MAM’s Brilliant Russian Icon
The 14 saints, angels and prophets, lined up seven and seven on either side of Jesus, bow deferentially toward Him in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Portable Iconostasis. The next tier of images, again seven and seven, shows small vignettes, mostly events from the life of Christ. In the top tier, prophets gaze over their scrolls toward the Madonna and Child in the center of their row.
The piece comprises 15 vertical wooden panels. It appears that they can be lifted out and that the frame can be broken down into three parts for easy portability. But even that is shot through with metaphor: Trinities are everywhere in this piece. Each panel has three sub-panels. The panels are rectangular, but the masses of images within them form triangles that not only point heavenward but also represent the Holy Trinity.
The center image in the rightmost panel, by the way, contains a direct representation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They’re seated together as Gods at a table in Eden. Almost exactly the same image hangs on the next wall in the gallery, in a stand-alone 17th-century Russian icon of the Trinity. The close resemblance a century later goes to show that this Russian/Byzantine style lived within a closely held set of conventions. It was not about artistic expression, and all about adherence to conventions and the practice of exquisite craft within them. It didn’t change much over time.
The Iconostasis is big — 77 inches wide, about my extended arm span — but a miniature of the large-scale altar screens common in Russian churches. This piece strikes me as a sort of catechism, a religious teaching tool. The name of each saint, angel and prophet appears in each box. You’re supposed to learn their names and note the hierarchy and remember the narrative that runs through the vignettes.
It is also an object of meditation. In candlelight, when the piece and its tempera paints were new, its glowing reds and golds and lulling patterns must have been hypnotic. The stylized, elongated figures, with perfectly round halos framing their heads in thin red arcs, add to the dreamlike quality.
Even the middle-tier anecdotal panels do not represent the world literally, but they are rowdier in activity and not quite so ordered in their composition as the top and bottom tiers. The messy world that Christ trod briefly is here contained in an ordered, symmetrical universe with Jesus and Mary — and the Crucifixion and Resurrection — at its center and believing humanity arranged in disciplined ranks. The wave of bowing heads and subtle alternation of orange/red and brown/red as predominate colors within the panels gives the piece a sort of motion. It is the visual equivalent of a litany, in that it promotes a beguiling rhythmic monotony that invites the mind to slow down and attune to the spiritual moment.
The Iconostasis speaks to me in terms of both serialism and minimalism, in images that are repeated not quite literally, but with subtle variation determined by formula. And I admire its harmony, the way the three images in each vertical panel combine into something like a visual chord. I love the way the perfect red circles of the halos form their own organizing lines in the overall form of the piece, which is at once enormously complicated, utterly serene and deeply beautiful.
Do visit the Milwaukee Art Museum and give it a long look. I’d like to hear what you see in it. By the way, present a printout of this story at the admissions desk for $2 off.