The room was dark. The long coiling body of the snake filled me with dread.
Instinctively, I recoiled back, but – unable to control a basic fascination with horror – almost immediately I leant forward eager to see more. The gory details of the Last Judgement stood out painted in vivid colours. ‘If this really is what awaits us all, it doesn’t look good’, I thought.
Just then a realisation cut across my line of thought. Centred in the white bands running along the snake’s body there were words written in the Cyrillic script. Holding my breath and leaning even closer I read: adulterers, heretics, misers…
The words seemingly indicated the circle reserved within the snake (a pictorial representation of hell?!) for the bearers of the respective sin. I was so emotional that I had been able to read them, though, that their macabre meaning totally evaded me.
Instead of foreboding fear, I was overcome with the feeling that catches us unawares when in a foreign land a small detail reminds us fully and uncontrollably of home. I was in a museum in Northern Italy and the letters of the Cyrillic script – the same one which we use in my homeland of Bulgaria and of which we are so immensely proud – spoke to me from the inscription in Church Slavonic on a Russian icon painted at the end of the 19th century.
I looked around with renewed interest.
I was in Gallerie d’Italia – the museum nestled inside Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Vicenza. Its top floor is completely taken up by an extensive collection of Russian icons.
I have to be honest, I didn’t expect much.
Firstly, Russian icons and a museum in Northern Italy don’t really sound like a logical match. Secondly, as an Orthodox Christian I have seen more than my fair share of icons both in centuries-old churches/monasteries and some amazing exhibition spaces back home in Bulgaria, so I didn’t really think that I would come across anything that groundbreaking here.
In fact, I will confess that during my first visit to this particular museum, I skipped the entire top floor. Thank God I like to return to museums more than once, so it was during my second visit to the palazzo that I remedied what would have been a rather significant oversight.
The top floor is divided into thematic chambers in which the icons are arranged. Large panes (unfortunately only in Italian) provide detailed information about each separate space. As you walk in, your eyes are immediately drawn to the Regal Doors from the end of the 16th century which had formed part of a traditional Russian church iconostasis.
From there the path takes you through the different chambers in which the icons are organised according to a theme: Orthodox Christian Celebrations, Meditation, the Mother of God, the Saints.
The lights are dimmed. The windows are covered. It is very quiet and peaceful.
In the dusk the reds and the golds tones of the icons feel particularly intense.
You cannot help but admire the minute detail in which the figures are painted. The clothing and the insignia are carefully represented even though they may be only a few millimetres in size.
I particularly liked the visual representation of the different stages of the art of painting an icon. Starting with a wooden panel, which is carved, then painted with white gesso and afterwards smoothed to the outlining of the figures and the application of the different colours following a strict religious canon.
Once again the information is entirely in Italian and, I believe, it would be appreciated more if it were provided in a few more languages.
The most amazing part of the collection for me are the covered icons. You will find them in the last chamber of the exhibition space.
The tradition of covering painted icons with an intricately forged and embossed metal sheet began in the 10th century in Byzantium.
In Moscow of the 15th century skilled craftsmen recovered the old Byzantine techniques and developed a rich tradition of icons covered with precious metals and gemstones.
The museum has several such icons in its collection and even though I had seen icons covered with forged silver before, I was amazed by the exquisite detail and perfect craftsmanship of the Russian icons kept here in Vicenza.
The coverings employ many different techniques – from colourful enamels to delicate filigrees, from forged metal to fabulous freshwater pearls carefully strung over the painted religious images.
In the dim light I found it very difficult to take some highly detailed photographs, still I hope that the five pictures below will give you an idea of the beauty of the work displayed there.
If you have an hour or two to spare in Vicenza, make sure that you spend them on the top floor of the Gallerie d’Italia in Palazzo Leoni Montanari.
The collection of Russian icons will lead you on a journey of discovery of an exquisite form of art-cum-craft. In the dim light, let your senses guide you and open your eyes and your heart to what you will see there.