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I have called this talk an 'Orthodox-Catholic encounter' between Roman Catholic religious art, as represented by Maurice Denis, and the Orthodox icon, as represented by Sister Joanna, and the first thing to be said is that the encounter was very unequal. On the one hand there was the immense prestige of the whole of European religious art down the centuries; there was an impressive debate around the subject of religious art between the naturalism that prevailed in the nineteenth century and the 'anti-naturalist' reaction we associate with 'Post-Impressionism'; there was the rich Catholic intellectual and cultural development that had occurred in response to secular Republicanism; there was France as the recognised centre of innovation in the visual arts since the mid-nineteenth century; and all these strengths on the Catholic/Western side of the encounter were in a sense personified or gathered together in the person of Denis.

We in 2018 might be able to put up a convincing Russian response to all that but it would have been much more difficult in the 1920s. It is true that the 1917 Revolution had gifted Paris with a remarkable little group of Russian Orthodox intellectuals grouped round the Institut Saint Serge, and that Julia Reitlinger, given her association with Sergei Bulgakov, was part of it. It is also true that things Russian were fashionable in Paris, largely through the influence of Diaghilev.

But the Russian icon as such was still largely an unknown quantity. The pre-seventeenth century icon, which most would agree is the glory of Russian art, was only beginning to emerge through the grime, the rizas (metal covering) and blackened varnish of the centuries. As Charles Lock and Andrew Louth have pointed out, the only religious paintings that seem to have impressed Dostoyevsky were the Sistine Madonna and Holbein's Dead Christ. (3) What is perhaps more surprising is that when Pavel Florensky in his Iconostasis, one of the first serious efforts to explain what is distinctive about the icon, is trying to explain how the vision of the icon forms in the artist's mind he takes as an example, again, Raphael's Sistine Madonna. (4) And Fr Andrew Louth quotes Bulgakov on the impression the Sistine Madonna made on him while he was still an atheist Marxist: 'I went to the Zwinger Gallery early in the mornings to be there before others arrived. I ran there every day to 'pray' and weep in front of the Virgin, and few experiences in my life were more blessed than those unexpected tears.' (5)

(3) Charles Lock: 'The space of hospitality: on the icon of the Trinity ascribed to Andrei Rublev', Sobornost, 30:1, 2008, pp.24-5; Andrew Louth: 'The recovery of the icon', Sobornost, 39:1, 2017, pp.7-9.

(4) Pavel Florensky (trans Donald Sheehan and Olga Andrejev: Iconostasis, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1996, pp.76-8

(5) Andrew Louth op.cit., p.9. In a footnote he refers to a later reference in which Bulgakov explains why the Sistine Madonna is not after all an 'icon' as Bulgakov understands the term.

Florensky's writings on the icon, talks given to small audiences after the Revolution, were not available as texts until much later. The other major pioneering text, Eugene Trubetskoi's Three Studies on the Icon was published in Russia prior to the war and would have been known to the Russians in the Institut but Trubetskoi himself died (fighting in the White Army) in 1920. I shall suggest later on that one of his major contentions, that 'in the icons, human figures are, so to speak, sacrificed in favour of the lines of the architecture' (6) was missed in the subsequent emigré Russian reflexions on the icon.

(6) Eugène Troubteskoï: Trois études sur l'icône, Paris, YMCA-Press/O.E.I.L., 1986 (first published 1965), p.35. My translation from the French. There is an English translation: Eugene N. Trubetskoi: Icons: Theology in Color, translated by Gertrude Vakar, introduction by George M. A. Hanfmann, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973.

Diaghilev had organised a large exhibition of Russian art, which included a section on icons, in 1906, in the context of the Salon d'Automne but it may not have included many of the restored icons and seems to have made little impression. Matisse famously visited Moscow in 1911 when, after seeing the Ostroukhov collection (7), he was reported in the Russian press as saying 'Nowhere have I ever seen such a wealth of colour, such purity, such immediacy of impression. It is the best thing Moscow has to offer. One should come here to learn because one should seek inspiration from the primitives.' (8) But there is no suggestion that Matisse repeated this or made much of Russian icons after his return to Paris, nor does his subsequent work seem to have been marked by the experience. (9)

(7) Ilya Semyonovich Ostroukhov,1858-1929, landscape painter and art collector. After the death of the collector Pavel Tretyakov in 1898, Ostroukhov joined the Tretyakov Gallery Board of Trustees becoming its chairman in 1904. In the same year he organised an 'icon hall' in the gallery. He himself bought the first of his own collection of icons in 1909. His collection was nationalised and opened to the public in 1918 but he was allowed to continue as its curator until, after his death in 1929, it was incorporated into the Tretyakov Gallery.

(8) As quoted in Andrew Spira: The Avant-Garde Icon - Russian avant-garde art and the icon painting tradition, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, England and Burlington, USA, 2008, pp.54-5. Spira's source is Y.Rusakov: 'Matisse in Russia in the Autumn of 1911', Burlington Magazine, no 866, vol 117, May 1975, pp.285-91.

(9) I can see no grounds for Charles Lock's suggestion (op.cit., p.50) that La Danse 'painted in 1910 [ie a year before Matisse visited Russia - PB] for Schukin ... may well be Matisse's tribute to Rublev's Trinity.'  According to Yazykova: Hidden and Triumphant: 'In 1904, a conservator named Vasiliy Gurianov performed a test restoration of a small portion of the icon and became convinced that under the layers of darkened varnish and soot, through which there were the barely discernible outlines of three figures, there lay hidden a timeless, priceless painting ... Soon crowds began making pilgrimages to the icon ... Frightened by the crowds the monks decided to postpone the icon's restoration and re-cover the icon with a metal setting. The icon remained untouched until 1918 when a restoration commission formed paradoxically by the new Soviet government again took up the task of research and restoration.' Although she doesn't mention it the committee included Pavel Florensky.

Rusakov: Matisse in Russia, concludes his account by quoting a letter from Ostroukhov, January 1912, as saying 'tempted by his stories of Russian icon-painting, Picasso, Van Dongen and a number of other artists are arriving in Moscow any day' but Rusakov continues: 'Unfortunately, this trip to Russian by prominent French artists did not take place either then or later.'

Closer to the subject of this talk, Maurice Denis had visited Moscow in 1909 and he too visited Ostroukhov and, with him, the Tretyakov Gallery but does not seem to have been unduly impressed. He seems to have been more interested in modern Russian painters, without necessarily liking them ('Vroubel, a sort of Gustav Moreau influenced by Böcklin, is without interest'. (10) Ostroukhov was a major collection of Vroubel). He says of the Uspensky ('Dormition') cathedral in the Kremlin, that 'four enormous columns covered in frescos on a golden ground support vaults and columns. Painting from top to bottom in a style very inferior to what one sees in San Marco' (p.99). Though what he was seeing was a much blackened and overpainted version of what we might see in the Uspensky cathedral now, and since San Marco was the home of Fra Angelico, Denis' favourite painter, he was setting the bar of his judgment very high.

(10) Maurice Denis: Journal, tome II, 1905-1920, La Colombe, Paris, 1957, p.101.

But his main interest seems to have been in the possibility of producing modern icons: 'It is wrong to think that Orthodox art is frozen; it is, on the contrary, a victim of modern academic tendencies and it could be renewed. Here, according to Benois, artists such as Netzeroff, Vezmitzoff [transcriptions  of the names as in Denis' text - PB] are false renovators. The initiator of the movement is still Ivanov.'

Mikhail Nesterov: The Empty Tomb, 1889

Victor Vasnetsov, Christ Pantocrator (cover of the main dome of St. Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev). 1885-1896

Alexander Ivanov: the Appearance of Christ before the people, 1837-1857
This, Ivanov's best known and most ambitious painting, has a particular interest here because the attempt to reconstruct a biblical scene realistically was also very typical of the French painting of the time which Denis opposed in his Neo-Traditionalism

We might note in passing that Alexandre Benois whom Denis quotes saying these painters were 'false renovators' was himself a representative of the Neo-Russian school, together with Roerich.