Facing the Russian icons

As was his custom, the thief began his day with prayer before an icon of Mary and Jesus. But then the image began to move and he saw bleeding wounds on the Christ child's hands and feet. Trembling, he cried out: "Oh lady, who has done this?" "You and other sinners," said Mary, "who crucify my Son anew with your sins."

In this classic Russian icon called "Unexpected Joy" the thief repents and begins a new life. The icon is complex, yet contains a spiritual truth that would have been clear to the Russians who faced it as they prayed. They understood the symbolism. They knew the parable. But what does this 19th century icon say to Americans who see it hanging in a gallery?

"It's hard for us to grasp things like this," said Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of "The Open Door: Entering into the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer." "The thief is convicted of his sins and repents and the result is this 'Unexpected Joy.' Repentance? Joy? We have trouble connecting the two. Of course, we also have trouble imaging a thief who faithfully prays in his icon corner. ... It's like this icon lets us have a glimpse of a whole different world."

It was late on a muggy Washington, D.C., afternoon and a few tired visitors were viewing the 89 works in a summer exhibition called "Windows Into Heaven: Russian Icons, 1650-1917" at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. There were glorious angels from the doors that lead from sanctuaries to altars. Immaculate icons from the workshops of czars -- details painted with single-hair brushes -- hung near the rough icons of peasants.

Many of the images featured familiar faces and scenes, from St. John the Baptist to St. George and the dragon. This constant repetition of themes often puzzles visitors. Others ask why some icons are "more artistic" than others, said volunteer John Harrison.

"But this really isn't about art, is it? Each of these icons may be a copy of a copy of a copy," he said. "But that's the point. The images are familiar. But each icon had a life of its own. It is real. It was a holy object to real people, in a real time and a real place. Their prayers were real."

It's almost impossible for Americans to grasp the role icons played in for centuries in lands such as Russia, said curator James Lansing Jackson, who assembled this exhibit. In addition to prayer corners in homes, these "windows into heaven" were found in factories, stores, schools, prisons, offices, roadside shrines and countless other public and private locations.

"They were literally everywhere and part of almost every event in life," he said, reached at his office in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "The typical home might have contained 20 or more. ... There were probably 200 million icons in Russia in the days before the 1917 revolution."

Many Orthodox believers fled as the Bolsheviks took control and they took family treasures with them, including their icons, said Jackson. By the 1930s, Soviet officials were selling antiques, art and icons on foreign markets to raise hard currency.

Some believers hid their icons during times of terror and persecution. Then, as generations passed, some flung them aside as signs of a forgotten faith. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was another frenzy of interest in icons, for reasons ranging from spiritual hunger to raw commercialism.

"Ironically, the fact that they did have historic and antique value gave many people a motive to save them," said Jackson. "They were saved by greed and by the fascination that Westerners have for them. That's a strange thing to say, but it's true."

Still, it's poignant to face icons in settings "so far from their homes," said Mathewes-Green. This is like being introduced to orphans whose lives have been shattered. Who knows what happened to their families?

"It's tragic when you see them collected as mere art objects, put away somewhere in glass cases," she said. "They are beautiful and it's tempting to get caught up in their beauty. But the icons are not what we are supposed to focus on. That is not their true purpose. They are supposed to lead us somewhere else."