture. By contrast, Soviet experts denigrated the style and iconography of later icons from the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries as “contaminated” by Western European influence. It was these icons that the Soviets either relegated to museums of religion or, beginning in the 1930s, sold to foreign tourists and diplomats in government-run shops. American collectors first became aware of Russian icons in the 1920s at official Soviet exhibitions in New York and Boston, and through sales of “imperial Russian treasures” in department stores in the early 1930s.

The museum’s icon collection originated in 1937 with the gift of twenty-three icons by Joseph E. Davies, a prominent lawyer, UW alumnus, and American ambassador to the Soviet Union (1937–38).

Programming & Financial Support

Generous support for this exhibition has been provided by the Chazen Museum of Art Council; Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission.