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Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Holy Gaze

Iconography during the Soviet era.

Among the illustrations in this volume there is an AP news photo from the Russian district of Bogorodsk, dated 1950, of a crowd of people carrying icons out of a church. This isn't a religious procession; instead, they are handing the paintings up to a man standing in a farm cart. Though it is cold—you can tell from the bundling garments and fleece-lined caps—the crowd looks energetic and happy, and a pretty young woman at the center of the photo looks particularly joyous. In the foreground a boy is holding a small icon, perhaps of Christ. The cart is already overflowing with these paintings of saints and biblical figures on wooden plaques. The load is going to be hauled out of town and burned.

How can we comprehend what this photo would mean to Russian Orthodox Christians? We could imagine that, instead of icons, the happy crowd is raiding an art museum and bringing out priceless paintings to be destroyed. Or we could picture them carrying Bibles, every Bible they can find, from low-cost pew copies to big family Bibles, and personal Bibles full of notes and underlining. Or we could imagine them carrying out photos of the people we love—our mothers and grandmothers, our sweethearts, our children—tossing them all into a cart to be destroyed.

All three meanings would overlap for a devout Russian Orthodox watching this scene, and even those who have not experienced the use of icons in worship can grasp that they are charged with significance and dearly loved. Icons provide a focal point for the expression of faith, and no image is as charged with power as that of a beloved face. If you wanted to destroy a nation's faith, you would have to destroy their icons.

Irina Yazykova's book traces the history of iconography during the Soviet era, but the fate of existing icons, like those in the photos, occupies only a small part of the story. She is primarily concerned with the process of icon-making, an art passed down from master to student in Russia since ...

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