by Roderick Conway Morris

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Art of the Russian Old Believers

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 29 January 1994
State History Museum, Moscow
Old Believer lubok of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, late 18th century



Hellfire, fiends, sirens, saints and sinners figure prominently in 'Angels and Demons: The Russian Popular Imagination' - in Mestre at the Instituto di Cultura di Santa Maria delle Grazie in Via Poerio (until 20 February) - the first-ever exhibition of its kind, in east or west, of the art of Russia's Old Believers: rare, beautifully preserved pictures that have been hidden from public view in Moscow's Historical Museum.

A couple of years ago Moscow's vast Historical Museum released long unseen portraits for the excellent 'Faces of Imperial Russia' at the Palazzo Fortuny. For 'Angels and Demons' the Museum has made available for the first time their 'risovannyj lubok' (literally 'painted book') collection - religious paintings on paper developed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Old Believers, Russian Orthodox traditionalists, who, refusing to accept Patriarch Nikon's church reforms in the mid 17th century, had fled into wild virgin territory to the north of Moscow to establish monasteries, convents and more radically anarchistic communes.

Idealistic, industrious, and almost protestant in outlook, the Old Believers suffered continual persecution at the hands of the state - the eight-year siege of the dissident Solovki monks and their gruesome massacre being the subject of one of the most dramatic images here.

Aside from portraits of Old Believer heroes and saints, such as Maxim the Greek (celebrated for his outspoken refusal to bow to the authorities), most of the pictures (many are by women) are didactic - illustrating in captioned 'cartoon' form differences between old and new rituals, biblical stories, the rewarding of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. Some are intended not just to be studied but, complete with verses and notation, to be sung.

Sumptuously, satisfyingly colorful, and a strange mixture of the naive and sophisticated, these 'luboks' unselfconsciously combine traditional Russian devotional styles with florid, baroque decorativeness, unexpectedly bringing alive a lost way of life otherwise encountered as little more than an obscure footnote to Russia's cultural and religious history.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024