Collection of Old Russian Painting

The collection of icons in the Kirillo-Belozersky museum-reserve contains almost 1,5 thousand items of the 15th – 20th century. Its basis is formed by the works from the largest monasteries of the Belozersk district. Many of them were created by the outstanding masters of Moscow, Rostov, Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Belozersk and Vologda. The museum has several extant iconostases of the 15th – 19th centuries: from the Assumption Cathedral, the churches of St. John Climacus, Transfiguration, St. Epiphanius, St. John the Baptist, St. Martinian and others.

Its forming started in 1924, when a museum was opened on the territory of the former Kirillo-Belozersky monastery. But even earlier, in 1918, the expedition headed by the famous researcher of the Old Russian art Alexander Ivanovich Anisimov began to reveal the most valuable monuments making up the national property in the Kirillo-Belozersky and other neighbouring monasteries. Most of the icons were received by the museum from 1924 till 1945. In the 1920-s the employees under the leadership of the first director Alexander Alexandrovich Kholmskiy compiled inventories and registered the works from the Kirillo-Belozersky, Ferapontov monasteries and the Nilo-Sorsky hermitage. They made the “Inventory of the historical and artistic objects from the former Kirillo-Belozersky monastery” already on December 19, 1924. It became the first document of the museum which took stock of the exhibits and even replaced the acquisition books. The icons (about 372) which were kept in the monastery churches and in the building of the archives–arsenal (the Treasury chamber) formed a considerable part of the inventory. In 1927 all objects of worship from the Nilo-Sorsky hermitage were registered, and in 1929 – the property from the gateway church of the Ferapontov monastery. The art critic E.V. Dyakonova, the successor of A.A. Kholmskiy at the director’s post (she was the head of the museum from 1929 till 1932), laid down the foundation for scientific museum registration, including an inventory of icons. In the 1930-s the museum collection was replenished with icons from the Goritsy convent of the Resurrection, the Nilo-Sorsky hermitage, parish churches of the town Kirillov, churches of the Kirillov and Vashki districts. All in all, about 1200 icons were registered in the pre-war period, but many works of the 17th – early 20th centuries received at the same time were considered to be of no artistic value. Besides, the staff undertook attempts to return the icons which had been taken out for restoration. For example, the scientist Levinson in his conclusion made after the investigation of the museum on October 2, 1929, considered it to be necessary to return the exhibits from the Russian Museum in Leningrad to complete the exposition.

A difficult period in the collection of icons started in the middle of the 1930-s, when the museum of history and art was reorganized into a district museum of local studies. The principles of stock acquisitions changed correspondingly, and some icons were excluded from the museum inventories. Thus, in 1938 by instructions of the authorities the museum prepared three lists with about 1000 works for liquidation. Fortunately, many of them have been preserved because they were included into the antique-exchange fund.

The War which started in 1941 prevented from selling out or destroying the icons. After it the majority of the objects which had been written off earlier formed a part of the museum collection again. We can judge about the registration and preservation of icons during this period by a few extant documents. For example, it is known that the icons from the iconostasis of the Assumption cathedral were packed in cases and prepared for evacuation. In 1943-1944 the director of the museum E.A. Stolyarova could manage to carry out a total inventory though there were not enough adjusted rooms, money and necessary staff: the stocks were divided into groups in accordance with the type of work and placed in 5 repositories; the icons were arranged on the shelves and those objects which had been prepared for removal were returned to their places.

In the post-war decades the collection of icons was also replenished. During the first 20 years about 255 panels were registered. The largest acquisition of that period was the iconostasis of the late 17th – early 18 centuries from the wooden church of St. Prophet Elijah in Belozersk (141 icons) created by local icon-painters. That day when the wooden church of the Deposition of the Robe built in 1485 by the Rostov Archbishop Ioasaph (his secular name was Ivan Nikitich Obolenskiy) was transported to the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery became a great event in the history of the museum. One of the most ancient wooden monuments in our country which came down to us was brought there because it came to be in the flooded zone during the construction of the Volga-Baltic Canal. In December 1957 the masters from the Vologda specialized restoration workshop transported and assembled the church on the prepared foundation in the New Town of the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery. A year earlier, on January 6, 1956, all religious objects had already been brought to the museum: church vestment, vessels and icons. Soon the most valuable works of art (19 panels), some of them were attributed to the icon-painters from Dionisy’s school, were sent to Moscow – to the Andrei Rublev Museum of Old Russian Art for study and restoration. Only in 1998 several works were returned. In the 1970-1980-s the museum received only 100 icons of the 18th – early 20th centuries, but at the same time large restoration projects were carried out.

In the last decade of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st century the museum was preparing for the 600th anniversary of the Kirillo-Belozersky and Ferapontov monasteries and the 500th anniversary of Dionisy’s frescoes in the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral. It was the time of extensive publication of the icons. In 1999 a new permanent exhibition of the museum was opened in the House of Father Superior in the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery. The section “Religious Art” represents several tens of the icons painted in the 15th-17th centuries and considered to be masterpieces of the Old Russian art.

The beginning of the 21st century marked two more important events. In August 2002 an exhibition “Artistic Heritage of Dionisy” dedicated to the 500th anniversary of his wall-painting was opened in the same building. 108 icons from 14 museums of Russia were displayed there. More than half of the works, created by the leading Moscow masters in the late 15th – first half of the 16th century, came from the Assumption Cathedral of the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery and the Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral of the Ferapontov monastery. And a year later an album “Icons of the Kirillo-Belozersky museum-reserve” was published. It contained 101 works dating back to the 15th – early 18th centuries, a scientific catalogue and introductory articles characterizing the collection. It was for the first time during the history of the museum when the collection of icons was so fully represented.

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