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This I think brings us back to Julia Reitlinger.

Mural painting for the Church of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, Paris, 1937.

What I have tried to do in this paper is give some idea of the context, artistic and religious, in which she was formed. None of this in any sense 'explains' her and I don't think much that is useful can be said about 'influences'. We can perhaps see the impact that the Russian icon exhibition in Munich had on her in the paintings she did for the church in Meudon in the 1930s but there is no sense in which she could be said to be trying to revive the techniques of what is sometimes nowadays called the 'canonical' - meaning the pre-seventeenth century - icon. She had rejected this course of action when she decided against following the Old Believer icon painter Mikhail Katkov. Here we might point to a contrast with the heroic figure of Maria Solokova, her contemporary, an immensely skilful icon painter, engaged in a huge research after the traditional, pre-seventeenth models, and continuing without compromise to paint icons through the persecutions of the 1930s. It is possible that some of the icons Reitlinger saw in Munich in 1929 were copies made by Solokova and her teacher Vladimir Komarovsky. (26)

Icon by Maria Solokova from This is a chapter of Irina Gorbunova-Lomax: The icon - truth and fables, originally published as Icon: truth and fiction, by Satis Publishing House, St. Petersburg, in 2009 ( which gives a powerful account of the continuation and development of the icon painting tradition in Russia during the Soviet years (Ch.10), followed in the next chapter by a very severe criticism of developments in the West.

(26) A speculation of my own. I don't know if any research has been done on who did the copies of the Rublev Trinity and Vladimir Mother of God. There is an account of the exhibition and its reception in Britain in Richard Marks: 'Russian Icons through British eyes, c1830-1930' in Anthony Cross (ed): A People Passing Rude - British responses to Russian culture, Open Book Publishers, 2012, There is an account of Solokova and Komarovsky in Yazykova: Hidden and Triumphant, pp.103-118.

I see no sign of any interest on Reitlinger's part in the development of a mathematically based hieratic art as envisaged in Beuron. I see no influence of any of the contemporary artists - Rouault, Chagall, Modigliani - who we might imagine could have interested her. Frankly I see little sign in her work of the influence of Maurice Denis, even though her correspondence shows she was anxious to win his approval and she describes him as being 'a bit like an artistic spiritual father confessor.' 

The word 'naivety' may be useful so long as it clear that we are not talking about a false naivety assumed for aesthetic effect, nor about 'naivety' as it is used as a term to describe the often very sophisticated paintings done by people without formal training. Sister Joanna and her friend Mother Maria - who also worked in Denis' atelier, mainly in embroidery - were moving in the circles of some of the most impressive cultural and intellectual figures of their time. There may be some resemblance to the religious paintings of Paul Sérusier, but, much as I admire Sérusier's landscape painting, the religious works (far from following the rigour of Beuron) seem to me to err on the side of false naivety for aesthetic effect.

Paul Sérusier: Baptism of Christ, mural for the church of St Julien, Chateuneuf-du-Faou, c1914-18

Instead it is like the naivety Denis ascribes to the Italian painters of the early Renaissance. She says what she wants to say as simply and directly as possible with no desire to impress the viewer with a demonstration of skill. This is a 'naivety' that was possible to her largely because of what Denis and his friends in the Gauguin circle had achieved in the late nineteenth century but it is a naivety that Denis himself had abandoned by the time of the Atelier in the 1920s. His most ambitious work, the large fresco on the theme of the Pentecost in the Église du Saint-Esprit in Paris is almost a demonstration of all the skills, trompe l'oeil included (not to mention the need for some sort of literary explanation for all the allusions), that he had seemed to reject in his earlier writings.

Maurice Denis: Mural painting for the Eglise du Saint Esprit, Paris, 1929

Following Denis' distinction between dogmatic rigour ('Byzantium', Beuron) and tender feeling (Fra Angelico) hers is clearly an art of tender feeling. 

Angel showing St John the Apocalypse, from the mural paintings done for the Society of SS Alban and Sergius in London, 1946-7, currently in St Anne's Orthodox Church, Northampton

Mother of God with angels, protecting the city, Northampton

Even where she is necessarily using a traditional 'hieratic' formula, in the portrait icons of our Saviour and His Holy Mother, there is a depth of feeling, a pathos that we would not expect to find in the Greek or Russian models and which also goes far beyond anything to be found in Maurice Denis, who has so little sense of the dark, tragic side of life. Indeed she could be criticised for the expression of grief that pervades almost all the faces in her work, amounting to the expression of a passion and therefore necessarily distracting from the figure's role as an object of veneration, not to mention a Bulgakovian prototype, the idea as it exists in God's creative Wisdom.

I have this from the internet at but am unable to give date or location

She may justly be described as the founder of a new, Western school of icon painting. The prominent Paris based icon painters Gregory Krug and Leonid Ouspensky both follow in her wake. Despite Ouspensky's The theology of the icon which provides an indispensable guide to the history of the icon and the dogmatic criteria it must be expected to fulfil, he was not engaged in a work of restoration of an old tradition. He continues to run with the freedom given him by Sister Joanna, above all a freedom from the need to display obvious skill or mastery of traditional techniques. It is a freedom typical of the west, less so of the painters who are engaged in the great work of reviving the icon in post-Soviet Russia. I don't know of any direct connection between the 'school' of Sister Joanna and that of Archimandrite Sophrony, but the wall paintings and icons associated with his monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex share the same sense of freedom.

Refectory of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex.Photo from

Finally, though, I don't wish to suggest that the absence of obvious virtuosity or mastery of the older techniques of icon painting means a real lack of skill. Sister Joanna at the end of her life was turning out icons at a furious rate, clearly believing that this is what late Soviet Russia needed more than anything else. I have seen only a very few reproductions of these late works but the paintings I have seen, now installed in the Orthodox church in Northampton, show lines that are clearly rapidly drawn but with a surety and confidence that I would regard as skill of a very high order - though perhaps not a skill normally associated with icon painting.

In an essay on Nikodim Kondakov who, we remember, had taught Sister Joanna in Prague prior to her arrival in Paris, Wendy Salmond quotes the conclusion to The Russian Icon :

'The hope for the future would seem to be to raise the artistic nature of the craft to such a level that religion could help it to rise to free and personal artistic creativity. The Russian people ... deserve, like other European nations, to have given it a period of education on the basis of ... personal artistic creativeness.' (27)

(27) Wendy Salmond: 'Ellis H.Minns and Nikodim Kondakov's The Russian Icon (1927)' in Hardiman and Kozicharow (eds.): Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art, p.192.

Salmond comments that 'his book came out too late for the Russian people to use as he intended. In the twelve years it took to write, translate and publish the Russian Icon, the world Kondakov described with such expert authority was effectively destroyed.' (28) It could however be argued that something of his hope for an approach to icon painting based on 'free and personal artistic creativity' was realised in the West by Sister Joanna and her successors.

Angel at Christmas. One of the little 'icons' Sister Joanna would send to her friends and spiritual children at the end of her life.

(28) Irina Gorbunova-Lomax: The icon - truth and fables, ch.10 argues that in fact far from Kondakov's world being destroyed, the best icons were, under the Soviet government, cleaned and restored and made easily available to the widest possible public, albeit in museums not in churches (and are our museums not full of 'works of art' originally conceived for churches?). She also argues that the work Kondakov and his friends started of encouraging and developing the traditional craft techniques of the icon painting villages in Russia was continued in the Soviet era albeit for the purpose of producing Soviet art. But they were there in existence when they were needed for the restoration of church life.