P erched at the mouth of State Street, the Knights of Columbus Museum has acted as a gallery and archive of Catholic history and culture for over 30 years.
The museum’s stunning concrete-and-glass home is airy, well-lit and spacious. A variety of galleries holding mostly permanent collections (including the Father Michael J. McGivney Gallery and Reliquary, The Papal Gallery, the Wall of History, The Christopher Columbus Gallery, and the library, archives and theater) encourage exploring. Colorful hallway murals, a beautiful central atrium with fountain and, of course, a gift shop encourage hanging out.
The current highlight of the Museum’s non-permanent displays is the Windows Into Heaven: Russian Icons and Treasures exhibition. Organized and curated by the now-departed Mary Lou Cummings, Windows Into Heaven spans three rooms and features over 225 different examples of Russian Orthodox iconography, which traces back to the Byzantine-led Christianization of Kievan Rus, a group of allied tribes centered on present-day Kiev, Ukraine, starting in 988 A.D.
In the context of the exhibit, the word “icon” refers to an image that depicts Biblical and other religiously significant scenes and figures—including Jesus, Mary, Jesus’s disciples and saints. “At their most basic,” says a wall-bound description in the middle of the exhibition, “icons function like stained glass windows in Catholic churches.” That is, they communicate ideas and stories via images, and not through words, which was particularly useful during the significant portion of the past 1,000 years when most religious followers were illiterate. Icons gave common folk a more tangible and intelligible grasp of the pillars and pivotal moments of their faith.
Though highly skilled artists engaged in iconography, it was also “a popular art form, attracting people of different skill levels, including itinerant craftsmen and folk artists.” The icons you’ll see in Windows Into Heaven (of Jesus, Mary, St. David and Gabriel, among others) are remarkable in presentation and preservation, but it turns out they aren’t displayed primarily for those reasons.
Rather than their communicative power, the Knights of Columbus Museum has chosen to emphasize what it maintains is their communing power. The museum’s interim Curator and Registrar, Bethany Sheffer, explains that icons were “not meant to be seen as a piece of visual art, but rather to give viewers a spiritual experience and a glimpse—a window—into Heaven.”
Another staff member described that phenomenon in further detail. “When you stand in front of an icon, you’re in the presence of that individual” being depicted. “It’s a way for you to look into the spiritual world. That perspective was designed to draw you into the icon, to make you a part of the scene. It’s not a one-way relationship. We look into icons, into the spiritual world but they’re also looking out to us and the purpose is to bring the two worlds together.”
Sheffer took me through the icons hung on walls and placed in glass cases, pointing out what the pose and color and material depicted or used in each icon might tell us about the time and context in which it was crafted. Visitors will quickly notice that many of the pieces contain some measure of reflective gold paint or a metal, sometimes even jeweled, element to convey an extra-worldly light or presence. Heads of figures in the icons are often encircled, halo-like.
Whether an icon was depicted on cloth to adorn the home of a peasant or crafted on fine wood with gold leaf for placement on sacred church doors, the images portrayed are immediately familiar to most who have attended a church or viewed historical Western Christian art—speaking volumes about the strong influence Eastern “windows” have had on popular Western approaches to liturgical representations.
Those planning a visit would do well to attend iconographer Marek Czarnecki’s group lecture titled “The Technique of Writing Icons,” scheduled for 2 p.m. on October 26. It’s the latest in a series of illustrated public talks in which Czarnecki shares his rich and erudite perspective on the discipline with the rest of us.
Then again, attending on a more typical day has its perks. Because the exhibit is long-term—it’s been open since April, and will be up until next April—you likely won’t face the problems associated with a crowded gallery. Want to examine the artifacts close-up, straight-on and at length? No problem.
Whether you identify as a Catholic or a Russian Orthodox or a history buff or an art lover, icon with ease.
Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons and Treasures
Knights of Columbus Museum – One State St, New Haven (map)
Written by Courtney McCarroll. Photographed by Dan Mims.