Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2012

Icons, Masterpieces of Russian Art (2011), by Olga A. Polyakova

As I’m sure all my readers know by now, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria is the best art collection in the country.  It’s the biggest and the most comprehensive gallery, exhibiting a huge range of representative styles and periods that enable the art lover to experience all kinds of interesting art.  (If you’re in Melbourne, don’t miss the current Napoleon exhibition which features stunning items on loan from the Louvre supplemented by treasures from our own collection. It’s on till October 7th.)

However, (while there may be all kinds of treasures hidden away in its vaults), the NGV doesn’t have much in the way of Russian art on display.   Marg from The Intrepid Reader and I scoured the European Galleries recently without much luck, so to satisfy my interest in all things Russian, it was off to the NGV bookshop to see what I could find.

Now, as you will  see if you click the links to the online booksellers below, the gorgeous book about icons that I eventually bought from the bookshop is cheaper if you buy it online.   However, and this is a big however, I would not have been able to find this book in the first place without the generous and capable help that I had from the staff at the NGV bookshop.  I didn’t know what to look for, and my browsing was ineffective because I was looking in the wrong place.  So, contrary to prognostications of doom and gloom from some in the industry, I predict that there is definitely a future for specialised bookshops who bother to train their staff to be helpful, efficient and knowledgeable about their products…

Like most art books, Icons, Masterpieces of Russian Art is big and beautiful. It is 26 x 34cm tall, with 162 glossy paper pages in colour, and just a few in B&W.   The icons are all from the Moscow State Integrated Museum-Reserve at Kolomenskoye and there’s a comprehensive introduction which explains the history of Kolomenskoye and how it comes to host its splendid collection.  Most of the icons came from churches and monasteries that were destroyed all over Russia in the 1920s and 30s during the period of ‘militant atheism’ – which must have been heart-breaking for believers at that time, but has resulted in a unique collection all in one place.  Some of the icons also arrived for safe keeping during WW2, another example of the extraordinary efforts people make to protect works of art during war.  I think it shows the value that people place on art as an expression of their culture at a time when it is under threat.

Having read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which depicted the life of a political prisoner in a WW2 work camp, I was interested to see that prisoners ‘who included many members of the clergy and intelligentsia’ undertook some of the preservation work on these icons in their previous home, the Solovetsky Special Purpose Camp, formerly the Solovetsky Monastery.  It is good to know that at least some of the victims of Soviet repression may have taken some small comfort from having satisfying and worthwhile work while they were in prison.

Icons, of course, are painted on wood, and are subject to rot, mould and the depredations of beetles and borers so restoring and preserving them is a massive task.  At Kolomenskoye, storage places were adapted to house the icons and these included a 17th century water tower in the  village where the icons were simply shelved on purpose-built racks, with the icons separated by cushions.  With internal temperatures ranging from +20° in summer to -20° in winter and humidity to go with it, this was hardly ideal, but amazingly, every one of these icons somehow survived. (And now they have a splendid new building with all the right sort of climate control.)

The author, Olga Polyakova is an art historian and – as you’d expect from someone who is the Deputy Director of the museum – is a specialist in Old Russian art.   Her introduction explains in non-specialist terms what to look for with icons, an art form that I know very little about,  She explains the religious origins of the icon and its symbols, and their arrangement in the book shows the development of iconography over time.  Then there are additional detailed descriptions accompanying the reproductions, which sometimes also include details of particular features.

The blurb says that the book ‘is a valuable resource for art historians, scholars of religious practice, and collectors of icons’ but I think that if you’re a general reader who wants to make sense of the icons in art collections at home and abroad, (or you just like beautiful icons) this is the perfect book.  I really liked discovering, for example, that (unlike Roman Catholic Saints who have to wait bureaucratic ages and notch up miracles to be sanctified) the Russian Saints depicted on these icons were often venerated during their lifetimes.  They were usually known personally by the artists, and so that is why their faces and features seem so compelling.  These saints, as well as doing the usual saintly kind of stuff, often also took an active part in state affairs so they ‘reconciled princes, blessed warriors and prayed for their victories, denounced vices and built monasteries.’ (p19)  These extra-curricular activities are often depicted in the background behind the saint and so you can see enchanting early monasteries and churches, and various scenes of derring-do.  My favourite is one of St Aleksy and his ‘Metropolitan of Moscow’ where he is standing beside the Kremlin in the early 18th century.

Another favourite (I wish I could show the image, but that would breach copyright) is the one of Prince Vladimir who was the first Russian Saint because he introduced Christianity as the state religion.  He is flanked by two very solemn gentlemen in rather incongruous red bowler hats.  They are Boris and Gleb, who were martyred in some sort of internecine strife.  But the charm of this one is that on the back there is a list of the names of the peasants who commissioned it in the hope that these saints would intercede for them on the Day of Judgement.  I don’t know if Andrey, Ivan, Fyodor and Co achieved eternal life, but they do have a kind of immortality because they pooled their rubles and had this gorgeous icon made…

I can’t show you the ones I like the best, but you can have a sneak preview of some of these lovely icons here.  It’s a lovely book to have in my collection.

Author: Olga A. Polyakova
Title: Icons, Masterpeices of Russian Art
Publisher: Vivays Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 9781908126092
Source: Personal Library, purchased at the NGV Bookshop,  $65.00

Fishpond: Icons: Masterpieces of Russian Art


  1. If my store of knowledge on Russia is minimal, what I know about Russian art is close to zero. I enjoyed this post and I love what you have to say about specialised bookshops and their staff. I do a bit of online shopping but nothing beats a lively and informative chat and, for book-lovers, the experience of being able to hold the book, turn it over, open the front cover, get the ‘feel’ of it, is wonderful.


    • *chuckle* Karen, you and I are pretty much on the same page when it comes to knowing anything about Russia, and I get the impression from talking to most Australians that there’s nothing unusual about that! It just doesn’t seem to get onto people’s travel itineraries or bucket lists, and there’s almost nothing about Russian life or culture in our media.
      But I had a lovely moment yesterday: waiting at the doctor’s surgery, I overheard the receptionist talking in a foreign language, and I recognised scraps of Russian here and there. When it was time for me to pay my bill, I asked her if that had been the language she was speaking, and she was so pleased! So I showed off my scraps of Russian, and she helped me with my pronunciation, it was lovely!


  2. ‘Prince Vladimir who was the first Russian Saint because he introduced Christianity as the state religion.’ That’s the shorthand version, Lisa. The longer story is that Vladimir realised that although Rus’ (as the country was then known) was rich and fertile, something was missing. Religion! All the other nations seemed to have one. But which one would he choose? He sent out emissaries. Those who went to Western Europe reported that Catholicism was a very fine religion, but required that you acknowledge the Pope as Head. No way, said Vladimir.
    Those that had been to Jerusalem said that the Jewish religion had much in favour of it, but that the walls its main city had fallen down. Not a good model, commented Vladimir.
    The emissaries returning from the Middle East were very keen on the Muslim religion, as it allowed men to have four wives. Vladimir was interested. But then they also said that alcohol was banned. ‘But drinking is the joy of the Russians!’ objected Vladimir. And that was that.
    At last the emissaries who had been to Byzantium returned, extolling the virtues of the Orthodox religion and the great beauties of the basilica of Hagia Sophia, where the perfume of incense filled the air, and the dome and the singing were so beautiful they did not know whether they were in heaven or earth.
    ‘That will be our religion,’ said Vladimir, and not only had himself baptised immediately, but commanded that all the people of Rus’ also be baptised; if they refused they would be thrown into the river.
    Source? The Russian Primary Chronicle. All I’ve done is shorten it a bit and ever so slightly update the language…


    • *chuckle* I like your version of this, Judy! There’s a much more dull version of it in The Traveller’s History of Russia, which I’m dutifully plodding through over breakfast each day. I’ve had the Paris version of this series, which is wonderful, but the Russian one is pedestrian, to say the least. There’s no mention of vodka in Vladmir’s cogitations in it at all!
      PS Have you been to Kolomenskoye , Judy? Is it worth trying to fit it into our crowded itinerary?


      • I don’t think I have been to Kolomenskoe, Lisa. But if you’re going to several of the other old churches/monasteries/towns, as I imagine you are, you may well be sated.


  3. […] Before we left home I bought a book about them and if you scroll down to the bottom of my review of it on the ANZ LitLovers blog, there’s a link where you can see some of the ones featured in the book.  But to see dozens […]


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