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Splendour and Glory – Art of the Russian orthodox church at the Hermitage in Amsterdam
Last month I went to see an exhibition about Macedonian icons at the museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. Today I'm on my way to the Hermitage in Amsterdam. They're holding an exposition about Russian icons. I'm curious to find out about the differences and similarities.
It's my first time at the Hermitage. I join the free guided tour and am glad we get a bit of information about the museum itself first. It opened it's doors just two years ago, in June 2009. For over 300 years the building had served as a home to the less fortunate elderly. With the changes in medical care, the rise of modern standards and the different approach to the care of the elderly, the building was no longer suitable as a care home. The residents were moved elsewhere and in 2007 the empty building along the Amstel started its transformation. Two years later it was ready to open its doors for paying visitors. The old nursing home had been successfully transformed into the dependance of the famous and gigantic Hermitage museum at Saint Petersburg in Russia: the Hermitage Amsterdam was completed.
Icon of Our Lady of Kazan, Icon: Moscow, late 19th century; setting: Moscow, Pavel Ovchinnikov Factory, 1887; charms: St Petersburg, Carl Faberge Company, 1890—1900, Wood, tempera, silver, gold, diamonds, roses, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, pearls, enamel; 31.5 х 27 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Besides the changing exhibitions in collaboration with its big Russian brother, the museum shows the history of the building. There is the Regentessekamer (Governesses’ room) and a restored kitchen where they cooked for hundreds of people on a daily basis. It's lovely to see and walk through these old rooms. It gives the already beautiful building even more charm and depth. It is an illuminating building, with many windows and open spaces. There is an elevator made of glass and the walls, floors and stairs are shiny white or transparent. The history and architecture of the building are worth a visit on its own.
Today however, I have come to see some more icons. Russian icons this time. The guide tells us that for this exhibition the museum cooperated with two other Russian museums, next to their usual partner, the Hermitage in St.-Petersburg. This way they were able to acquire a more diverse range of icons. The exposition contains not only icons, but also robes worn by the priest during the service, gold and silver objects used for religious customs and a huge iconostasis. The second floor gives an chronological overview of the history of the Russian orthodox religion. Giant panels display texts and images illustrating the different phases and developments within Russian iconography. At the end of the overview a film can be watched which shows the terrible destruction of religious buildings, artifacts and the murder of religious leaders by the communists in the twentieth century. With the politics of glasnost en perestroika of Michael Gorbatsjov at the end of that century, religion could come out of hiding again. Nowadays it has recaptured its important role in Russian society and the painting of icons has regained its place as a specialism within religious arts.
Royal Gates with depictions of The Annunciation and the Four Evangelists
Moscow Tsardom. 16th century, restored in the 19th century. Panel; pavoloka (linen canvas), tempera. 159.5 x 86.8 x 3.2 cm. Provenance: acquired in 1936 from the State Museum Fund; previously in an Old Believers worship house in Volhovskaya Street in St Petersburg
© State Russian Museum, St Petersburg
But let's start with the beginning. In 988 Russia became officially Christianised. Vladimir of Kiev made it the prevailing religion for his country. The story goes that Vladimir was searching for something to unite his people. He sent different envoys in all directions to go and find a suitable religion. The Jewish and Muslim faith were too strict, moreover the Russians needed their pork and vodka. The Catholic Germans were too boring and plain. But then the envoys arrived at Constantinople where they were enchanted by the sacred music, the beautifully decorated church and the smell of incense. It seemed to them as if they had landed in paradise. Vladimir converted to the orthodox faith and immediately let Byzantine architects and artists come over to build churches and decorate them with icons and frescoes.
On the first floor in the middle of the main exhibition hall stands a large impressive iconostasis. It is beautifully presented with a deep red background and a golden framework. The surrounding walls are painted cobalt blue wall and display different icons. Originally the iconostasis was placed in the center of the church to hide the altar from the view of the churchgoers. In the middle of the iconostasis there are two small doors decorated with images of the Annunciation and the four evangelists. The doors open only at important occasions and offer the people a glance of the holy altar. A little further on a travel kit which belonged to Tsar Alexander can be admired. On his campaigns to fight Napoleon, the Tsar brought a chest with religious artifacts including his personal mobile iconostasis. It's wonderful to see and hard to imagine he took the effort to carry those big and heavy objects with him.
Presentation vase for Easter Eggs, Russia, St.Petersburg, Imperial Porcelain Factory, mid-19th century, Porcelain, overglaze painting in gold; velvet; 22.5 х 36.5 х 36.5 cm
© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Within the orthodox faith Mary is referred to as Mother of God and she is the most important saint. This is true within orthodox Macedonian religion, as I saw in Utrecht a month earlier. There are twelve important celebrations a year which all commemorate important events in the life of the Mother of God and her son Jesus Christ. Above these so-called great feasts stands Easter, the most important religious celebration by far. It is celebrated extensively and surrounded by a solemn atmosphere. Traditionally people give each other decorated eggs. The story behind this custom is not officially recognized by the church, but goes as follows. Mary Magdalene went to see emperor Tiberius to tell him about the resurrection of Christ. He didn't believe her and said: “Someone who has died, cannot rise from the dead, just as a white egg cannot turn red”. At that point Mary reached inside her gowns and showed him an egg which had miraculously turned red. Hence the tradition to present each other with a painted or decorated egg during the Easter holidays. Several of these beautifully decorated eggs are presented at the Hermitage, some by the famous Carl Fabergé.
The museum offers free guided tours on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. On Sunday the tour is in English. For a couple of Euros you can get an audio tour in Dutch or English. During the summer there are several special activities organised around the exhibition to make your visit even more worthwhile. Splendour and glory offers a magnificent look into the glittering history of Russian orthodox faith.
Splendour and Glory
Art of the Russian Orthodox Church
19 March – 16 September 2011
birdseye - view - Hans van Heeswijk Architects - photo: Aerofoto Schiphol B.V.
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