Many of these icons came from locations that had experienced extreme violence and religious artifact destruction, not unlike what is happening in parts of the Middle East and other places today. During those times, they were relocated. Other icons had been abandoned and were decaying naturally. We owe a debt of gratitude to Bolles-Rodgers and others who had the foresight to “spirit icons away” before they were potentially lost forever.
The University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee possesses this noteworthy collection of Eastern style icons, acquired in the 1980's.
The "Bolles" collection, as it is called, although not as large as the one in Assisi, Italy or at the Rublev Museum in Connecticut is stunningly diverse nonetheless and exceptional in quality. Some of the icons, for example, were gifted or purchased from Mt Sinai in Egypt and the icon treasury of all treasuries.
When I first began the study of icons, I sometimes read or heard that only a certain style or paint technique was fitting for an authentic icon. As my learning continued, I began to note the various styles and applications as shown in books and more importantly through viewing icons and other items in person.
One observation was that the earliest icons were sometimes completed in the ancient encaustic or hot wax painting technique.
The Pontocrator at Mt Sinai in Egypt, one the oldest icons known, is an example of this. Another is the Madonna and Child from Santa Maria Nova in Rome.
Intricate mosaic, carvings and enamel work icons date to early Christian iconography as well. The 15th century ivory image (above) is representative of an art style that had been passed down for centuries.
Fresco and egg tempera paint technique developed as a method for painting religious art early in Christianity. Iconography, as in Byzantine art, began during the middle Byzantine period and carried over to other regions as centuries passed.
The natural pigment colors used for tempera technique are rich and keep their brilliance indefinitely as demonstrated over time.
During the Renaissance period, icons painted in the new oil medium became fashionable; first in the West and then it spread East.
Acrylic painted icons were introduced beginning in the mid-20th century and they are not represented in this earlier collection.
Although debated in traditional iconography circles, acrylic paint is widely accepted as one new standard among iconographers both in the East and West.
and every medium has drawbacks and pluses. Short term, acrylics, when properly applied and situated, wear well in comparison.
In fact, acrylic is very often used to paint and decorate churches today. This is due to the economy of the paint and the growing unavailability of certain oil paints for large scale surface projects. The painting of walls in oil or the completion of fresco work is often reserved for restoration projects as I have been told,
but not entirely.
Fresco wall technique is cost prohibitive for most churches and public spaces in the marketplace today. Likewise, it has drawbacks. It is hard to maintain and subject to decay. Moisture or ground movements can destroy it very rapidly.
How it came to be located in Milwaukee was explained with placards on the wall like the ones below and can be read online. It’s a wonderful timeline of events. Click to enlarge photos.
it is good to know that icons are not intended to look realistic like a photograph. For example, when Jesus looks like a small man and has a large forehead, it’s because he represents the Wisdom of God. It's not an artistic error. To "read an icon" requires knowledge of the piece. If you see one that is confusing- look up the title. Numerous Orthodox sites offer detailed explanations.
The interpretations can get theologically complicated and incredibly nuanced. There is one in the collection, titled The Burning Bush icon. It looks simple enough on the surface, but really there's a lot to it. I've listed a description of a similar piece in my blog here.
I did hear people talking about the baby Jesus (below). Although this is an exceptional work, in
my opinion, the comments were not complimentary. I can see how some might joke about his
5 o'clock shadow however.
And true enough, it is not fashionable at this time to render a "homely" baby Jesus. Most practicing iconographers today are sensitive to this and often “improve” the faces or select prototypes that aren’t viewed as “severe” by the clients. In the photo gallery below, there are examples of this earlier style. Iconography such as this is an acquired taste.
And it is true that iconographers have been creative in their interpretation of prototypes for centuries upon centuries and according to local needs while striving to maintain the canons.
In some regions the talent pool was far better than in others. Churches dispersed to the far outposts and often subject to upheaval and disunity, worked with whatever iconographers and supplies were on hand. Some pieces in this exhibit have been completed more quickly, while others with intricate detailing and beauty, probably took months to finish and required a very accomplished hand.
Particularly fascinating to me were the Transfiguration icons.
One, from Crete, was a great help to me in discerning the direction of an icon that I am completing.
There was a question about how much light to put in the faces of my Crete school rendition.
I saw that I was on the right track and can now confidently proceed by adding only a little more highlighting to the body parts. Much of the garments and landscaping still have some way to go.
On Viewing Icons in person
When you have the opportunity, take time to view artwork "live". Although easy to access and display, prints never compare to the richness and beauty of an original.
And when viewing icons especially, recall that many of these pieces came from areas that were experiencing extreme violence and religious destruction. Will these icons ever be part of liturgical or devotional use again? Who knows?
Christi Marie Jentz, copyright 2015
Several of the pieces in this collection were probably liturgical Icons.
Traditionally, they are painted on hardwood, gessoed boards and typically inserted into iconostasis frameworks. They can be easily removed for repair and cleaning.
The smaller exhibited icons would have been for private devotional use, but not always. Might the shell, pictured in the gallery below, have been used during the Baptismal ceremony?