Icon collection in Finland
Thursday 5 March 2009, by Icon Network
By Juhani Berghem. Introduction and acknowledgements:
The journalist and cultural figure Hilkka Kuusela-Berghem was born in Impilahti on 18th November 1932 and her husband Juhani Berghem, a personnel manager, in Helsinki on 3rd April 1947. They met at New Valamo, having both retired from their work, and after their marriage in 1991 settled to live not far from the monastery, in the district of Heinävesi. As both were in poor health, however, they moved to Joensuu the following year. On Hilkka’s departure from this life in 1995, Juhani resolved to honour her memory by building up a substantial icon collection around the those that they had already had in their home, as icons had been one of the loves of Hilkka’s life from her childhood onwards. This marked the beginnings of the Hilkka Kuusela-Berghem and Juhani Berghem Icon Collection.
The idea behind the icon collection was to commission, mainly from celebrated, highly skilled icon painters in Finland, a set of works that would represent a cross-section of Finnish iconography and its development during the last thirty years of the 20th century. Advice on this was sought particularly from two teachers of icon painting, Kyllikki Suvanto and Tuula Murtola. A total of 25 works were accumulated in the space of two years, forming the first phase in the collection, and these were blessed by Archimandrite Sergei, Igumen of the Monastery of New Valamo, on 27th November 1997.
The icons selected for the collection are predominantly the work of people who began their icon painting in the 1960’s, many of them as pupils of notable teachers of the subject, so that the majority were highly experienced in the art. Some of the icons were purchased from the painters directly, but many of them were commissioned specially by Juhani Berghem, who comments on this aspect of the collection as follows:
“A few of the icons were already in existence and were acquired directly from the painters, and the remainder were ordered specifically for this purpose. Usually I would first choose the topic and then consult my advisers to find a suitable person who would meet the requirements for painting that topic. I have attempted throughout to commission or purchase icons that are unusual or unique in one way or another.”
Their unusual character lay in the fact that, although the subjects and basic designs were in accordance with the Orthodox iconographic tradition, albeit some of them fairly rare, the models, materials or other features of their acquisition were such that they could be regarded as something special, at least by Finnish standards.
The collection now comprises 58 icons, all produced by the tempera technique, and all representing the Byzantine style, although this in itself is a fairly broad designation. Historically, the Byzantine style of iconography covers a stretch of more than a thousand years beginning with the founding of the city of Constantinople in 330 AD, and can be divided into a number of periods with their own characteristic features of style and content. Many of the icons in the collection are closely related to the Russian style of icon painting that evolved from the Byzantine tradition and has developed forms of its own in the course of the 1000 years of its history.
The collection contains works by 36 painters, including three Russians and one currently living in Estonia, whose icons provide some intimation of recent trends within the Russian school. The majority, however, are representative of modern developments and expertise in this field within Finland. One curiosity in the collection is an icon by an Ethiopian painter.
Prof. Aune Jääskinen, curator of the Sinebrychoff Art Gallery in Helsinki, which serves as a national museum of overseas art, examined the icon collection on 15th March 2003 and remarked to Juhani Berghem, “Your collection opens up an interesting perspective on icon painting in Finland. I congratulate you on it and wish it every success.”
The Hilkka Kuusela-Berghem and Juhani Berghem Icon Collection was earlier housed in their own home, where it was viewed by more 700 icon specialists and enthusiasts from Finland and abroad. One of them was Bishop Józef Wróbel, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helsinki, who as a devotee of icons was delighted with what he saw, and another visitor, in August 2000, was Juhani Meriläinen, Mayor of Joensuu. The outcome of this was that Juhani Berghem donated the collection to Joensuu Municipal Council to be placed in the Municipal Art Gallery as a permanent exhibition.
The exhibition was designed by Fr. Paul Hesse, D.Theol., adopting the pattern of a procession behind the Cross, which is still a living tradition today in Finland and elsewhere in the Orthodox world, representing pilgrims on a journey, or a divine service in which the people pass through this world, following the cross and carrying their icons, praying and singing hymns, towards the glory that lies beyond.
The Eastern Church does not look on icons simply as embellishments for its places of worship, but following the recommendations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, it believes that they should be visible everywhere: on the walls of houses, in market squares and by the roadsides. Thus people today have icons in their homes, at their places of work, in their country cottages, in their cars and even in motor boats. It is possible to think of the inclusion of a collection of icons in an art gallery as an extension of this same tradition. When icons are put on display in a manner that emphasizes their unique character and value, they provide visitors not only with examples of a certain form of art but also with the opportunity for a deeper spiritual and devotional experience. Both the icons and the room in which they are displayed at the Joensuu Art Gallery have been blessed according to the rites of the Orthodox Church, and thus the whole exhibition may be regarded as a place of sanctity.
Annika Waenerberg, former curator of the Art Gallery and currently professor of the history of art at the University of Jyväskylä, said in an interview for the Ilomantsi newspaper Pogostan Sanomat, on 4th December 1997,
“This is indeed a unique and astoundingly diverse collection, covering a wide range of styles and subjects but of a high standard throughout. When the icons are situated in intimate proximity one to another they create an exquisite entity from which their true purpose, an intense sense of devotion, radiates into the surroundings.”
The word icon comes from the Greek “eikon”, which means an image or description. The ancient tradition was to paint icons on a wooden base using an encaustic or tempera technique, and nowadays the terms is used almost exclusively for a tempera image of the kind used liturgically in the Orthodox Church.
The history of icons and their use in the church is a long one. The writings of many of the 4th century Church Fathers mention icons in such a way that one may presume that their use had become a well-established practice in the eastern parts of Christendom at least. The oldest icons painted on wood that have been preserved down to the present day are from the 6th century.
The church expresses and proclaims its doctrines in words and pictures, and in order to fulfil this purpose icons have to be in harmony with the church’s teachings, which imposes certain conditions, regulations and limitations on them. They are not intended to be precise descriptions of biblical events or historical records, nor are they vehicles for a painter’s personal interpretations. In the end, each icon should be inspected for conformity to the tradition by a priest, who will then bless it for church use.
The differences of opinion within the Early Church over the role of icons came to a head in the iconoclastic disputes of the early 8th century, which divided the church for more than a hundred years. Before the final “victory of the Holy Images” in 843, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, meeting at Nicea in 787, had clarified the church’s theological stand regarding icons and confirmed their position as an inseparable part of Christian public worship and private devotions. The council’s decisions were very largely based on the ideas put forward by St. John of Damascus (675 – 749), e.g. in his work “Three speeches of defence against those who criticise holy icons”. He related the prohibition on the use of pictures contained in the commandments of Moses to the situation in Old Testament times, when God had revealed himself in the first person of the Trinity, God the Father, who could not be pictured. The whole message of Christianity is bound up in this: that God, who cannot be seen or depicted, became flesh and blood, visible and portrayable, in Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. Every icon of Christ expresses this central truth of the Gospel in pictorial form. Another important principle was the distinction between worship and veneration. We worship the Holy Trinity, but we venerate the saints, icons and other sacred objects. As the Seventh Ecumenical Council decreed:
“The more often our Lord Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the Holy Angels, the Saints and other righteous people become objects of our inner vision through the medium of pictures, the more those who cast their gaze on these icons will be aroused to recall the original subjects. They will also acquire an increasing love for the pictures themselves and be moved more readily to kiss them, honour them and make obeisance before them, but without in any way showing for these icons the kind of worship that is reserved solely for divine beings themselves.”
Other resolutions published by the same Ecumenical Council provide us with a broader understanding of icons, at least as far as the materials and techniques employed in painting them are concerned:
“This being the case, we find ourselves travelling along a royal path, as it were, following the divine teachings of the Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Early Church. Thus we should exercise all possible care and precision in ensuring that the holy and revered icons that are placed alongside the precious and life-giving Cross are fashioned in an appropriate manner, from paints, mosaics or other materials. We then decree that such images of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and icons of our pure sovereign the Mother of God, the holy angels and all the saints should be set up in God’s holy churches, depicted on vessels and vestments, affixed to walls and boards, and placed in houses and at the roadsides.”
“O Christ, the God and Lord of all, who didst enlighten the holy apostle and evangelist Luke with thy Holy Spirit and grant him the skill to portray Thy Holy Mother, who held Thee in her arms and declared “He who is born of me shall illuminate the world with His grace”, guide and enlighten my soul, my heart and my spirit. Direct the hand of Thine unworthy servant that I may depict Thy holy icon, the icon of Thy Mother and the icons of all the saints acceptably and perfectly, to the glory, joy and beautification of thy Holy Church. I pray Thee to forgive me my sins and to forgive all those who venerate these icons and fall upon their knees in devotion before them to worship the subjects portrayed in them. Protect them from evil and guide them in Thy wisdom towards all that is good. This I ask of Thee: hear my prayer O Lord, through the intercessions of Thy Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke and all the saints. Amen.”
The only icon painters in Finland in the first decades of the independence period were the monks of the Monastery of Valamo in Lake Ladoga, whose style and techniques conformed to the ideals laid down by the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, i.e. they painted in oils and were inspired by models adopted from western church art. The post-war reconstruction years of 1950-1960, however, saw the building of 13 new churches and 45 chapels in Finland, intended to meet the needs of the Orthodox population evacuated from the areas ceded to the Soviet Union and of other members of the Orthodox Church. Large numbers of icons were needed for this purpose, and a group of Finnish artists were invited to paint them. Many of these people had only a superficial acquaintance with the icon painting tradition, and not even the leadership of the Orthodox Church was able to guide them very substantially in the execution of their mammoth task. They were also unfamiliar with the tempera technique and preferred to paint in oils, copying their designs from a variety of books on iconography and art in general.
The Dutch-born icon painter Fr. Robert de Caluwé (born 1913), a priest of the Uniate Church, moved to Finland in 1940. The Uniates’ liturgical practices and use of icons follow the precepts of the Orthodox Church, but they recognize the Pope as their spiritual leader and follow the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. Father Robert can justifiably be regarded as the person responsible for reviving the traditional tempera technique of icon painting in Finland. His first major undertaking was to paint the icons for the chapel in Valkeakoski in 1953, and from 1963 onwards he has run an Ecumenical Centre at Myllyjärvi in Espoo and has continued to teach icon painting by the tradition tempera methods.
At the same time, during the 1960’s, a re-awakening of interest in traditional icon painting began to take place elsewhere in Finland. The first icon painting circle to be attached to a Finnish Orthodox parish began in Helsinki under the guidance of Kirill Gluschkoff in 1963, and its other teachers included Irina Tchernych (later Tchernych-Pått) and Marianna Flinckenberg. In the early days the group experimented with the tempera technique by themselves, but later much-needed help was obtained through a correspondence course provided by Georges Drobot and other members of the Ikona association in Paris. These letters were later edited and published in book form in Finnish under the title Ikonimaalauksen alkeita (“Some Elements of Icon Painting”) by Marianna Finckenberg (later Flinckenberg-Gluschkoff). A number of icon painters, including Irina Tchernych, Marianna Flinckenberg, Helena Nikkanen and Auli Pietarinen (later Martiskainen) also went to Paris for a time to study under Prof. Leonid Uspenskiy. Meanwhile the Orthodox Youth Association began to start icon painting circles in various parts of the country, that in Kuopio beginning in 1964, under the direction of Margit Lintu, and that in Joensuu in 1966, on the instigation of Kyllikki Palviainen (later Suvanto). The “grand old lady” of the Joensuu circle is said to have been Martta Kerkkänen. Nowadays almost every Orthodox parish has its own icon painting group, and many others exist in church youth and study organizations and local authority adult education centres.
The Japanese-born icon painter Petros Sasaki (1939-1999), who lived in Kuopio, made a vast contribution in his time as a painter and teacher. His icons are to be seen in churches, church halls and chapels practically throughout the country, and he raised a whole new generation of icon painters, especially in the Kuopio and Oulu areas, many of whom have themselves developed into talented teachers of the art.
The Finnish Association of Icon Painters, founded in 1976, is a very active organization that arranges courses, seminars and study visits at home and abroad for its members, and also holds exhibitions of their work. The study visits in particular have introduced members to a number of significant collections of early icons in various countries. Since 1998 the association has also published its own magazine, entitled Ikonimaalari (“The Icon Painter”). The chairman of the society for almost twenty years was Prof. Aune Jääskinen, and the current chairman is Docent Merja Merras, Ph.D.
Prof. Aune Jääskinen was the pioneer of university-level research and teaching in iconography, lecturing on the subject and supervising degree dissertations in it from the 1960’s onwards. Her lectures and publications have been an inspiration to innumerable researchers and icon painters.
The Lay Academy that was opened at the Monastery of New Valamo in 1986 has emerged as a major source of training in icon painting, particularly through the work of its long-serving instructor in the subject, Tuula Murtola. It has arranged numerous courses each year, including some operating through distance teaching. Of the contributors to the present collection, at least Natalia Aldoshina, Anna Heikinheimo, Liisa Kuningas-Mustonen, Marjaana Laatikainen, Jyrki Pouta, Kyllikki Suvanto, Ulla Vaajakallio and Alexander Wikström have taught at the Lay Academy.
On the feast-day of St. Paisius the Great, 19.6.2003
Pekka Tuovinen, Lecturer in Iconography, Lay Academy of New Valamo
I wish to thank most warmly all the icon painters, the architect Fr. Paul Hesse, D.Theol., who was responsible for designing the exhibition, Joensuu Municipal Council, Eino Niemelä, amanuensis at the Municipal Art Gallery, who directed the project, the photographer Pavel Boitsev and Juha Riikonen, M.Theol., who took the photographs, the Monastery of New Valamo and its Igumen, Archimandrite Sergei, who gave his blessing for the work of translating the catalogue of icons, the translator Malcolm Hicks, Archimandrite Arseni for his comments on the wording of the catalogue, Pekka Tuovinen, lecturer at the Lay Academy of New Valamo, for writing the introduction, Prof. Aune Jääskinen, Ph.D., D.Theol. h.c., for guidance in compiling the catalogue, the icon painters Tuula Murtola and Kyllikki Suvanto for their advice on choosing the artists, the Northern Karelia Polytechnic for technical assistance with the mounting of the exhibition, and Anna-Maria Piiroinen, M.A., for the editing and proofreading of the catalogue.