Windows into heaven: An iconic exhibit

by Alysse Schultheis

Executive Editor


On September 4, the University Archives and Special Collections presented “Windows into Heaven,” a Russian icons exhibition from the Robicsek family collection of religious art. As part of the event, Dr. Jeanne Marie Warzeski, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, presented the exhibition, providing background on the icons on display and the general history of icons as well. The exhibition focuses on Byzantine icons of the Russian Orthodox Church produced during the Romanov era, and according to Warzeski, the icons reflect both “traditional Byzantine and the more Western-influenced styles of iconography.” In order to understand the important history behind these specific icons, Warzeski related the story of the rise of the Romanovs in 1613 and how in 988 Prince Vladimir I of Kiev sent emissaries to study religions of neighboring nations. The men reported that the “Muslim Bulgarians showed ‘no joy,’ and poplar or mahogany, chosen for their stable, non-warping qualities. Guided that the cathedrals of Ger-many likewise appeared ‘gloomy,” but the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople stood out to the emissaries because of the “glory of the liturgy, which included incense, chants, mosaics, frescoes, and icons.” This influenced the popularity of traditional Byzantine icons in the Russian Orthodox Church, and makes the current exhibition of the Robicsek family’s collection possible.

Knowing the extensive history behind the icons added to the awe-inspiring impact when viewing the images, but what exactly is an icon and how does an iconographer go about creating one? An icon, from the Greek eikon, meaning “image,” is “a work of art that depicts religious personages and scenes in the Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox, Christian tradition,” War-zeski explained. The medium used in most icons is egg tempera, a mixture of egg yolk and mineral pigments that requires a rigid support base. Warzeski told how the panels for icons are constructed from solid wood, usually by step-by-step pictures of the process, Warzeski showed how the wood used for icons comes from the outer parts of a tree, which imparts a distinctive curved appearance to icon boards, and solid oak struts are then inserted in grooves cut into the back of each panel to retard warping. This process has been adhered to since antiquity, and prior to painting, the wooden boards must go through a complex process involving hot hide glue, linen, more hot glue, and finally multiple coats of gesso, a white, plaster-like preparation made of marble dust, water, and the hide glue, are applied. The iconographer first completes a preliminary drawing and then applies gold leaf for the background or details, which when completed create a very impressive and detailed image. “Windows into heaven,” the exhibition, will be open in the University Archives and Special Collections gallery from one to five p.m. Monday through Friday.