Russian Museums and Galleries Moscow Museum of Private Collections Mikhail Chuvanov Collection (Room 205)

Mikhail Chuvanov Collection (Room 205)

Books and publishing played a prominent role in the life of Mikhail Ivanovich Chuvanov (1892–1990). Working his way up to become the head of a printing house, Chuvanov was a connoisseur of bibliography and palaeography. He owned a famous collection of manuscripts and books published in Russia during and immediately after the revolution. He was acquainted with book collectors and such famous writers as Vladimir Gilyarovsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, Yury Olesha, Ilya Ilf and Konstantin Paustovsky. His library contained autographed copies of the works of Andrei Bely and Marina Tsvetayeva.

While much has been written about Mikhail Chuvanov’s collection of books, very little is known about his collection of icons. Warden of the Preobrazhensky congregation of Old Believers, Chuvanov amassed a collection of icons with the fervour and respect for the religious and artistic traditions of the Orthodox Church for which the Old Believers were famed.

The icons from the Chuvanov collection cover a large period of time – from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. While the collection includes several icons of extremely high artistic standards, most are typical examples of the works and themes encountered in pre-revolutionary households. Their subjects and compositions are traditional. Helping to form the outlooks and artistic tastes of the common people, such objects are of great social interest. The artistic styles of many works allow them to be attributed to the icon-painting workshops of Muscovy, although the Chuvanov collection also contains works from Novgorod and north Russia.

In 1988, two years before his death, Mikhail Chuvanov donated his collection of icons to the Museum of Private Collections. Some of the finest works are now on permanent exhibition. The pride of the collection is The Saviour in Power (late 15th or early 16th century). The image of Christ in golden robes seems to personify the words of the Gospel: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). The soft and harmonic paintwork was a typical feature of the Muscovite school of icon-painting at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Most other icons are only on temporary exhibition. The images of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (15th century) are the oldest icons in the Museum of Private Collections. The constrained poses are not entirely successful. The clothes are interpreted as large and even planes of colour, occasionally interrupted by the lines of the folds. The faces have narrow foreheads and heavy jaws. All these features betray the hand of a provincial master.

The Chuvanov collection includes eight menaion icons (17th century). Each work represents a miniature calendar in images. The word menaion comes from the Greek word for month (minas) and every icon corresponds to a particular month in the liturgical year. Over three rows, the icons depict the saints whose memories are celebrated in that particular month and scenes from the twelve main festivals of the Orthodox Church. The figures are accompanied by explanatory inscriptions and numbers. The central scene no longer survives; it probably contained an image of Our Lady of Tikhvin. The small scenes are painted in a subtle technique typical of the masters of the Stroganov school. The icon-painter was a punctilious narrator with an expert knowledge of every scene.

This menaion icon is linked to the legend surrounding another religious image, described in the twenty-eight scenes of the miracle-working icon of Our Lady of Tikhvin (late 16th or early 17th century). The original image of Our Lady of Tikhvin was allegedly painted by St Luke the Evangelist. The icon originally belonged to Antioch and Jerusalem. In the fifth century, Empress Eudoxia brought it to Constantinople, where the Church of Panagia of Blachernae was specially built for it. In 1383, during the reign of Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoi, the icon disappeared from Constantinople and reappeared in the middle of Lake Ladoga in north-west Russia, coming to rest in the River Tikhvin. The Church of the Dormition was built on the site to commemorate the event. A monastery was founded next to the church in 1560. In the early seventeenth century, the icon saved the monastery from several enemy invasions.

The majority of icons in the Chuvanov collection were painted in the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, when Russian icon-painting was becoming more diverse, adding numerous details and decorations. The three-dimensional figures and buildings and the use of chiaroscuro modelling and direct perspective in many works betray the influence of the West European art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The bright and rich paints are like enamels. The paintwork and rich settings often evoke the effect of a precious jewel.

One work from the Stroganov school – St Theodore Stratilates and St Anna the Prophetess (early 17th century) – traces the changes taking place in Russian icon-painting. The proportions of the two figures are slightly elongated. The icon-painter possibly originally intended to depict the saints standing in a flowering meadow. Instead of this, however, they float against an elegantly patterned rug. Although three-dimensional, the figures do not acquire weight.

The Annunciation at the Well (19th century) is an interesting work, painted by an Old Believer in a retrospective style. The dark tones corresponded to the artist’s concept of an historical work. This was how such icons looked in the nineteenth century – uncleaned, darkened and covered in layers of soot. Opponents of the seventeenth-century reforms of Patriarch Nikon regarded such works as an incarnation of the old, true faith.

The Mikhail Chuvanov collection offers a fascinating glimpse into the traditions and values of what was once an invariable part of the home, life and world of every Russian.

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