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Sad to say, I have yet to visit the house of a Russian oligarch. But I’m willing to bet that every single one of them has a small corner of wall space, almost lost amid the curvy Matisses and cross-eyed Picassos, that is dedicated to icons of the Orthodox church. Having grown up in a Greek Orthodox household, I am all too familiar with the convention that says every residence must have its small iconostasis to protect its inhabitants from the malign forces of the world.
These are typically messy affairs, thrown together with the remnants of hasty pilgrimages, and the best intentions of well-wishers. There will be a St Christopher, a Virgin Mary or two, doleful Christs and haunted apostles, all jostling for position according to taste and whimsy. The snowy beard and outsize keys of my onomastic saint, Peter, were fixtures in my childhood bedroom. I wish I could say they made me feel close to heaven; but I felt largely locked out from its certitudes, which was not entirely an unpleasant feeling.
Icons are not like many other works of art. They can be beautifully crafted, and display the refined technique of artistic genius. But that is not their point. Their role is more subtle. They symbolise the quandary that is at the heart of the Christian religion: is it more important to emphasise the divine, or the human, nature of Christ?
Those who opposed his depiction during the years of iconoclasm believed it was important not to reduce Christ to any kind of human dimension. Their antagonists in turn considered this unnecessary abstraction to be neglectful of Christ’s earthly qualities. Icons were an attempt to reconcile these views: a summation of a religion that was both sublime and worldly.
Don’t be distracted by the theological arcanery: much debate over any art work continues to centre on whether it achieves some kind of transcendence, or is happy to wallow in the shallows of material affairs. (You can make your own mind up on where we are with that one at the moment.)
All of which gives the current market in Orthodox icons an added frisson. Those cash-wielding Russians have, since the end of the Soviet Union, revivified a sector previously regarded as extreme-niche. They have their personal galleries at home to fill too, only they do it with sophisticated pieces of art rather than scraps from tourist stalls.
Icons may not have the “wall power” of the art that manages to sell so lustily in the major auction houses. But they have something else: soul power, if you like. “[ Russian buyers] grew up with these in their homes,” Amsterdam dealer Simon Morsink told me on the phone earlier this week. “It is a very emotional connection. And this is an art form that still has the feel of the very beginnings of Christianity.”
Morsink is bringing a selection of works for sale to London’s Willow Gallery next month. There is historical, as well as spiritual, heft here. Among the pieces is a depiction of St Aleksei, painted on Mount Athos, which was presented to the Tsarevich Aleksei on his first name-day in 1904. The gift was made just weeks after he was diagnosed with haemophilia, the disease that might have killed him if the Bolsheviks hadn’t got to him first.
The work, artistically unexceptional but loaded with poignancy, is valued at £70,000, a sum far below the prices fetched by more fashionable genres in today’s art market. (The most expensive item in the sale is priced at £135,000.) “It is an anonymous art form,” Morsink told me. “Works are not signed, and many people find that very difficult to understand. You don’t buy a ‘name’. You have to really look at the work, and judge it for its quality.”
Those used to be axiomatic requirements for buyers of art, but times have changed. There is something that feels old-fashioned about buying an icon. This small sector of the market may be the one that requires the most contemplation and solemnity to be negotiated successfully. The stakes feel high. The very conservatism of the icon tradition, its stubborn resistance to change, is a challenge. It is art that is immune to fads.
It is also a genre that defies logical analysis, even more so than any other. Step into the art world and you are already drifting away from the rational world. Add religion to the mix, and you are twice removed. I remember, amid the gathering of icons in my bedroom, a bust in relief of the ancient Greek goddess Hygieia, who was there to look after the household’s health needs.
She nestled comfortably with the symbols of the movement that deposed her, mindful that the modern battle to keep body and soul together required help from every direction.
‘Russian and Greek Icons’, Willow Gallery, London, November 23-29
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