Professor Simon Franklin about the album “The Icon Collection in the Tretyakov Gallery”

The Tretyakov Gallery has played a unique role in the modern history of Russian icons. It has been instrumental not only in the preservation of many of the finest icons, but also in the transformation of the cultural status of icons from devotional objects into ‘art’.

Pavel Tretyakov himself was among the first collectors to view icons as art, and the Tretyakov Gallery’s first exhibitions of icons – starting from 1904 – coincided with a remarkable age of rediscovery. For centuries is had been assumed that icons were naturally dull-coloured (the colour of faded varnish), or that the right way to look after them was to add fresh layers of paint from time to time. Only in the early 20th century did restorers begin to remove  later layers of paint and varnish. This technical revolution led to an aesthetic revelation, and to a fundamental cultural re-evaluation.

The reinstatement of icons as art came just in time. It meant that museums – and the Tretyakov Gallery in the first instance – could legitimately collect, conserve, display and cherish icons even as official institutions of the atheist Soviet State. Indeed, a museum was often the only safe refuge for an ancient icon, and the Tretyakov’s collections expanded hugely during the Soviet era.

The post-Soviet years brought both – paradoxically – fresh tensions. Understandably, the Orthodox Church sought not only to re-establish the primary religious status and function of icons, but also in many cases to reclaim ownership, at least on moral grounds. Again, the Tretyakov Gallery led the way in finding a sensitive solution to this modern dilemma, in which the icon is acknowledged both as a devotional object in Orthodox worship and as a vital part of the broader artistic heritage of the nation, and of the world.

This magnificent 150th-anniversary album is a fitting emblem of the role of the Gallery in the story of icons, of the role of icons in the story of the gallery, and indeed of the creative partnerships between Church, State museums and private financial resources which are essential if great historic culture is to flourish in the modern age. It presents a splendid panorama of the Gallery’s collections, described by the Gallery’s experts, made possible through the generous private sponsorship of Vitaly Machitski, and with an appreciative preface by Patriarch Alexei II.

Here are 150 icons – symbolically, one for each year of the Tretyakov Gallery’s existence – from the 11th century to the 19th, showing the work of the major schools of icon-painters in Kiev, Vladimir and Suzdal, Novgorod, Tver, Pskov and Moscow, and provincial centres. Each full-page colour illustration is accompanied by a succinct description of the icon’s theme and composition, and often by additional illustrations of details. The book will surely be enjoyed and admired as a fine tribute to a fine institution, and as a handsome volume which can be browsed for aesthetic pleasure. But it can also serve a more profound purpose. It is, in effect, a complete visual course in the history and variety of Russian icons. To leaf slowly through this book is an education, and a revelation.

Simon Franklin
Professor, Head of the Department of Slavonic Studies,
University of Cambridge
Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the "Pushkin House"