9 months ago


The Icon Exhibition

The Icon Exhibition “Kissed again and again” Henrik von Achen director at the Universitetsmuseet in Bergen (no) Apart from offering museological advice to those preparing the Icon museum in Alba Iulia, an exhibition of Transylvanian icons in Bergen was part of the Norwegian contribution to the Museikon project. The icon exhibition opened in one of the buildings of the University Museum in Bergen on the 4th of December 2015 and closed on the 14th of February 2016, displaying 30 icons painted on wood or glass, all painted between 1720 and 1890. 1 The Transylvanian icons In the exhibition in Bergen there were no masterpieces of Romanian icon painting. On display were the everyday icons which were deeply integrated into the lives of ordinary people, the peasants of Transylvania. (Fig. 1) The icon was never meant for the art museum, but to be an integral part of the religious life of Christians, and it did not stay within the realm of theology, but were deeply connected with the devotional and liturgical life of believers. In small churches and humble homes, icons were revered as in the cathedrals, the rustic forms no less holy than the splendid work of masters, their simplicity echoing the simple faith of a peasant congregation – often painted with the same broad and worn hands which ploughed the fields and cared for the cattle. (Fig. 2) Yes, certainly, their icons might be rustic, simple and even primitive, but they mirrored the same faith and conveyed the same presence of the Divine. The rural congregation knew that its icons were simple, they had seen others, of course. However, these often rustic, even primitive, icons, were theirs. They belonged to them, they shared a life together. Like children: they might not be the most beautiful or clever in the world, but they are ours, and we love them deeply, unconditionally – as they are. We share a life and a love. So every icon is precious like a child, and therefore beautiful; a tangible faith, a tangible hope, and a tangible love - a presence materialized. In everyday language, beauty is often characterized by the expression “frumos ca o icoană“, “as beautiful as an icon”. Transylvanians admit that there are more beautiful and masterfully executed icons, but there are no icons more theirs, more connected, entwined, with their history, their faith, their hopes, fears, sorrow and happiness. A mutual dependence signified the relationship born of faith: that they took care of their icons as of their children; and the icons took care of them, since the faithful were, truly, their children. Regardless of artistic quality, they needed their icons to create a heaven over their lives, to offer light, the presence and protection of saints like candles in the dark. In cathedrals and distant and humble timber churches alike, icons told their stories which were kept in the hearts and minds of the faithful, serving a threefold purpose: promoting the glory of God, memory of the history of salvation, the communion of God and man, the splendour Fig. 1: The church of Rădeşti. Source: Radu 1911. Fig. 2: An old peasant praying in a church, photo courtesy of Bishop Macarie Drăgoi. Museikon, Alba Iulia, 1, 2017, p. 169-178 | 169

170 | Henrik von Achen and beautification of the holy church, and the remission of the sins of those paying homage to the icons, kissing them devoutly, bringing honour to the prototypes which they represent. Like the Church in Christian theology is the very presence of Christ since his ascension, continuing his work and filled with his spirit, the icon is the continued active, miracle-working presence of its prototype (motif), be it a saint, the Saviour or the Theotokos, the Mother of God. Divinity and holiness materialize as icon. Fig. 3: St. Nicholas, painted c. 1730, attributed to Nistor of Răşinari; detail. Unless otherwise stated, all photos by Henrik von Achen. Fig. 4: The processional banner from Sânbenedic, painted in 1817. The relational dimension The exhibition in Bergen focused on one important dimension of the icon, namely how the faithful relate to the icon, how the encounter between faith and the object of faith establishes a sacred space encompassing both believer and icon, be it in the living room or within the sacred space of the church interior. (Fig. 3) Any exhibition has to find the balance between its educational and experiential dimension, between understanding and experience. For a university museum, obviously, the educational dimension is basic – the exhibition wants to communicate research based knowledge and insights. Yet, an exhibition is not a book with real three dimensional objects as illustrations, it is something quite different. An exhibition should awaken the curiosity and interest of the visitors, offering, then, a true learning experience. While teaching or educating, the exhibition is as much about creating a wish for being taught or educated, hence, it is not so much covering a certain topic in its entirety as leaving the audience wanting to learn more and understand more, see more and experience more. So, the objective for the icon exhibition was to provide knowledge about the icon by offering or facilitating an experience of its relational dimension. Besides making us want to know more about what we experience, experience has a dialectical relation to understanding: By experiencing, one understands better, deeper; through understanding, one’s experience is enriched, perhaps even strengthened. Therefore, instead of competing, the two dimensions complete each other. The experience offered is entertaining to the extent that it manages to be interesting, and it has an important aesthetic dimension, both in the objects on display, and in the design surrounding them. Moreover, it creates another world, a different world you step into when you enter the exhibition room. Thus, it introduces a new context instead of the one once lost as the icon was moved from a church or a private home. In the case in Bergen, the design endeavoured to recreate some of the atmosphere of a wooden wall, dimly lit, and recreate its character of an object of faith. (Fig. 4-5) All these dimensions, entertainment, aesthetics and the creation of a new special reality contribute to create the educational dimension of the exhibition. The main focus of the exhibition was on the relational dimension of the icon, though the theological, devotional, liturgical, factual or aesthetical dimensions were all unavoidably present as well. Therefore, the exhibition was given the title “Kissed, again and again”, taken from the poem Ayíasma, “The Purifying Well” (1965), by the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf. The poem breathes the repetitive rhythm of liturgy, expressing the relation between believer and belief, the hopes and fears floating in the space between the faithful and the icon, or rather creating that space of faith, of giving and receiving, the subtle interaction between believer and image until it slowly disappears and nothing is left but faith itself and God - the encounters between heaven and earth constantly sealed with kisses:

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