NEW YORK—Throughout history, fine art has often been used to express reverence and to gain inspiration and strength from the divine. Much progress in the arts was made while seeking to create pious works.
In Russia, a unique art form developed, one that was rich and ornate and combined the skills of numerous types of artists to embellish a single work. These works are religious icons finely painted in oil with a metal “oklad,” or protective covering. Over the centuries, the oklad became increasingly exquisite, to the point that many oklads were more valuable than the painting itself.
MacDougall’s, a fine art auction house that specializes in Russian works, presents Russian paintings, icons, and works of art in its Dec. 1 sale in London. The total pre-sale estimate is over $25 million.
Among the offerings is a fine selection of these intricate and bejeweled icon works.
“Although one can come across oklads on icons from different Orthodox countries, as well as on some Roman Catholic icons, the greatest splendor and widest scope of production is found in connection with Russian icons where it combines the arts of the jeweler, metal worker, enameler, and iconographer,” explains William MacDougall, director of MacDougall’s in an email.
Practically, oklads were created as protection against the soot of candles burning in front of them. Only the face and hands of the saint or mother of God were left visible. The wealthier the patron, the more ornate they became.
“The simplest type of oklad is known as a ‘basma’ and dates from at least the 14th century in Russia. The tradition of using oklads possibly comes from the Byzantine art,” MacDougall explained.
Later, small “traveling” versions, embellished with pearls and gemstones, were often commissioned through master jewelers’ workshops as expensive gifts for or from the imperial household and other wealthy members of society.
The tradition evolved and continued to be cherished, reflecting Russian cultural and spiritual history.
“The use of oklads … represented Russian piety and holiness even in pre-Mongolian time. An oklad is an expression of love and veneration for the sacred image and often given as thanks for prayers answered,” MacDougall said.
“By the end of the 17th century, the oklads on icons were considered an independent form of the applied arts. It is not uncommon, especially with 19th century icons, for the oklad to be worth more in market terms than the underlying icon.”
MacDougall’s experience shows that investment in this area of art can be quite solid.
The greatest splendor and widest scope of production is found in connection with Russian icons.
“The Russian Icon market is different from the secular Russian Art market, with relatively little overlap of collectors, and a higher proportion of collectors from outside Russia and Ukraine. It has grown more slowly over the last two decades, but that makes icons [an] exceptional value, and well worth an investment, in addition to being beautiful and spiritual.”
Descriptions From MacDougall’s
The sale is led by an early 20th century silver and enamel triptych of St. George with St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker and Alexei the Metropolitan of Moscow, estimated at $150,000 to $235,000.
“It is not exactly an oklad, but a unique integral piece, demonstrating the craftsmanship of the master silversmiths and enamelers at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries, when the art of enameling flourished. This is my personal favorite icon of the sale,” MacDougall wrote in an email.
The folding triptych depicting St. George in the center and St. Nicholas the Miracle worker and Alexei, Metropolitan of Moscow, on the side panels, was made in the workshop of the well-known Master silversmith Vasily Agafonov during the period 1895–1917.
The triptych’s striking polychrome cloisonné enamel frame is richly colored, and the design is exceptionally refined.
The choice of saints suggests that the triptych was commissioned to be presented to a particularly eminent figure.
Gift of the Wealthy
St. George the Great Martyr, in a silver, pearl and enamel oklad, is from the end of the 19th century and is 5.3 by 4.5 inches.
It’s a brilliant and rarely encountered example of a precious “pyadnichny” (“hand’s-breadth size”) icon combining all the virtuoso techniques from the workshop of the renowned master jeweler and supplier to the imperial household, A. Ovchinnikov.
The filigree open-work patterning of the background is filled completely with light-blue enamel against which the saint’s freshwater pearl-embroidered robe and the silver cross in his left hand are shown to great effect.
The icon was certainly commissioned as an expensive gift and is a fine example of virtuoso work by a firm of jewelers known throughout Russia.The sale exhibition will be in London from Nov. 25–30.