Russian windows to heaven are now on display at a new art exhibit only blocks from the Yale campus on State Street.
In “Holy Icons of Mother Russia,” a current exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum, viewers can see 84 icons never before displayed in the northeastern United States. The collection is on loan from the James and Tatiana Jackson Collection of Russian icons.
“Icons are perceived as a window into heaven,” said museum curator Mary Lou Cummings.
Iconography is an art form that Russia adopted from the Byzantines, who began it when they were influenced by mosaics and frescoes found in many churches. Painted with such materials as egg tempura and gold leaf, icons portray God, the saints and other sacred objects. They came to have a near-sacred status, raising the issue of whether they were sacrilege or legitimate art.
During the Soviet Union’s Communist era, iconography was outlawed and icons were subject to destruction. Works currently displayed at the Knights of Columbus Museum were smuggled out of Russia and preserved.
“The icons are a testimony to the Russian people that they survived this long,” Cummings said.
Some of the icons were originally on display in Russian Orthodox churches and add a bit of variety to the Catholic museum.
“We were looking for something that would show different religions,” said Larry Sowinski, the museum’s director. “The Russian Orthodox icons do so beautifully.”
The Knights of Columbus are the largest Catholic fraternal society in the world. Founded in New Haven in 1881, the knights now have over 1.6 million members. The society dedicates itself to helping Catholic families and offers to its members as life insurance programs and death benefits.
The Knights originally opened a museum at their headquarters in 1982 during their 100th anniversary. Sowinski said the decision to open the new larger museum in New Haven was not a difficult one.
“We have history there,” he said. “We just had so many artifacts to display.”
The 84 icons at the exhibit are set up in their own separate room in the museum. Onlookers can view the objects either up close or through a glass panel that provides a description of each individual work. On the wall opposite the icons is background information for visitors might not already familiar with the art form of iconography.
“They’re fascinating historically and in terms of what they all mean,” said Lisa Rovello, director of development and communication for the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.
Icons were a part of the home as well as the church in Russia. Each home would have a prayer corner where an icon would be displayed. Inhabitants and guests would say a prayer, which was thought to go directly to God through the “window to heaven” that was created in the icon.
The exhibit will be open daily until Jan. 31 and admission is free.