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Saved Sanctity

“That which is not destined to perish, announces itself again and again, to attest to elusive spiritual beauty and the light of truth”. These words belong to Nikolai Kormashov (1929–2012), an Estonian artist and collector, who collected and restored a great collection of 15th–20th century Russian icons during his lifetime. More than 150 icons are available for viewing at the exhibition at the Art Museum RIGA BOURSE. Natalia Komashko (Наталья Комашко), the Head Researcher at Moscow’s Andrei Rublev Museum of Early Russian Art and Culture (Центральный музей древнерусской культуры и искусства имени Андрея Рублева), has described the collection as one of the most extensive and comprehensive private collections of its kind. A group of experts, led by her, has also carried out an attribution of the icons. The icons were mainly collected in three regions: in the upper reaches of the Northern Dvinsk in Arkhangelsk Oblast, the Kokshenga District in the Vologda Oblast – here the icons were obtained mainly from 1965–1978, and in Tailova Village in Pskov Oblast, where the collector’s family spent their summers from 1967 right up to 2017. In addition to these three places, there are, of course, icons from Murom where N. Kormashov was born. Collector Nikolai Kormashov said: “Northern Russia always seemed to me like a lost continent, like Atlantis. It seemed that everything that was good in Russia, had been preserved right there.”

Impressive churches which were decorated with high quality icons made at local icon painting centres were built on the banks of the Northern Dvinsk: at workshops at the Solvychegodsk, Veliky Ustyug and surrounding cloisters. Prior to the time of Peter I, the river served as a trading route through Arkhangelsk and the White Sea, from the Grand Duchy of Moscow to Europe. The Vologda Oblast, which is famous for the Kirillo-Belozersky Cloister and the Ferapont Cloister, the frescos of which were painted by famous Moscow icon painter Dionisy (around 1440—1502) together with his sons Theodosius and Vladimir, continue to possess, as yet, undiscovered Old Russian art treasures. As a result of pressure from the leading churches, the Old Believers had, in their time, sought sanctuary in this region, and out of respect for their traditions, took care of their ancient icons. Historically, these northern regions of Russia have always been out of the way places, allowing them to preserve many cultural treasures.

During a cultural heritage research expedition in the 1960s, Nikolai Kormashov, the, at the time, young rough style painter, gained an appreciation of icons that had been cherished from generation to generation, as well as the contrasting ones that were on the path to extinction, and he began to create his collection of sacred images. Kormashov restored nearly all the icons in the collection himself, and his work is now being continued by his son Orest.

In 1971, an exhibition of Nikolai Kormashov’s collection of Old Russian art took place at the Art Museum of Estonia, which was the first public exhibition of a private collection of icons in the entire Soviet Union at that time. Afterwards, Kormashov participated in the organization of an exhibition of icons in Moscow (1974), at the Mikkel Museum (1997) and the Kadriorg Art Museum (2011) in Tallinn. In 2018, a broad exhibition of Nikolai Kormashov’s collection took place at the Mikkel Museum in Tallinn.

Andrei Kormashov and Orest Kormashov

Vita Birzaka, LNMA / Art Museum RIGA BOURSE Exhibition Curator

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