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Ancient Russian Icons Come to Rural Massachusetts

A trove of rare, religious art from Moscow is now in Massachusetts for an exhibition. But not at the Museum of Fine Arts, where you might expect.

Instead, the ancient Russian Icons are on display at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, about 40 miles outside of Boston.

WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on the sacred pieces and how they ended up in a museum that's way off-the-beaten-path.

ANDREA SHEA: I'm standing outside the Museum of Russian Icons here in Clinton. Clinton is a pretty typical small, quiet New England town. But inside there's a lot going on.

GORDON LANKTON: Total chaos is going on today because we have an exhibition that's flown in from Moscow of 16 of the world's most famous and best icons from the Tretyakov Gallery, the number one museum in all of Russia.

SHEA: That's Gordon Lankton, founder of the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton. It's the only museum in North America, outside of a monastery, dedicated to these religious images. Beginning in the 10th century Orthodox monks painted Jesus, Mary and saints onto pieces of wood to illustrate scenes from the bible. Icons are revered by Russian Orthodox Christians much in the same way Tibetan Mandalas are held sacred by Buddhists. Lankton, and a crew of installers wearing white gloves, struggle with a heavy, precious piece from the 16th century. It's about four feet tall. Curator Kent Russell works to center the icon called "Miracle of George and the Dragon."

KENT RUSSELL: And it depicts Saint George slaying the dragon. And there are three scenes underneath that describe the events leading up to the slaying of the dragon that are read typically like cartoons.

SHEA: For centuries Monks used these ornate "cartoons" to teach scripture to followers who couldn't read. Russell is fascinated by the history and power of the images, but says he isn't religious. Same for the museum's founder, Gordon Lankton.

LANKTON: I tell everybody I flunked bible school.

SHEA: Lankton is Protestant but owns almost 350 Russian icons, mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries. The 79 year-old entrepreneur says his collection was inspired by his travels.

LANKTON: I rode a motorcycle around the world when I was 25. I started in Germany and went down through Italy and Yugoslavia and into Greece and into Turkey, and into Iraq, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Nepal and over into Southeast Asia. I always wanted to go to the Soviet Union.

SHEA: Back then he couldn't, because it was the Cold War and the U.S.S.R. was closed to Americans. Fast forward to the 1990s, post Glasnost.

LANKTON: I went there to establish a plastics factory because that's the business I'm in, our company is the one you see out of the window there, here in Clinton.

SHEA: Lankton's international company is called Nypro and it's Clinton's largest employer. He says it took months, and many visits, to set up shop in Russia. On days off he visited monasteries, museums and flea markets. He scored his first Russian Icon for twenty dollars. 45 trips later Lankton decided to build this 2.5 million dollar museum. It's in Clinton for a reason.

LANKTON: I made my money in Clinton and I said I'm going to spend my money in Clinton.

SHEA: Also, he admits his wife didn't want a house overrun by Russian Icons. Lankton hopes the museum will draw visitors to this quaint town of more than 13,000. Wilfred Royer is up from New Jersey visiting relatives. He practices the Russian Orthodox faith and says he was surprised to find a museum of Russian icons here.

WILFRED ROYER: Given the location, very surprised it's not something affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church in this country. I'd say the nearest thing comparable you'd have Saint Tikhon's Monastery in Pennsylvania, they have an icon museum there, but I doubt the icons would be this old.

SHEA: Old and priceless, according to the State Tretyakov Museum in Moscow. The 16 icons on loan are insured in total for more than 51 million dollars. But there are also concerns about their fragility since they're made from wood. Nadejda Bekeneva heads the Ancient Art Department at the Tretyakov Museum and is here to make sure the icons are handled with care. She speaks through a translator.

NADEJDA BEKENEVA: Actually we're really very concerned about how our icons will survive here because they have to get used to this climate. We tried to select such icons that would be more healthy than others because icons, just like people, have certain diseases.

SHEA: The stakes are high for the icons in the gallery. So, with caution, the crew continues to maneuver the age-old painting of Saint George and the Dragon. After securing it to the wall, curator Kent Russell and museum founder Gordon Lankton move down the state of the art gallery to install the next icon.

LANKTON: That's Christ.

SHEA: I recognize him.

This program aired on October 22, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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