HARRISONBURG — Russian Eastern Orthodox icons are internationally recognized for their luminous imagery serving as vessels for practitioners of the faith to communicate with holy figures, and they’re on display at James Madison University’s Lisanby Museum exhibition Purity and Power: The Art of Russian Icons.
The 14 featured artworks entered the Madison Arts Collection in the 1970s after being donated by Drs. John and Bessie Sawhill, who were professors at JMU. These works of 19th and 20th-century art from Imperial Russia have not been displayed publicly in decades.
Dr. Sarah Brooks, associate professor of art history at JMU, conducted a lecture after the opening reception on Thursday, which shared the centuries-long story of conflict and affection behind the icons on display.
“The most important thing about them is that they are a way to connect with the sacred person — be it the Saint, Mary, Christ — that these are vehicles for communication, Brown said. “They are your way as an independent individual to speak to the saints and ask for their help or ask to direct your prayers immediately to them.”
Each semester, a student-designed exhibition is presented at the museum. Sophia Cabana, independent scholars major from the class of 2019, organized the Purity and Power show months in advance before her graduation. Ginny Soenksen, director of the Madison Art Collection and Lisanby Museum, said the venue offers the opportunity to help students like Cabana gain experience by applying their learned skills to a real museum environment.
“Part of our prerogative here at the Lisanby Museum is to allow students to develop exhibitions and to work on exhibition design and curatorial work,” Soenksen said.
The Theotokos of Tikhvin icon, which displays Mary and child, is one of the centerpiece icons on display. It is dated back to 1831 and painted on a wooden panel with a silver-gilt covering all sections of the art like a frame except for the hands, feet and face. Brown said the exposed parts are revealed through the luminous metal because they are intimate features that further allow viewers to feel a connection with the holy figures.
“These are the points of the human body that are so expressive — the hand, the face — and they’re also what people most wanted to touch,” Brown said.
Icons can be crafted from any material and be of any size, the primary variable that qualifies a work of art as an icon is to depict holy people or events and function as a means to connect with the sacred figures.
“These objects are incredibly personal, intimate objects. They’re designed to be kissed, to be focused on in church services. They’re designed for interaction,” Soenksen said. “Icons are often described as being written rather than painted. And the artist is meant to be an instrument of God rather than serving their own artistic vision or prerogative.”
Many icons made of clay are encased in gold leaf. Artists followed a specific process of applying the gold leaf by first breathing on the clay base — called bole. This breath is meant to symbolize the breath of life when Adam was awakened by God in the creation of man.
A multimedia video that explores the process and symbolism of creating icons in detail plays in a secluded section of the museum so guests can watch an icon being crafted from start to finish.
The museum is open to the general public, and the Russian icons will be on display until Nov. 22. The university is also trying to find donors interested in sponsoring the artwork’s conservation. Those interested can donate online from the Lisanby Museum website or contact a JMU staff member to find the appropriate channels of sponsoring the repair and upkeep. Conservation of artwork allows treasured historic pieces such as the Russian icons to live on for future visitors to enjoy and study.