Annunciation with St Christoforos and St Aleksander Svirskii (with silver gilt jewelled oklad) Russia, Yaroslavl, mid 17th century / Courtesy of Jan Morsink Ikonen

Annunciation with St Christoforos and St Aleksander Svirskii (with silver gilt jewelled oklad) Russia, Yaroslavl, mid 17th century / Courtesy of Jan Morsink Ikonen

Made Without Hands by E. S. Jones November’s Russian Art Week saw the return of Jan Morsink Ikonen to London, with an exhibition at Mayfair’s elegant Trinity House. In an unusual collaboration between two specialists, Russian and Greek Orthodox icons were presented alongside works by well-loved artists such as Renoir and Degas. Exhibiting an icon within a museum or gallery setting is usually tricky- for although often aesthetically pleasing, their main purpose is to lead the viewer through contemplation and into deeper prayer. Despite this, the atmosphere suited both art forms perfectly: the narrow stairwell was transformed by simple lighting, lending an air of hushed reverence as visitors passed spot-lit icons; the lower floor suited the smaller scale of images which may have otherwise been lost. Every stage of an icon’s creation is imbued with spiritual reflection, beginning with the wooden base to symbolise the earth we are formed from. The iconographer chooses lime, pine, spruce, larch, linden or alder; heartwood is prepared and bird’s tails are crafted. Imitating the ancient story of Eden, the surface is smoothed over with seven layers of gesso; colours are worked from dark to light, the image emerges from bottom to top; white ground refracting brightly through the layers. Gold leaf represents the celestial realm, and a few of the more intricate pieces at Trinity House featured oklads– a metal covering fashioned from silver, copper, brass or gold. Enamelled and adorned, existing on a single plane, the figures are pulled upwards, deliberately elongated. Gravity is turned on its head; there is no division of time into past present or future.  The iconographers strictly kept to their learned rules in order to access the spiritual. Colours were used symbolically; multiple layers were painstakingly laid down in fine translucencies. The tangible world does not feature in their inverted perspectives, flatness and surreal scale- the oddly placed objects are assigned their own pictorial language. The face is the last to appear, the crown of creation, drawn from charcoal, ochre, azurite and cinnabar. Mouths remain painted closed and the eyes are given bright highlights. Silent and watchful, a finished icon reveals the transformation of the material into the transcendent.
Rare 19th century Travelling Iconostasis, Russia, Old Believers Workshop / Courtesy of Jan Morsink Ikonen

Rare 19th century Travelling Iconostasis, Russia, Old Believers Workshop / Courtesy of Jan Morsink Ikonen

Such holy images were designed to be empty of drama and sentimentality to allow the viewer to become active in self-examination- and in stark contrast the Impressionists’ mnemonic scenes turn the focus outwards, inspiring melancholia and nostalgia with their hazy daydreams. Directly opposing the precise techniques that had gone before them, these revolutionary artists chose instead to depict ordinary everyday life. Instead of the delicate veils of tempera, dense oils were applied rapidly, expressively; colour was not assigned spiritual significance but interpreted scientifically. Sat peacefully side by side within Trinity House, these differences were reconciled by a shared preoccupation with light and metaphor- and the attempt to represent things that cannot be grasped by hands or seen with human eyes. The Impressionists connect us to nature and human desire; the iconographers are mediators bringing earth a step closer to heaven. From both sides, man is depicted as a being that exists halfway between the animals and the angels, forever attempting to make visible the invisible. Jan Morsink Ikonen: http://www.morsink.com/home