at the Art Institute, through September 15

In the icon painting The Archangel Gabriel (1502), by Dionysii and studio, Gabriel cuts a gently curved figure against a solid gold background. His small face is only a bit wider than his neck, and meets it gracefully in an almost continuous line. The many folds on his green outer garment create a near-musical rhythm, while the curved tops of his two brown wings echo the shape of his head. Parts of the inside edges of each wing are parallel to the outlines of his hair.

If the shapes and lines echo one another, so do the colors, which are variations on two hues. There are the various shades of green and blue-green on his garments and on the ground; then there are the browns of his hair and wings, the golden flesh tones, the paler gold background, and even the orange and pale red of his shoes. The brown wings are lined from top to bottom with thin, delicate streaks of gold, the same gold as the background.

The viewer who looks at this image for a while–moving away, perhaps, to look at other paintings and then returning–will discover much more than a picture nicely unified by internal formal resemblances. As the colors seem to resolve into shades of two hues, as the shapes become rhythmic lines, this apparently simple panel painting becomes an ethereal abstraction, a vision of some realm beyond the physical.

A look at Gabriel’s face might bring the viewer back down to earth a bit. His expression is a mixture of gentle melancholy and sureness of purpose. His eyes look to the left, out of the picture; when the painting was originally mounted in a church he was looking at an adjacent image of Christ. His face combines several moods, but the oddness of the combination creates a face locked in contradiction, unlike any I’ve ever seen, a bit beyond ordinary humanness.

Musical lines, sensuous colors, and compositions that seem to transcend all specific shapes are found in much of the sacred art in this exhibit. The show has almost 100 objects–chalices, carved wooden images, a bejeweled gospel cover, and many textiles. Almost all are exquisite, with extraordinarily vivid colors and lines. But it is in the icon panel paintings and some of the textiles that the tension between physicality and transcendence is most deeply expressed.

Saint Cyril of the White Lake (1514) is a large cloth pall, one of many laid over the saint’s tomb. In this full-length embroidered frontal image of Saint Cyril, he directly confronts the viewer, his dark beady eyes standing out against a light face and the near-white halo above it, which in turn stand out against the black background. The directness of the image evokes his physical being, yet the exquisite delicacy of the silver and gilt silk threads oddly separates him from the black ground. Seen from far enough away, the figure seems to hover in front of its support almost like an apparition: the representation of the living presence, for the faithful, of a long-dead saint. Still more ethereal is Saint Zosima of Solovki (1661). A frontal image of this saint has similarly dark eyes; the saint and the abstract floral pattern around him are embroidered in delicate blue-gray and silver threads, creating an almost ghostly image. Around the gold border are poems of praise to the saint in a calligraphy so stylized that at first it seems like a simple geometrical pattern. The zigzag lines on the saint’s garments, the floral pattern, and this calligraphy, all geometric designs in blue-gray embroidery, complement one another despite their different shapes.

The founding moment for Christianity in Russia was 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev installed it as the official religion of his people. His reasons are unknown; the surviving chronicles offer many versions. The Art Institute’s publicity stresses the holiest one: his ambassadors, sent abroad to investigate possible religions, were so impressed with the service at the church Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the seat of Eastern Orthodoxy, that “We did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven.” It’s also recorded that Vladimir was attracted to Islam because it would have allowed him multiple sexual partners, but repelled by its ban on alcohol: “Drinking is the joy of the Rus. We cannot live without it.”

It wasn’t until after Vladimir’s death that Christianity became fully established. Icon painters were imported from the Byzantine Empire, and soon Russian painters were working in a similar mode. Whatever the reasons for Vladimir’s original conversion, generations of monks made Eastern Orthodox spirituality their own. Indeed, much of the difference between the best paintings in this exhibit and the major works of the European Renaissance–which seems to have passed Russia by, at least until much later–can be accounted for by the differences between the Eastern and Western churches. In the West the influence of academic theologians and their study of classical philosophy combined with other factors to emphasize complex, specific doctrines; mystics were frequently denounced as heretics. Renaissance religious art integrated saints, Christ, and even God into the three-dimensional spaces of the artists’ world. The wealthy burgher who paid for a painting was sometimes shown in it–alongside, for example, the Virgin Mary.

Byzantine and Russian icons hardly ever depicted God the father. Early on, what little of the physical world was present was always somewhat ethereal, never fully sensual. Roderick Grierson, in his excellent essay in the beautifully illustrated catalog, connects this stylistic difference with, among other things, a group in the Eastern Church known as hesychasts, who through prayer and meditation sought direct knowledge of God. Such a direct encounter with the infinite is partly reflected in these images’ ethereality, and in the other ways in which they differentiate themselves from the seen world. Renaissance religious imagery, by contrast, is resolutely physical, three-dimensional, illusionistic.

The hesychasts inspired counterarguments to the effect that since God was beyond human knowledge, direct experience of him was impossible. Related debates occurred earlier in Eastern Orthodoxy; in the eighth century iconoclasts in the Byzantine Empire tried to destroy all sacred images, citing the commandment against graven images–and influenced by the recent military successes of Islam, which had reinstituted this Old Testament ban. Theologians of the time, writes Grierson, “appealed to the doctrine of the Incarnation, maintaining that since God had assumed material form when Christ was born, he could be depicted in material form.”

The incarnation is central to an understanding of the dualities of much of holy Russian art, dualities expressed in the description of Christ in Colossians 1:15 as the “image of the invisible God.” Not only were the golden halos and solid gold backgrounds intended as symbols of the divine, but the images are of such profound delicacy and beauty that with extended viewing they create an experience that seems to transcend all that is visible on the canvas. While some designs seem to dissolve into ethereality, others are so strange and striking that they’re truly unlike anything in the physical world.

The Savior Enthroned in Glory (Moscow, mid-16th century) provides this show’s most striking example of the latter. Behind the figure of Christ are several concentric geometrical shapes–an irregular bright red rhombus set in a deep green ellipse behind which are the corners of a red polygon. Christ’s face and the sacred book he holds stand out clearly, while the red of his garment blends with the red of the polygon. His throne and the four animals in the corners of the composition are only dim outlines against the thick reds and greens of the shapes. This is the the largest icon in the exhibit, and its immensity and strangeness are almost frightening.

The catalog provides an interesting exegesis of the icon’s biblical sources (the four animals represent the four evangelists Christians find in Ezekiel), but even after reading it one is still faced with “a mysterious witness to the incomprehensible nature of God.” The abstract shapes that dominate every aspect of the image but face and book suggest a kind of prerational unity to things; the bright solid colors that dominate the outline of Christ’s throne suggest one vision of that unity. I found myself thinking of the work of another Russian painter, the 20th-century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

Saint George and the Dragon (Novgorod, second half of the 15th century) offers a more specifically delineated image, but with some similar effects. Saint George is mounted on a pure white horse, his head surrounded by a white halo. In his hand is the thin black line of a spear, which crosses the picture at a diagonal until it meets the dragon’s mouth. The straight line of the spear contrasts powerfully with the curves of the bodies of saint, horse, and dragon to create a dynamic image. At the same time the green of Saint George’s garment is also found on the dragon, the white of his halo on his horse. Most of the background is a powerful thick red. The effect of these solid, mostly undifferentiated colors is to suggest that underlying the visible forms of the world is a deeper unity.

Another way in which icons represent the sacred is through order and symmetry; chaotic nature is seen as representing a “fallen state,” while a more regular order is elevating, sanctifying. In The Assembly of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (c. 1400), the two angels face the viewer, side by side. Their robes, bodies, even faces are almost identical, and the arrangement of their robes is so similar that the icon is almost symmetrical. This symmetry and the striking repetition of a few solid colors combine to suggest a mystical unity.

Other images in the show are highly ordered in different ways. Saint Nicholas With Scenes From His Life (Novgorod, early 14th century) places around a large central image of the saint a border of 16 square scenes, with the background color alternating between green and red from scene to scene. While each scene is rhythmically and compositionally quite different, the repeating color scheme creates an overall visual unity. The Protecting Veil (Novgorod, mid-16th century) makes one source of such unity explicit: a variety of figures, mostly angels, is arrayed against the cross section of a white church. Each section of the building has in front of it a different figure or group; the ordering of the figures, representing the church’s theology, is an expression of, and is expressed by, church architecture.

Whether through the use of delicate, almost transparent colors, color schemes in which hues echo each other, or symmetrical composition, the best of these images act as windows on the invisible. If Renaissance perspective tends to locate the viewer outside the picture looking in, thus making him more aware of his individuality, these paintings tend to dissolve the viewer’s sense of self completely.

As the newly unified Russia grew in wealth in the 16th and 17th centuries, more individuals began commissioning paintings. The fabulously wealthy Stroganovs commissioned so much work that pictures painted for them constitute a school. The bulk of these paintings were relatively small and show an amazing precision of color and richness of line. The Acts of the Prophet Jonah (first half of the 17th century) is a spectacular, almost chaotic image that is really a collection of several intermingling compositions, each displaying another part of Jonah’s story. At the lower left the richly swirling lines of the ocean surround two whales, one swallowing him and one having just disgorged him; at the upper right are the well-ordered towers and walls of a city.

As beautiful as this image and many of the other Stroganov works in the exhibit are, they lack the transcendent quality of the earlier masterpieces. These images are more a celebration of the richly sensual qualities of paint and form than icons that lead the viewer toward the unseeable. While the earlier icons hung in churches on a large, many-tiered screen called the iconostasis, facing the congregation, these no doubt hung in suitably opulent palaces.

As the influence of the Renaissance spread through Russia, religious painting diverged even further from its origins. Semen Spiridonov Kholmogorets’s Christ Pantokrator Enthroned (c. 1682) presents a large central image of Jesus inside a border of many smaller square images. All of the images are brilliantly composed, with color effects that are optically more spectacular than anything in the earlier period, but the more I looked at it the more I felt it spoke only to my eye, not to my heart.

Unfortunately I cannot offer the same praise I have given to the works in this exhibit to the way they are installed. The second and larger section, which groups works by regional schools, serves its function well, allowing the viewer to see the differences, for example, between the bright colors and striking compositions of Novgorod and the gentler images of some Moscow painters. But the first section, which mixes art from different schools and attempts to place it instead in religious context, has two gigantic problems.

The worst of the two is that someone has decided to pipe recordings of Russian sacred music into these rooms; most of the time this music can be heard through the rest of the exhibition as well. It’s one thing to offer a cultural context in the form of, say, headphones that one can choose to use or not; it’s quite another to impose the music like Muzak on every visitor. It’s appalling to see an art museum–which presumably advocates seeing works of art in the original–treat a recording of music as if it were the real thing. Even if this were a live performance–actual singers in the galleries–it would make little sense. Music is as internally complex as painting; both require real and exclusive concentration. But in any case, we cannot create in Chicago of 1993 the milieu of medieval Russia, and the attempt to do so brings the art museum one small step closer to the theme park.

On one wall of the largest room, six icon paintings are installed in two tiers with lots of blank wall space between them, making the two paintings in the top tier difficult to see well. This is the museum’s attempt to imitate an iconostasis, a huge wall that often consisted of dozens of paintings, separated not by the blank walls of the modern museum but by highly ornate frames. In an actual iconostasis, while the viewer can’t see the upper tiers very well, he sees the works as they were meant to be seen, in the sacred architectural space for which they were painted. Museums can never replicate this, and should concentrate on what they can do: allow the viewer to look closely at great images.

I found much of interest in what I learned, mostly from the catalog, about the old Russia from which these images emerged. But on viewing them I also felt that they spoke to my life. One doesn’t have to believe in Christian doctrine–I don’t–to appreciate this art. After one long visit to this show, which I ended not with the late work but by returning to some of the early masterworks, I wandered out into the Loop. The blue sky and the grays and browns of the buildings seemed part of some mysterious unified field, almost as if the things of the visible world were but an example of a previously unseen order. Then I refocused my attention and was able to perceive the differences between buildings and between people on the street more clearly, while still holding on to the sense that all color, all shape, all light were somehow one. I think of this duality, expressed in the greatest of these images, as a psychological truth about human consciousness: the world’s variety can also be a window onto some form, perhaps different for each of us, of inner awareness.