From Sin Worms to Our Mother: The Museum of Russian Icons

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Below is a replica of the icon of the Mother of God Smolenskaya within its Oklad (or Riza, or Revetment). This particular oklad dates to the early 1800s, and the icon itself (original on right) from the 1700s). The oklad is a sort of metal casing meant to help protect the icon from the kissing and touching that is a normal part of Orthodox Christian prayer, as well as from the build-up of incense and candle soot.

This example of icon and oklad is featured at the wonder Museum of Russian Icons in Massachusetts, which we visited this last summer.

Here is a list of iconography terms from the museum’s site, which I’ve backed up here just in case, as well as a helpful Russian-English Lexicon_of_Orthodox_Saints. And here are a few more favorites from the trip…

First, the Prophet Elijah in the Desert, mid to late 16th century, Cretan; and The Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah, c. 1860, Russian.

The Transfiguration of Christ, c. 1780;  and Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, c.1750.

There were so many beautiful crosses and crucifixes, in addition to the many, many icons of Christ. However, I didn’t take very many snapshots of those, and instead concentrated more on pieces that were unusual to me such as this Last Judgment icon. It is a large, strange, complex piece, and only a few details are included here. In the second and third pictures, note the mass of clerics on the right being punished.

I do not think there are many among Bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish: and the reason is, that it is an affair that requires a great mind.

– St. John Chrysostom, Homily III on Acts 1:12

The “sin worm” (the creature with circles along its spine) is winding it’s way out of the red fire of hell. Each of the circles represents one of twenty sins:

  1. Lying
  2. Miserliness
  3. Speaking in vain
  4. Gossip
  5. Anger
  6. Profanity
  7. Gluttony
  8. Drunkenness
  9. Spite
  10. Cursing
  11. Adultery
  12. Voluptuousness (in this case, with a meaning similar to gluttony or lust)
  13. Rape
  14. Vanity
  15. Avarice
  16. Selfishness
  17. Despair (in this case, with a meaning similar to nurturing one’s cynicism)
  18. Murder
  19. Boastfulness
    and, of course, the one that leads to so many of the others:
  20. Pride.

More fiery scenes: Details of an icon of the St. John ladder, c.1750, followed by 19th-century illustrated codex of The Ladder of Divine Ascent (originally authored by St. John Climacus in the 7th century) hand-written in Church Slavonic.

Finally, an icon of the Theotokos, the Helper in Birth. c. 1700. I especially like the organic, uterine-lining appearance of the central area where the Christ child resides.

Edit Mary 01

The museum gave quite a bit of historical context to Orthodox iconography,  including iconoclasm. One exhibition featured photographs taken during the Bolshevik revolution, when in addition to the destruction of icons and churches, many priests/clerics were terrorized, tortured, and murdered.

  1. Officials inventory and confiscate church’s religious treasures.
  2. Confiscation of icons from a church.
  3. An icon is placed in a furnace and burned.
  4. Icons burn in a bonfire while participants wave anti-religious signs.
  5. A church is dismantled brick by brick.”The word iconoclast literally means ‘image breaker.’ In Orthodox history, periods of iconoclasm are those times when icon writing was forbidden and existing icons were eradicated.

To be immersed in the beauty and history of iconography was nearly an overwhelming experience for me. The Museum is well worth a visit if you’re in that area of Massachusetts. Clinton is a lovely little town, and the museum, which was blessed by Orthodox clergy upon its opening, is thoughtfully arranged and short on Russophile kitsch.  Do check out their website for more photographs and information.

Featured Image:
Icon of Mary Magdalene. Russia, 1890. (See full icon in color here.)
The Museum of Russian Icons
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “From Sin Worms to Our Mother.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 28 October 2018.

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