History, faith, culture and art come together in iconic imagery

History, faith, culture and art come together in an exhibit of rare antique Russian icons. In recognition of the upcoming Easter holiday, two special icons commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are being exhibited.

Several 18th and 19th century icons from the private collection of Ormand Leavel are on display at Bowers Jewelers,

“This is an exciting opportunity for people to get a firsthand look, to experience the history and culture of icons,” Leavel said. “Of all the icons, the Russians are considered the finest.”

The Crucifixion icon has a center picture surrounded by 12 individual scenes from Holy Week leading up to the death of Jesus Christ.

The Resurrection icon dates to 1903. It depicts the ascension of Christ after his death on the cross.

“It shows the jaws of Hell opening up and Jesus going down to redeem the Biblical figures Adam and Eve, while demons try to recapture the souls,” Leavel said.

Icons depict sacred events or people, usually in paintings on wood that range in size from quite small to panels that can be several feet long. Stylistically, the faces of saints have almond-shaped eyes, enlarged ears, long thin noses and small mouths. The images are two-dimensional and flat. Icons frequently were constructed to feature several moments from the same story on one panel, such as Leavel’s Resurrection icon.

The people who painted the icons were very spiritual, Leavel said. For many, it was a religious act more than a creative pursuit.

“The Russian icon is conspicuous for its peculiar combination of an abstract concept coupled with profound emotionality,” Leavel explained in a written summary.

Without understanding the history of the art form, as well as the symbolism and meaning behind its imagery, it is hard to truly appreciate Russian icons, which can be very intricate and complex.

“The colors, the way the hand was held are tied into the overall mysticism that the Russian Orthodox Church has,” Bowers employee Chris Janko said.

In Russian households, icons were displayed in the “red” or “beautiful” corner.

“They venerated the icons,” Leavel said.

The icons displayed at Bowers were typically displayed in private homes, not churches. They were familiar objects, something family members would have interacted with daily by offering incense, lighting candles or praying to the icons.

Families would commission artists to create icons that portayed a saint or event that had special meaning to the family. Some icons were dedicated to a specific month, with a scene for each day.

Some icons are covered by a metal riza, which is Russian for “robe,” which served two purposes. The intricate metal overlays were sometimes enamelled, filegreed or decorated with precious stones, adding to the beauty of the icon. From a practical standpoint, rizas were effective in protecting the religious paintings.

“Most often in a home they would have had a candle or incense burning in front of it 24/7,” Janko said.

For uneducated Russian families that lived in remote areas, far from churches, icons served as teaching tools and a focal point for prayer and worship. Their personal and religious import made icons treasured family heirlooms, much like contemporary family china or handmade quilts.

“Unlike the family fine china that gets pulled out just for special occasions,” said Janko, “prayers were said around these (icons) daily. They weren’t kept pristine; they were used. Restoration on these is a normal and accepted aspect of the art. It does not diminish the value of the icon to have been restored.”

Leavel started collecting icons more than 50 years ago in Kansas City. He currently owns about 25 icons, his most cherished displayed in his home.

He is the former owner of Panache of La Jolla, a shop he co-owned and operated with Nasser Karouni for 40 years.

“When Panache was sold, we were looking for a place to display our art, and we knew Bowers would be the perfect place,” he said.

The icons on display are available for purchase and collecting has become very popular.

“It’s getting hard to get them now because the Russian people are returning to the Orthodox faith and they are keeping their icons,” he said.

For many collectors, including Leavel, icons have a deeper meaning than just beautiful works of art. He claims an affinity to each icon in his collection, drawn by the religious and artistic beauty of each.

“Icons are supposed to be the windows of the soul,” he said.

The icons are available to be viewed by the public at Bowers Jewelers at 7860 Girard Ave. Call (858) 459-3678 for more information.