Icons are a special treasure of the Orthodox Church, they are revered by millions of believers. Many masterpieces of Russian and Byzantine icon paintings are found in monasteries and cathedrals all over Russia, but it so happens that part of the rich Russian iconographic heritage can be seen only in museums.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

If you search, you will find a lot of interesting information about the Museum of Russian Icon in Moscow, which is the first and only private collection of Byzantine and Russian icon painting art in Russia with the official status of a museum. In addition, in 2011, the museum became a full member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

Founded by businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Abramov in 2006, the Museum of Russian Icon currently holds over 4,500 works, including about 600 handwritten icons of exceptional value. Among the most significant exhibits are unique ancient Russian icons of the XIV-XV centuries, early Christian art, Byzantine applied art, and Greek art of the XV-XVIII centuries.

Russian Icon Museum in Clinton, USA

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

As for the Russian Icon Museums outside Russia, the best of them is certainly the Russian Icon Museum in Clinton, Massachusetts, USA.  Opened in 2006 by Gordon B. Lankton, it is the largest private collection of Russian icons in North America, making it a must-see for all lovers of religious iconography. Today the Museum has about 1000 ancient Russian icons and artifacts from the 15th century to the present day. The collection also includes several extremely rare exhibits, such as the 17th century Tsarist Gate from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Icon Museum in Clinton is undoubtedly one of the best museums of its kind, and it is definitely worth your time.

A permanent exposition of an Old Russian icon was opened in the Hermitage

Ancient Russian icons of the XIV – early XVIII centuries in the halls of the second floor of the Winter Palace are supplemented with architectural elements of Orthodox churches – royal gates, decorated with carving, and small ciots with images of saints.

The icons in the Hermitage collection were relatively recent: it was only in 1941 that the Museum created the Department of History of Russian Culture, which, inter alia, received items from the historical and household department of the Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR, as well as from the private collection of Mikhail and Vladimir Uspensky.

But the main receipts of icons to the Museum of Western European art took place in the 1950-1970s, when by order of the Ministry of Culture large museums sent expeditions to various areas to collect items of Old Russian culture, which remained in the closed and abandoned churches. The Hermitage expedition, in particular, saved hundreds of icons and other cultural objects from remote villages in the Leningrad, Novgorod, Arkhangelsk, Murmansk, and Yaroslavl regions.

Museum of Byzantine icons, the only one of its kind in Europe in Venice

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Past chroniclers remind us of the primary care of a traveler from Russia when he arrives in Venice – to pray in the Orthodox Church of the city for the strength of spirit and clarity of mind because the West has traditionally been perceived as a source of heresy. Such a place since the 16th century was the Church of St. George dei Grechi, built in Lombard style by architects Sante Lombardo and G.A.Chion in 1539-71.

Years have passed and morals have changed, but the traces of the centuries-old connection of the Republic of Beauty with Byzantium and the Russian Empire are still evident today.

First of all, it is expressed in reverence for the Byzantine icons, the organization of permanent exhibitions, and exhibitions of icons from the rich private collections, as well as the fact that virtually every Venetian church in its inventory has a Byzantine icon.

In 1959 a museum of icons was established in Venice, unique in its collection, where the main place is occupied by icons from the Cretan School of Iconographers, Greek masters, as well as gift icons.

The icon – the image – is devoid of forms and ordinary structures, it came down “symbolically” from above and acquired body.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

The Council of Nicaea of 787 officially recognized the cult of icons in church practice as legal and indisputable. Moreover, the icon becomes an attribute of daily religious practice, the images of the Virgin Mary and the saints are solemnly carried during processions when buried on the chest of the deceased and today it is acceptable to put the icon of the heavenly patron. Illiterate people through the optics of their eyes – to see and believe – sought and found the strengthening of spirit and flesh!

The beginning of the Greek community’s contact with Russia dates back to 1593 when Archbishop Arseny Elassonsky sends 4 Russian icons from Moscow to St. George’s Church. Alas, they have not survived.

Most of the donated icons are dedicated to the Mother of God, which is the center and core of the Orthodox faith. In Russia, there are many variants of the image of the Mother of God: gently embracing her son – Humiliation, indicating the righteous way – Hodegetria, the intercessor before Christ the Judge – the Theotokos, the protector of all people – the Protection of the Mother of God.

The oldest Russian icon in the museum’s collection is the icon of the Virgin Mary Glycophilus (Sweet or Humiliating) of Vladimir.

Since 1131, the cult of this icon is known, and Andrew Bogolyubsky in 1155 transferred this icon from Kyiv to Vladimir. In our collection list-copy of this icon has its own characteristics and features, for example, the Virgin does not pay attention to the viewer, it is unusually sad and sad, Mary’s right hand, unlike the original, is at the height of the left. And the important detail of the icon, the twisted foot of the right foot of the Savior, as a vulnerable heel, makes it possible to correctly define this icon.


The collection of Russian icons of the National Museum in Stockholm occupies a special place, as it is one of the largest outsides of Russia. Its first catalog was published back in the 1930s by Swedish researcher H. Kjellin. However, the collection remained virtually unknown in the Soviet Union. Only three icons were worth mentioning in the works of domestic specialists: the 16th-century icon of the “Last Judgment” was mentioned by I. E. Grabar and I. A. Antonova. Later, after visiting the Stockholm Museum in the 1980s, E. S. Smirnova referred to the icon “Deesis” and the XIII century red background diptych.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
Olof Oschberg. Photo of 1937.

Olof Aschberg (1877-1960), a prosperous banker who founded a kind of “people’s bank” in 1912 – AB Nya Banken (The New Bank Ltd.), which supported the labor movement in Scandinavia, was among the first to establish close cooperation with the new power in Russia after the 1917 revolution. It was Oshberg who brokered the organization of the first U.S. government loan to the Soviet Union and contributed to the recognition of Soviet Russia by the Swedish government. In 1921, Olof Oschberg was one of the founders and later chairman of the Russian Commercial Bank. During the NEP (New Economic Policy), from 1921 to 1925, he lived almost permanently in the Soviet Union, actively working in the Moscow and Petrograd (Leningrad) branches of the bank. His close acquaintance with Russian culture obviously aroused his interest in the Russian icon. In his memoirs “My Russian Icons,” the banker remembered that the collector woke up in it after visiting the Smolensk “flea” market in Moscow.
The hidden beauty and spiritual power of the icons completely captured the pragmatic banker. He recalls that as soon as others learned about his passion, people from the families of “old Russian aristocracy” began to offer him their family icons, which were going to sell.

Unfortunately, as researcher Ulf Abel notes, no records about the owners of icons have been preserved. We can assume that the storage of such documents could have been unsafe for both the former owners and for Oshberg itself. In the same years, Oshberg was curtailing its business activity in the USSR. He asks his business partner Leonid Krasin, a foreign trade drug addict, to allow the collection of icons to be exported to Sweden.

The collector’s memoirs, unfortunately, do not mention the names of four experts who, after examination, issued an export license, excluding from the list fifteen icons that were transferred by the banker to four Soviet museums, which also remained unknown. According to Oshberg’s permission, he exported about two hundred icons that were placed in his villa near Stockholm. They were decorated in a special room, made by Isaac Grunewald, one of the leading Swedish artists of that time. Grunewald, like his teacher Henri Matisse, was one of the connoisseurs of ancient Russian icon painting. A small circle of admirers of Russian icon appeared around Oschberg’s collection. It included Albert Engström, a writer and artist, who described his vivid impressions of Russian icon painting in his book “The Moscovites”.

The discovery of the Russian icon as an artistic phenomenon gave impetus to the addition of a new language in art throughout Europe, but in Soviet Russia at the same time icons and iconographers were persecuted – church values were subject to seizure, and often destroyed. Many in Russia saw the only way to save the ancient cultural heritage – selling it abroad. Already in the early 1920s, Igor Grabar conceived a grandiose artistic “abroad” exhibition of masterpieces of ancient Russian iconography (1929), the hidden purpose of which was to prepare the world antique market.

Meanwhile, Oshberg brings his business activity to Paris, settles near Versailles at the Villa Bois de Rocher, and transports his family and almost the entire collection of icons to the same place. Here, among the icons, he receives many Swedish guests. One of the artists – Eric Olson remembered in 1929: “He owns 250 Russian icons, the most beautiful collection I have ever seen” 5. Ulf Abel notes that for many Swedish artists and writers this collection of ancient icons was a source of inspiration. In 1926-1927, the collection of icons was a source of inspiration for many Swedish artists and writers. Understanding the value of the collection, Osberg invited Helge Chelin (1885-1984), a professor at the University of Lund, to compile a scientific description of the collection, which culminated in a catalog of icons in 1933 and a presentation at the National Museum.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
Exposition of icons in the mansion of Olof Oschberg. France. Photo of 1928.

In 1928, Oshberg decided to add new acquisitions to his collection in Russia. In a letter to Helga Chelin, he wrote in particular: “Yesterday I returned from my trip to Russia. I met with Igor Grabar and discussed with him an exhibition of icons (abroad – Y. B.), and I believe in the possibility of cooperation with the Russians. They offer me to create a mixed company to work (selling icons – Yu. B.) all over the world, but I have no desire to get involved in it. However, I have agreed to purchase 52 icons of excellent quality, almost all of them of XIV, XV, XVI, XVII centuries. Those icons that require clearing will be cleared there (in Russia. – Yu. B.), and I assume that all of them will arrive in 6 weeks. They should certainly be included in the book, some in color. The commission authorizing the export expressed doubt, but followed orders from higher authorities… “.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
Saint Apostle Peter. XIII century.
The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
Saint Martyr Anastasia. XIII century.
















Here Oshberg touches upon a sensitive topic, which has not yet been fully disclosed, about the intentions of Igor Grabar and his companion Alexander Anisimov to use the exhibition of Old Russian art organized by them abroad in 1929. (Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Frankfurt, London, New York) to sell part of the ancient icons, as well as their falsified copies specially made by famous icon painters A. I. Bryagin, G. I. Chirikov and others. Grabar himself mentioned this intention in a famous letter to Abram Ginzburg – the first chairman of the office “Antiques”, calling the forgeries “archaeological facsimile” 7. Among the sold icons were those that were included in the collection of the American magnate George Hann, later, in 1980, exposed by Vladimir Teteryatnikov as forgeries.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
Deesis. Novgorod. XIV-XV centuries.
The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
Deesis. Maxim Gazetova. 1873
The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum
St. Nicholas in life. The beginning of the XVI century.



Among Olof Oschberg’s new acquisitions there were 30 icons, but it is not clear which ones “belonged to Grand Duke Paul” (Paul Alexandrovich, the sixth son of Emperor Alexander III, was shot in Peter and Paul Fortress by the Bolsheviks on January 30, 1919).

Today the collection of the National Museum also includes 14 icons from the collection of Wilhelm Assarson (1889-1974), who served in the Swedish embassy in Moscow and Leningrad in the 1930s, and since 1940 headed the Swedish Mission to the USSR.

At present, the collection of icons of the National Museum in Stockholm is one of the most studied outside of Russia, which, however, did not save it from a drastic reduction of the exposition.

Museum of Russian Icon in Moscow: a collection of masterpieces

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

The question of museification and preservation of church art samples is especially acute now. Having realized the value of the shrines that have been scolded for 70 years, society is very concerned about how to return and preserve the remains of our heritage scattered around the world. Since February 2006, the first private museum of icons has been functioning in Moscow. This was not only a significant cultural event in the life of the capital but also an important step towards the disclosure of private collections to the public, where to this day a significant part of the treasures of ancient Russian art are kept.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

The question of museification and preservation of church art samples is especially acute now. Having realized the value of the shrines that have been scolded for 70 years, society is very concerned about how to return and preserve the remains of our heritage scattered around the world. Since February 2006, the first private museum of icons has been functioning in Moscow. This was not only a significant cultural event in the life of the capital but also an important step towards the disclosure of private collections to the public, where to this day a significant part of the treasures of ancient Russian art are kept.

Among the museum’s most ancient monuments we should mention the Syrian tombstone from the III century, where the inscription preserved the name of Cleonica, who was buried under it, and the Golgotha cross carved later on its back – the memory of an unknown pious Christian.

The museum’s Byzantine collection is unique in its composition, antiquity and artistic value. Candleholders, crosses, polycandelons, lamps, and other items of liturgical decoration from the 7th to 12th centuries, different in shape and purpose, allow partially reconstructing the image of Byzantine temple space and churches of newly baptized Kievan Rus, decorated with Greek craftsmen’s items brought here in the pre-Mongol time. Rare removable forbidden crosses from the IX-XII centuries are among the most valuable monuments.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

The Museum’s collection of Russian icon painting from the 14th-17th centuries occupies the most important place, including a number of masterpieces. Among them are Rostov images of St. Nicholas of Myrlikia around the middle of the 14th century from the Arkhangelsk village of Kyalovanga on the Onega River and “The Miracle of St. George on the Snake” from the last two decades of the same century. The image of the Blessed Princes Theodore, David, and Constantine of the late 15th century is unique – the oldest known to us image of Yaroslavl saints, close to the time of their glorification after the relics in 1463. Six icons belong to one Deesis rank, which once belonged to the large Cathedral of Rostov land.  A significant work of art in the capital in the second quarter of the 15th century is the Prophet Gedeon icon, one of the earliest examples of decoration of the prophetic row, which directly followed the Rublevskaya tradition. The late-century church icon of Our Lady of Georgia is one of the earliest examples of the iconography of this revered image in Novgorod.

Unprecedented for private collection, the Pskov museum’s collection numbers over a dozen ancient monuments, mostly dating back to the first half – the middle of the 16th century, the time when Pskov medieval art truly flourished.

The Tsar’s “paired portrait” of Great Martyr Feodor Stratilat and Martyr Irina, the namesake saints of Tsar Feodor Ioannovich and Irina Godunova, created at the very end of the century, stand out among 16th century’s capital’s monuments.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

Many of the museum icons of the 17th century can be recognized as outstanding works of their time, for example, a small prayer icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the Tsar’s master, a whole group of Yaroslavl icons from the heyday of this center, including several Tsarist Gates. An undoubted masterpiece of the museum and one of the most significant works of Russian painting is the newly discovered and still unknown signature work of Simon Ushakov, The Mother of God of Hodegetria, which retained the master’s autograph.

A part of the icon painting (about 150) and applied art (more than 300) collected in the museum was purchased.

The Museum of Russian Icon was opened in Estonia

The first museum of the Russian icon was opened in the Estonian capital. The museum is unique in its significance and content. It is located in an old five-storey house in Tallinn, at the very end of the Palace of Masters at Vene, 6.

The basis of the permanent exposition was a private collection, which was gathered for ten years all over the world, from Russia to auction houses in Europe. More than 300 exhibits are presented in the collection – ancient icons, handwritten and old printed books, bowls, and sacral art objects, placed in two halls. The collection of Old Believers’ icons is unique.

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

The museum will hold temporary exhibitions, as well as lectures.

You can get to the museum by appointment. Tours for groups are available in Russian, Estonian, and English. For each age category, there is a separate excursion program.

Icon Museum in Frankfurt

The New Art Experience - ICONS Museum

The icon museum (Ikonenmuseum) was based on the collection of Dr. Jürgen Schmidt-Foygt, who donated 800 icons dated to the 16th-19th centuries to the city in 1988. When Soviet politicians consulted Jürgen Schmidt-Foygt, knowing about his hobbies, they paid with icons. It was Russian icons that made up most of the collection. At the moment the collection counts more than 1000 exhibits.

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