“Priestless.” “Old Believers.” Small, beautiful yet durable objects meant to be kept in a pocket, or near the skin on a pendant, exposed only in safe places with fellow believers. Tiny, stylized designs, which in a basement gallery, needed a very close look and sometimes, a magnifying glass. One piece that I was allowed to touch. Several colors of enamel were used , but the blues and bright white were the most striking. All of them were from the 18th-20th century. Persecution for your beliefs that necessitates tiny, portable artifacts that enable religious practice wherever followers can gather. A cottage industry that thrived, due to suppression.
For several days (I went on December 23), I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around my experience at the Cast Icons exhibition at The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. “Amazed” doesn’t feel accurate, I think because there seemed to be a satisfying balance between the sadness of religious persecution and the economic and artistic boost that it gave to some communities, even for a short period.
“Speechless” will do. I am not a devout Christian. There have been periods in my life when attending an Episcopalian (the flavor in which I was raised) service provided the comfort of constancy, structure, and friendly but mostly new faces. Now and then, singing a familiar hymn resonates for me in more than a sonic quality. My worship lately, however, comes mostly in the form of getting outdoors, sometimes to new, special places. The ritual: getting there, and feeling fortunate and thankful that I have mind, body, and relationships that allow me to experience those places and times with people that I love. This worship doesn’t require a church, so it’s a little difficult for me to grasp not being allowed to engage in devotional practices. Stories, historical accounts, art, and sometimes science fiction can help me understand. This exhibit thus engaged me, and I would like to learn more.
I wasn’t allowed to take photographs, but thanks to Jim Forest and Creative Commons licensing, I’m able to share a picture of something similar and beautiful, above. For another image which gives a better idea of the stylized figures and faces, visit this page. The Star Tribune posted a small photo of one of my favorite pieces in the show.
The museum had two other exhibits, which for me weren’t as interesting as the shiny, tiny stuff in the basement. However, in one of them was a paper sculpture by one of my favorite sculptors, Louise Nevelson, who was Russian-American. The piece was made of black paper: it looked like she had laid freshly-made wet, thick paper over one of her familiar wood assemblies, and let it dry. Hanging on a wall within a glass case, it was smaller than other works of hers that I have seen or read about. This, too, was a discovery that provided some additional holiday wonder, and odd thankfulness for my foot injury. Were I fit for skiing or running, it’s likely I’d have been out doing one of those things instead, on that cool winter afternoon.