A catalogue of the Russian icons in the British Museum

By Yury Bobrov / Edited by Chris Entwistle

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The British Museum collection

The British Museum’s collection of Russian icons is relatively small – together with Byzantine and Greek icons, it numbers little over 100 works. The collection was formed spontaneously as a part of what was the large Department of Medieval Antiquities via acquisitions and gifts, mostly made during the period after the Second World War. Nevertheless, the collection is valuable not only because of the ancient Icon of St George (cat. no. 1) – a rare iconographic type from the beginning of the 15th century, but in the collection are representatives of all periods of Russian icon painting, with the exception of the earliest period of the 12th and 13th centuries – the so-called pre-Mongol period.

The historical and anthropological aspects of this collection are most interesting. The first donation to the Museum was a small, ‘domestic’ icon of the New Testament Trinity (cat. no. 68), or ‘Paternitas’, with a very simple and artless image of God the Father, Jesus Christ and a symbol of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The icon arrived at the British Museum in 1920 when Russia was still embroiled in civil war. Thousands of Russian people emigrated from their motherland, carrying with them only the most valuable items. Often these included icons of a similar type, which were preserved in every family from wealthy aristocratic households to the most simple and poor. Icons were ordered on the occasion of the birth of children or for other important events; parents blessed their children with them for marriage. The ‘Paternitas’ icon is numbered amongst those naïve icons, fashioned ‘under cover’ (on the panel only the faces are drawn, as the remaining surface was covered by a metal casing with an embossed image), which were manufactured in their tens of thousands in the Suzdal villages of Mstera and Kholui. It is possible that this icon also appeared in England in the luggage of Russian émigrés or soldiers of the British military units serving in the north of Russia.

A different icon, entering the collection in 1924, also preserves a memory of those dramatic years of Russian history. An icon of the Mother of God of Vladimir (cat. no. 12) from the 17th century was given to the British Museum by Captain H.W. Murray. On the back is a label with an inscription that says that the icon was given to T.A. Kilby on 28 July 1919 by the monks of a monastery on the shores of Lake Onega, in thanks for saving them from the Bolsheviks [1]. There are several old monasteries on the shores of Lake Onega, but one of the oldest, the Kornilev Monastery – founded in the 15th century on the small island of Palei off the northern shore of the lake, was burned and destroyed by the Bolsheviks, in 1919. In this period the monastery belonged to the Old Believer branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The style of icon, restored in Old Believer ‘old-style’ manner, indirectly confirms that this icon miraculously escaped from precisely this place.

A further icon, ‘The Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah’ (cat. no. 47), entered the British Museum via Miss M.H. Turner in 1944. It is possible that the icon was brought back to Britain by a British convoy which had been delivering equipment and supplies to the USSR during the Second World War. An icon is always resonant with some mystical origin existing outside of the image on the panel. The Biblical prophet Elijah, according to legend, appeared in the heavens in a fiery, blazing chariot, and his icon indeed appeared in Britain in 1944, when hundreds of British soldiers were perishing in torpedoed boats.

  • ^ [1] - The full text is written in English in ink on a paper label: ‘Given to T.A. Kilby, Inland water transport Tug Gophir on July 28th 1919 by the monks of the Lake Onega monastery, North Russia, in gratitude for his help in rescuing them and their belongings