Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

Lowell House Society of Russian Bell Ringers

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Aug 15 (Day 4): Artin’

August 15, 2018

Evan here.

Today’s Schedule
9-11 bells practice.
1:30-5 Tretyakov
5:30-7 Georgian food dinner
7-11 Russian Tea

The Tretyakov—the finest museum in Moscow.  The last time I visited here was nine years ago, on a trip during my gap year.  For me, it was a blast to see all these paintings again.  Especially walking around with an Orthodox Hierodeacon as my guide.  Here’s us artin’

One of the most interesting things Father Roman mentioned was about light sources in paintings in icons.  In short: there is no consistent source of light in icon paintings.  This is because the goal is to achieve an effect of light coming from the icon itself.  Light does not illuminate the icon, rather, the icon is the source of illumination.

I love Russian art.  What most interests me about Russian art is that there is really no European influence on it until Peter the Great (beginning of the 18th century).  From then on, Russians were regularly traveling to Europe, or European masters were coming to Russia to share aesthetics.  Much of Russian art ends up being relatively derivative of European art until the late nineteenth century—the 18th century is a struggle to achieve realistic figuration in portrait painting; the turn of the 19th century has a tremendous influx of Italian Grand Tour-style italianate painting.  What most excites me is when Russian artists absorb an outside style, mix it with something essentially Russian, and then produce a synthesis that is unique.  This is what you get with artists like Mikhail Vrubel:


This painting is epic.  The Demon Downcast (1902) depicts an angel being thrown from heaven.  It has the proportions of a vertical icon, but it is turned on its side because, well, it’s a demon not an angel.  The painting is an empedoclean mixture of feathers, mountains, and flood, all centered around the two hate-filled eyes of the demon, staring back at the height from which it was thrown.  Fitting to its time, the painting’s mixes a Pre-Raphaelite improvisation on mythical history, while also employing Mannierist figural elements (the body of the demon is strangely stretched an etiolated, like what we see in some Mannerist paintings), while the background is almost abstract, anticipating cubism.  I find it fascinating how this painting, though very much a painting, seems as though it might have been more suitable for stained glass, if only Vrubel had had the opportunity to collaborate with Tiffany or La Farge; this painting could be in a church.  Yet the most Russian aspect of this painting—what makes it really stand out—is the use of gold, which again, hearkens back to the gold of illuminated icons, or illuminated manuscripts, which makes up the wings of the fallen angel, which are almost Byzantine in their geometry as they melt into mountains an drivers.  If the source of light in a tradition icon ought to be the icon itself, the opposite occurs for Vrubel’s Demon; the demon’s body seems to be sucking in light, at the same time as the gold of its wings gives up its light and melts into the muted landscape.

Here’s a nice photo of us about 3 minutes before we got soaked by that oncoming storm cloud you can see there in the bathroom.IMG-20180816-WA0002

Later that evening, after drying off, we had a traditional Russian tea with a motley crew of other bell ringers from around Moscow.  I didn’t quite know what to expect on this one.  We showed up and, at first, the room was full of these bell ringers, 90% of whom didn’t speak any English, sitting there in perfect silence.  We sat with them for a bit, enjoying the silence.  It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, we had walked into a meeting of Bell Ringers Anonymous.  At any moment, in Quaker fashion, I expected one of them to be moved by the spirit, stand up, and declare “My name is Sasha, and I am addicted to Bell Ringing.” I wasn’t sure what I’d do if this began to happen.  I improvised for myself a bell ringing backstory, just in case they asked.  I embellished.  I’d tell them it began with reading The Polar Express as a child, you know, the Christmas book that comes with the little bell.  From there, I would tell them, I graduated to hand bells, then cow bells.  In high school, I started to drive and became obsessed with honking at any and every opportunity.  Finally, in college, I began studying poetry about bells.  Eventually, I would drink to overcome my bell ringing obsession with alcohol.

“I drink because I ring bells,” I would tell them “..and I ring bells because I drink.”

But then Father Roman showed up and we had a lovely conversation for nearly three hours which was, more or less, on the topic of bell obsession.

What do you think?

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