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Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs Opens at Memorial Art Gallery
Mother of God “Pledge of Sinners” (ca. 1912). Tempera on wood with gold, pearls, diamonds and emeralds. Collection of Hillwood Museum & Gardens. Bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post.

ROCHESTER, NY.- Russian icons have long been admired and collected as works of art. But first and foremost, icons were—and are—sacred objects meant to play a central role in religious life. Generally small in size, these “windows through which heaven is glimpsed” not only hung in churches, palaces and peasant homes, but were carried in processions, presented at weddings and used to comfort the sick.

A major traveling exhibition of Russian icons spanning 300 years of Romanov rule opens October 5 at the Memorial Art Gallery and remains on view through January 4. Tradition in Transition: Russian Icons in the Age of the Romanovs brings together 43 icons and oklads (icon covers) from three major private collections, including that of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

On tour for the first time, these works range from humble, roughly-painted wooden icons of the peasant class to luxurious examples made of ivory or painted enamels and housed in gold or silver covers embellished with pearls and precious jewels. The earliest date from the 1600s, when Russia was nearing the end of 700 years of virtual isolation—isolation that ended with Peter the Great’s construction of St. Petersburg, his capital and “window on the West.” This action resulted in an influx of ideas, styles, fashions and ideologies that altered the very fabric of Russian society. The latest are from the rule of the last tsar, Nicholas II, executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. (Also on view, for comparison, is a more traditional work from the mid-16th century.)

Unlike examples from the 15th and 16th centuries, which adhered strictly to orthodox precepts and prototypes, Romanov-era icons were long considered inferior, impure, even decadent, because of the influence of Western art and culture. But Wendy Salmond, curator of Tradition in Transition, has shown that many of these objects are just as beautiful and just as interesting as icons from the so-called Golden Age.

“Long dismissed as symptoms of icon painting’s decline in the modern age,” writes Dr. Salmond in the exhibition catalog, “these late icons are increasingly attracting the attention of scholars and collectors, who see in them both bridges to the past and mirrors of ongoing historical change.”

Tradition in Transition is organized by the Hillwood Museum & Gardens in collaboration with the Steinhardt-Sherlock Trust and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. It is made possible in Rochester by the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Fund, with additional support from the George D. and Frieda B. Abraham Foundation, the Chester and Dorris Carlson Charitable Fund, and Deanne Molinari.

Assembling the collection
In the late 1930s, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post found herself in Moscow, where her husband, Joseph Davies, was serving as US Ambassador. Intrigued by Russian icons, the couple entered the market just as the Soviet government began selling off supposedly inferior works from three centuries of Romanov rule. They were among the last foreigners allowed to buy from stockpiles of icons confiscated by the Soviet government.

Today, the works are housed at Hillwood Museum & Gardens, Mrs. Post’s Washington residence until her death in 1973.

Hillwood’s collection also includes works purchased by Mrs. Post after her return to the US and objects collected by two of her contemporaries from the Moscow diplomatic corps. Her long-time friend, Frances Rosso, was married to the Italian ambassador, and career diplomat Laurence A. Steinhardt served as Davies’s successor.

Tradition in Transition opened at Hillwood Museum & Gardens in June 2004. It began its national tour at the Nevada Museum of Art in February 2006 and later traveled to the the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego; the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, VA; the Boise Art Museum; Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago; Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, FL; the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge; and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at Oklahoma University. The Memorial Art Gallery is the final stop of the tour.

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