Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Museum Of Russian Icons

When I said to Mr. Gordon Lankton “Not every man has an opportunity to live in his dream,” he smiled disarmingly and later, as my wife Andrée and I were examining an icon of Saint Paraskeva, he wandered over and said, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but do you know her?”

The icon was of an imposing lady draped in Roman dress.

“She is one of my favorite characters,” he said.

“Because she is the patron saint of commerce?”

Lankton is no stranger to commerce. Twenty years ago, when everyone was moving West, he went East – to Russia , where he saw and was captivated by Russian Byzantine icons. His painstaking collection, a work of love, now fills a museum of his own making. Legend has it that Lankton’s wife, troubled by a metastasizing collection that was filling every corner of her house, gave her husband an ultimatum: Either the icons go, or I go. Thus are museums are born.

“No,” he answered, “not because she is the patron saint of commerce. Saint Paraskeva was a Roman lady whose parents were converts to Christianity at a time when such avowals were sternly punished by pious Romans.”

Saint Paraskeva ran afoul of the emperor of the day, Antoninus Pius, Lankton said, who attempted to correct her slide into impiety. So he prepared a bath for her of hot oil and demanded that she give up her Christian ways. She said nothing. He pushed her in and noticed the oil had no effect on her at all. He asked whether she had, through some sort of divination, managed to make the bath cool. In response, she cupped her hand and threw the oil on him, some of which got into his eyes, causing him to go blind. Later, having had second thoughts about Saint Paraskeva, the emperor asked her to cure him. And she did, converting him to the faith. She was a convincing early Christian preacher and converted many people. Saint Paraskeva received her martyr’s wreath in the year 180 and is venerated today both as the patron saint of commerce and as a healer of the blind.

The story Lankton told us especially impressed Andrée, who had her guide dog with her. But all icons are the repository of stories. They were the story books of the Middle and Latin Middle Ages.

The most productive period in the development of icon making was from the years 1350 to 1650. Containing more than 300 icons, the museum houses the largest collection of Russian icons in North America and spans six centuries, from the fifteenth century to the present.

That impressive span of faith and belief was interrupted from time to time by iconoclastic periods, when icon making was discouraged, most often by the sword of emperors.

Russian icon making originated in Greece but, as the Russia expanded six thousand miles to the Pacific Ocean, it developed its own unique style. The development of Russian icon making corresponds to the beginning of the Russian state in Kiev in Ukraine and the development of the Russian nation. By the late eighteen hundreds, the production of icons had reached such massive proportions that whole towns in Russia were devoted to icon making. Nearly every home in Russia during this period had in it an icon that was venerated.

There were in Russia, at the time of the Russian Revolution, more than twenty million icons. As the bloody revolution unfolded, Russia entered its most punishing iconoclastic period. The Communist state forbade all independent religious activity; the painting of icons was prohibited; and the people were ordered to burn their icons in great bonfires in public squares. The atheist ice in Russia did not thaw until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which has now seen a resurgence of religion and icon making.

Surrounded by icons that had managed somehow to survive the bonfires of the official atheist state, Lanton must sometime wonder what Saint Paraskeva would have made of the madness of the 20th century. It is doubly ironic that the life of Saint Paraskeva, always in jeopardy, parallels the life of her icon, more durable but no less subject to destruction. But the icon, which will live in the imagination of those who have seen it, now has a home safe from hazard.

The Museum Of Russian icons is located in a historic nineteen century brick building, once a post office, adjacent to Clinton Park, the oldest public park in the United States. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11Am to 3PM. Admission for adults is $5, tour participants and groups $4, and students and children under 16 are admitted free. The museum’s address is 203 Union Street, Clinton Massachussetts 0150. Its helpful staff may be reached by dialing 978-598-5000. Its web site is

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