Russian Icon Museum

Now that the weekend is nearly upon us, I should probably get around to telling you all about las weekend. While house hunting has become our primary pastime suddenly, we are trying hard to squeeze in other activities so we don’t become too overwhelmed by the process. I’ve been telling Yen a long time now about the little Russian Icon Museum out in Clinton MA, and we decided finally to head out and see it. By the way, if you do head out to Clinton, try to time it so you arrive at 11:30 so you can stop for lunch at Similan Thai Bistro. We randomly found it on Yelp, and ended up not only enjoying our meal, but also making some notes about future home decor based on how the restaurant was arranged. Very nice little place.

Ok, on to the museum.


Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Hm. If I tried hard, I might be able to think of two people even less likely to go to a museum filled with nothing but religious items.” You’d be wrong, frankly. Remember who completely freaked out at the Vatican? I think the setting is so nice, though, that I’m able to ignore the religious aspect of it all and focus on these things as folk art. And that’s what appeals to me about these. There’s something really personal and almost primitive about many of them, and it makes them seem very special and unique in a way that has nothing to do with faith. Many of them would have been inside people’s homes, often in what’s called a Beautiful Corner, and I like looking through them all and thinking about them as something special that belonged to a real person, not an institution. You’ll see that’s not true of all of them, but… I should stop talking and just show you the icons already. Here’s your first look when you come inside.


Normally I don’t bother with audio tours, but you really need to pick up the handset when you visit this museum. The story behind is that one man started picking up the icons during his business trips to Russia in the early 1990s. He wasn’t particularly religious either (he identifies himself as Protestant), but he did it to support some very poor people who were selling prized possessions in order to buy food (remember what year I said it was and where?), and they ended up just being interesting artifacts to him. He collected over the years as he kept visiting for business, and finally decided he had enough for a museum. When you pick up the audio guide to the museum, many of the audio segments are him telling you about how he found the item or what he learned about it. It adds to the overall personal feeling of the entire place, and I find it charming.


One particular thing you’ll notice as you look through these photos (and I’m going to point it out over and over) is that often worked metal has been used to either accentuate or sometimes protect pieces of the artwork. On many of the pieces, these covers were really more striking than the works they protected. Look at the one below, for instance. All of that would have been worked by hand. To give you a sense of scale, this whole piece was probably two feet tall.



I used the word “primitive” above, and it’s actually borrowed from the introduction you get from the collector when you take the tour. I don’t mean it in a demeaning sort of way. “Folk art” is probably the right term. It appeals to me tremendously. It makes me think that it was produced by someone who cared deeply about what he was doing, the subject he was celebrating. In a way, I am more excited to see this crude portrait of Jesus than by polished, lifelike works in the MFA. I always want to imagine the story behind the creation of something, and I suppose it’s just a more interesting story that I imagine in the case, rather than someone who is schooled and has carefully studied his craft. I don’t know whether I’m making any sense at all today…



Wow, look how serious I am! And what a smart hat!


Here is what I would look like if Yen and I traveled to Russia, visited the Kremlin, and went inside the Cathedral of Annunciation. This is a huge photo so you can see all of the icons inside. It’s actually called “iconostasis,” which is basically a big wall of icons. This photo is special because the big figure of Mother of God right above my head is actually obscured by a chandelier in real life; this photo is a composite.


Speaking of being charmed, this place has a Russian Tea Room! It’s full of various samovars. Apparently proper Russian tea is brewed to an unbearable strength in these things, and held warm inside. When you’re ready for your cuppa, you pour out some of the super-strength tea, then add hot water until it’s the right level of strength to wake you up but not quite grow hair on your chest. I didn’t see any scones, dammit.


Near the Tea Room are two jail cells, which allow you to notice that the building used to be a county jail.



We stopped to enjoy some of the Russian folk toys before we headed upstairs. I absolutely loved this one, absurd as it is. When you wave it up and down, the little chickens bob their heads to peck at the “corn.” Then, of course, there were many, many examples of nesting dolls. We particularly enjoyed them, as we’d recently watched “Transsiberian.”



Back upstairs, we found more examples of the intricate coverings. Here you can see an example of a protected icon, and below it is a reproduction of what the carved metal is protecting.



St George and the Dragon is a very common theme of the icons. I don’t know why, but I love the image of St George. Maybe it’s because he seems like a man of action, when so many other saints just hung around suddenly growing hair or sleeping standing up so they could pray (more on that in a bit). I do feel a little bit sorry for the dragon, in any case. Poor thing was enjoying tasty villagers until he came along.



Here’s a rather Moorish looking Mary, if you ask me. I guess it would make sense that we’d see some Moorish influence on some of these given the geography of the Orthodox church.


This icon is huge – you can’t tell that here, but it’s absolutely enormous. It depicts the judgment that determines whether you go up or down for eternity. The people at the top are all the lucky guys who have already made it to Heaven (who here is thinking about when Blackadder became Archbishop of Canterbury, and explained that Heaven is nice if you like watering potted plants?). Right in the middle, you can see some poor guy standing on a scale, his good and bad deeds being weighed. The saints are trying to weigh down the good side, and you can see the devil trying to put weight on the bad. Down to the right are the baddies who didn’t make it through the weighing. In the very corner (not really discernable in this photo) is Judas with his gold pieces.


I like how weathered this particular icon is. It looks as if it’s been through an awful lot.


I made Yen take a photo of this one because I liked the church.


This is apparently a very, very unusual icon. You can’t quite see it here, but it depicts God resting on the seventh day. He’s up at the top having a nap in a little bed. Isn’t that sweet?


This icon is almost like a diorama.


Ah! I’m glad Yen took these photos. You finally get to see the museum itself. Isn’t it a great little space? It’s so wide open and warm, and you can just wander here and there. You’ll see what I’m pondering off on the other side in just a moment.



This very intricate icon here is actually a calendar. Do not ask me how to read it. I believe it’s concerned with alerting you to religious holidays, not Tuesdays. My limited understanding is that there is a day for each saint. And my goodness, but there are a lot of saints in the universe.


Check out this bedazzled mother and child!



This guy is Saint Nil, whom I alluded to before. He was so interested in praying that he decided to make himself some crutches so we could sleep standing up and pray all night. So all of these little wooden carvings have cruches under their arms. I just love him.


We really liked this cover in particular. You can see that sometimes they used things other than just metal to decorate them.


Here I am being scale! I think this is one of the largest ones around.


Here’s an itty bitty St George. There was a whole section of very small icons. I’m not sure what you’d do with them. Keep them in your sock drawer?


Here I’m looking at one of the iconostasis things I mentioned earlier. This was originally inside of a cathedral. In Orthodox churches (according to the museum – I have no idea whether it’s so), the congregation didn’t get to sit, and was separated from the clergy by walls or screens. Often the walls were decorated like this so they could have something to look at and be inspired.


This is a really interesting example of a cover. You can see that it was rather crudely cut out to reveal the picture underneath, including the tree.




This photo-realistic Mary kind of freaks me out. No idea why.


Anyway, so much for the museum. While we were out and about, we took a look at the town Common. Lots of interesting old houses around it like this one.


And of course there’s a cute little town square.


This little girl was cracking me up. She had her little girly skirt on, but had paired it with a mohawk hat. She was carrying a stick around like a sword. She was pretty vicious.