When heaven’s riches rivaled Russia’s czars

by Victoria James

Church and State have, down history, done battle for wealth and power.

However, in “Holy Russia” (as that country was known in the 16th and 17th centuries), the two achieved a remarkable equilibrium. The power of the Church was seen as complementing, rather than competing with, the power of the State. This ushered in a period of churchly magnificence — after all, when the czar himself, or members of his family, were present at services, it gave the ultimate sanction to shows of ecclesiastical opulence.

Visitors were taken aback by the excessive devotion of the Russian court. “What shall we say of these duties, severe enough to turn children’s hair gray, so strictly observed by the Emperor, Patriarch, grandees, princess and ladies, standing upright on their legs from morning to evening,” wrote Archdeacon Paul of Aleppo, an Arab Orthodox from the patriarchate of Antioch, who stayed in Russia 1654 to 1656.

With services keeping the royal family on its feet for up to seven hours, it’s little surprise that these events were as splendid as possible. At church, the princely worshippers enjoyed surroundings as luxurious as those at court. It’s fitting, then, that treasures of the Russian Orthodox Church are showing alongside the riches of the country’s secular rulers, the Romanovs, at an exhibition currently hosted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

The ecclesiastical items displayed at “Treasures of the Romanovs and Russia” positively drip with gold. Not to mention pearls, diamonds, emeralds and rubies. Just for starters are three massive, velvet-bound Bibles with centimeter-thick covers of gold inlaid with precious stones.

The priestly vestments must have outshone the clothing of the czars themselves. Showing here are two striking phelonion (copes), one embroidered in gold on crimson and both stiff with pearls, as well as a breathtaking cloth-of-gold sakkos (alb). There are also two miters, one of green velvet inset with enameled pictures of the Trinity, and an omofor and epitrachelion — bands of cloth resembling a priestly stole — from the famed Stroganov workshop.

These latter are dated to 1665, around the time that Church-Crown relations in Russia came under their most significant strain for a century. The patriarch of Moscow, a brilliant but overbearing man named Nikon, was intent on pushing through reforms aimed at bringing Russian practice more into line with the customs of the Greek Church and especially the four ancient Orthodox patriachates. Nikon brooked no contradiction. One stubborn opponent, the Archpriest Avvakum, was exiled for 10 years, confined for 22 years (12 of these in an underground prison), and finally burned at the stake for refusing to conform to Nikon’s program.

The patriarch’s fatal act of hubris came when he claimed the right to intervene in civil affairs and adopted the title “Great Lord,” hitherto reserved for the czar. By the late 1650s, Czar Aleksy Mikhailovich had made his displeasure clear. Nikon went into semiretirement in 1658 and he was deposed in 1667. Perhaps determined to avoid another such confrontation, Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) suppressed the patriarchal office entirely.

Through the years of turmoil, one consistent aspect of Orthodox faith was — and remains — its devotion to icons. The scholar Nicholas Zernov (1898-1980) wrote of these stylized yet tender images:

“[Icons] were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines were not meant to imitate nature. . . . Instead the stylized perfection of the [icon] was a concrete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the transfigured cosmos.”

Art galleries are not churches, and Tokyo’s weekend crowds are hardly conducive to contemplation. But the icons showing here possess the harmony and grace that Zernov described.

There is an exquisite 17th-century image of the Trinity. (The doctrine of the three-in-one God, found so difficult by many in the West, is a focus of Orthodox mystical devotion.) There are colorful depictions of the lives of the saints. And, of course, there are serene, almond-eyed madonnas.

The Romanov state passed away, as did its Soviet successor. The Orthodox Church today faces the same challenges as other Christian denominations around the world. But the bright and brilliant legacy of the icon has lost none of its calm power.