Gordon Morrison

The Beauty of Holiness: Art of the Old Believers in 'Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World'

The Beauty of Holiness: Art of the Old Believers in 'Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World'

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For the Church in Russia, the late 17th century was a turbulent time. Between 1654 and 1656, Nikon, the Patriarch of Moscow, enacted reforms aimed at bringing the Church under his authority into conformity with the Church of Constantinople. The changes might seem very minor to us today – the number of fingers used in the gesture of blessing; the length and number of certain prayers; the spelling of Jesus’ name, and the use of polyphonic singing rather than plain chant – however at the time their impact was profound. 

To many of the faithful these innovations were seen to interfere with age-old practices and were perceived as the work of the Devil. For Nikon and his master, Aleksey Romanov, the Tsar of Moscow (reign 1645-1676), the stakes were high. Aleksey was at war with the Catholic Poles and Lithuanians, who had for 200 years occupied the traditional heartlands of Orthodoxy around Kyiv/Kiev (now Ukraine). The Orthodox faithful in this region were subject to the Church in Constantinople and already used its liturgy. Making the Russian Church conform was intended to secure the allegiance of these people.

Neither Nikon nor Aleksey anticipated the ferocity of the response of their subjects across all classes but especially in the monasteries, which saw themselves as bastions of a ‘pure’ Russian Orthodoxy. The official response to those who refused to conform was brutal. Between 1665 and 1695 thousands of people were killed or exiled, including all the leaders of an opposition movement that had started to call itself the Starovery or Old Believers. The Tsar’s people in turn called the traditionalists Raskolniki or Schismatics – a terribly insulting term, because it implied not only that these people were outlaws, but also that they were damned.

The response of the official Church and the Tsar’s soldiers was so brutal that no bishops joined the resistance, and without the consecrating hands of a bishop no new priests could be ordained.  Over the following 50 years all the priests who had maintained the old rituals died and by the 1730s, the Starovery were forced to come to terms with the reality that they had become the Bezpopovtsy – ‘Priestless Ones’.[1]  

With the Sacrament of the Eucharist no longer possible, it must have seemed as if the final days or the world of the Antichrist had begun. Where they could, these Priestless Old Believers fled into the forests of the far north, especially the shores of the White Sea. Some also found a refuge in Poland and Lithuania. Beyond the Tsar’s borders or where his soldiers were less powerful these people formed communities and built small prayer houses. Without any priests to consecrate the Eucharist, these chapels did not need a sanctuary, where icons were typically displayed; instead, the iconostasis was moved to the rear of the building where it became the focus of ancient prayers made not by priests but the laity.

By Peter the Great’s time (reign 1682–1725), the practice of the Old Belief was a capital offence in the Russian Empire. There, to be an Old Believer, one prayed at home in private. Occasionally the persecutions relented but for the most part it was very dangerous to adhere to the old ways. The last major persecution happened in the 1850s during the reign of the ultra-authoritarian Tsar Nicholas I (reign 1825–55). Only after the revolution of 1905 was an edict passed allowing Old Believers to build places of worship and to pray in public.

Old Believers and their Icons

The Starovery withdrew from the official Church because they rejected the innovations brought in by Nikon. They had similar ultra-traditionalist views when it came to their icons. After 1700, as the Russian Empire became more exposed to Western European culture, the icons of the official Church also became much closer to the religious paintings and prints of the Catholics and Lutherans. This influence became particularly strong after Russia absorbed much of the Kingdom of Poland at the end of the 18th century.

The Old Believers utterly rejected Western style icons and consciously set out to replicate and preserve ancient iconography. They achieved this by several means. Their artists and artisans became adept at renewing old, damaged icons, either by careful overpainting or by inserting new components into ancient works. Several icons in Heavenly Beings are examples of these processes: the restored Novgorod Christ Pantocrator from the early 17th century and the mortise-cut Mother of God of the Passion. The Starovery artists also perfected the art of painting new icons in the style of ancient ones. They used pattern books with drawings based on famous ancient icons and frescos to disseminate this imagery. By the late 19th century, as Russia began to look back on its medieval past with great pride, the works of the Old Believers came to be admired and avidly collected even by staunch adherents of the official Church.

<p><em>The Twelve Principal Feasts</em>, north-west Russia, late 18h century, brass enamel and iron, private collection, Melbourne</p>

The Twelve Principal Feasts, north-west Russia, late 18h century, brass enamel and iron, private collection, Melbourne

There are several elaborate cast metal icons in Heavenly Beings; of these the four-part hinged 18th-century icon of the Great Feasts is an exceptionally fine example. The Old Believers called these hinged icons skladenThe Twelve Principal Feasts exemplifies the iconography and fine craftsmanship of the Bezpopovtsy. Containing no fewer than 20 distinct images on the lefthand panel, of which 16 of these depict Great Feasts of the Church, the righthand panel features four of the most important and popular icons of the Mother of God that were venerated in medieval Russia. The detailing is superb, down to individual facial features and minute inscriptions. When folded, this skladen fits comfortably into the pocket of a travelling coat. Unfolded, with its upper edges shaped like a noblewoman’s headdress or Kokoshnik, the whole screen has the appearance of a rich church iconostasis – only in miniature. Each individual image is a faithful representation of a traditional painted wooden icon, making the object a fitting focus of prayer, just as if the owner was inside an ancient church.

A magnificent assemblage of the most significant icons and Feasts of the Church, many of the images in The Twelve Principal Feasts are found in painted form across the Heavenly Beings exhibition:

  • the Annunciation, the Nativity of the Mother of God and the Nativity of the Lord:
  • the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, which incidentally is also the work of a 19th-century Old Believer painter who was deliberately working in a 16th-century style:
  • and finally, the famous ‘Virgin of Vladimir’ or the Mother of God Vladimirskaya:

If you have not been to see this exhibition yet, I urge you to take the time to do so. Heavenly Beings takes you on a journey into a spiritual and aesthetic world that is profoundly beautiful. Of unprecedented quality, it is the first time that some of the images, such as the wonderful Royal Doors with the Annunciation by the 16th-century Albanian/Greek Master Onoufrios of Neokastro, are being shown in a public gallery. I doubt very much whether an exhibition such as this will ever be assembled again in the southern hemisphere.

<p>Onoufrios of Neokastro,&nbsp;<em>Royal Doors with the Annunciation</em>, Albania or northern Greece, 16th century,&nbsp;egg tempera and gesso on canvas over wood, private collection, London</p>

Onoufrios of Neokastro, Royal Doors with the Annunciation, Albania or northern Greece, 16th century, egg tempera and gesso on canvas over wood, private collection, London

[1] Another group of Old Believers succeeded in restoring a formal hierarchy during the 19th century. This group is known as the Popovtsy or Priested Ones. The Popovtsy also produced icons – both painted and cast brass – but these were not of the same design or quality.

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Gordon Morrison was Registrar of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) from 1985–1996, Head of Exhibitions at the NGV 1997–2003 and Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat 2004–2018. Among the many exhibitions he has curated are San Marco and Venice at the NGV in 1997 and Eikon: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World at the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 2014.