Eikon Exhibition - Ballarat Art Gallery

It's spring!!! Daylight begins earlier, it's a good season for Sunday markets and weekend drives to nearby country towns. High on our list of favourite destinations is Daylesford, but this month, Ballarat  (a pretty Victorian gold rush town) trumped it hands down, with an must-see for icon-lovers - the Eikon Exhibition at the Ballarat Art Gallery in Lydiard Street.  The exhibition features eighty mainly Byzantine and  Russian icons, with a couple of Syrian and Egyptian panels. It covers six centuries and contains items from the collection of John McCarthy AO an Australian diplomat, contributions from the National Gallery of Victoria  and the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology, Caboolture, Queensland.

Exhibits are categorized into four major groups - angels, prophets and saints; great feasts of the Church, Mary (referred to as the Mother of God) and Christ. Most of the icons on display were written in wooden panels, overlaid with gessoed linen, coloured with egg tempera and embellished with gold leaf. There are also coins and silver panels on display.

Saviour of the Blessed Silence, Russia, c 1700

St George - Russia - 17th century

Icons are meant to be sacred depictions of an archetype (ie a typical character or symbol or setting) and so the subjects are angels, saints, the Mother of God figure and the Christ image. They are meant to assist in private devotion and many are very tiny, as they were created to be portable. 

Traditionally, icons are never signed, as they are not meant to be expressions of the individual artist's personality or ego, but serve as a prompt to prayer. Also, they are not meant to be photo realistic and often appear to disregard the rules of perspective. This is because they have a 'grammar' of their own, which is meant to be not of this world. Regardless of whether one engages with their spiritual aspect or not, icons are intrinsically beautiful works of art. When viewed through a haze of incense and flickering lamplight, against  the backdrop of Byzantine or medieval music, they have an almost hypnotic effect on the senses. In fact, I would recommend that you take the opportunity to spend a few quiet moments in an Orthodox Church if possible, only to experience the magical quality an icon exhibits in the setting for which it was originally designed.

The Mandylion or Holy Face of Edessa or 'The Image not made by human hands'- - Russia 17th century

Mother of God of the Burning Bush - Russia, c. 1800

St George and the dragon, Crete, c. 1500

Mother of God and Child, Russia, late 16th centruy

The nativity of the Mother of God - Greece, c. 1500
The Eikon exhibition creates a similar 'atmosphere' within a gallery space, minus the incense, flickering light and the feeling of entering a sacred space.  What the gallery does offer are concerts -  by  a chant group, a vocal ensemble and instrumentalists - all arranged to augment the enjoyment of the icon experience. Personally, I could not go past the EIKON calendar and the hardcover souvenir published for the exhibition as it is packed with high-quality enlarged reproductions of the actual icons, supplemented by scholarly commentary and information to provide context for the exhibits. It is a worthwhile acquisition for icon writers/artists, researchers and collectors.

In the Gallery shop we found a couple of little treasures -  ceramic artifacts in the form of medieval and Byzantine containers with a frieze relief of the Last Supper and an icon like depiction of Christ Pantocrator - both by John O'Loughlin, a local ceramicist who is well known for his Reliquary series. I was unable to source an image of his works currently on sale at the gallery, so the attached images which give an idea of  the style of his work, will have to suffice.


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