Holy Russia: Russian Art from the Beginnings to Peter the Great
Produced by: The Louvre Museum
Can be found at: http://mini-site.louvre.fr/sainte-russie/index_e.html
The Louvre’s exhibition, “Holy Russia: Russian Art from the Beginnings to Peter the Great”, presents the Greek, Arab, Turkish, Mongol, Pagan and Christian influences that blend to form an iconography and style unique to Russian religious art. Originally displayed in the museum March 5 through May 24, 2010, the exhibition lives on in an online format. This online exhibition exceeds expectations by not only the information and objects once on display, but thoughtfully curating the digital space to further enhance what is being presented. The dramatic space created digitally in combination with the fact the exhibition assumes no prior knowledge of Russian sacred art or religious history suggests that the exhibition is intended for a general public.
“Holy Russia” ambitiously presents history and art from the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 988 marking the beginning of Christianity in Russia, to Peter the Great’s making of a Europeanized, “modern” Russia in the early 18th century. Each section of the online exhibit gives an account of a specific period in Russian sacred art as defined by major events or influences. Titles of the sections alone speak to the breadth of the exhibit and the complexity of Russia’s past: “Conversion”, “The First Flowering of Christianity”, “The Mongol Era”, “The Major Artistic Centers in the Middle Ages”, “The Emergence of Moscow”, “Moscow, the ‘Third Rome’”, “The ‘Time of Troubles’”, and “From Michael Romonov to Peter the Great”.
From a stone pagan idol to the first portrait in Russian history, the selection of objects is thoughtfully planned to interest a wide audience. It strategically appeals to those interested in art, craft, history, religion, and culture. Archaeological objects and historic documents attract an audience interested in history; intricate decorative objects used in sacred rites speak to the role of transcendent beauty in religion; paintings and objets d’art that are masterpieces on aesthetic grounds and can be appreciated with or without reading all of the interpretation. Yet all of the objects tell a cohesive story, both visually and in conjunction with interpretation, about the impact of a history of foreign influences on visual culture.
Layout and technical features
The interface is more easily navigable than most online exhibitions, where it is easy to find oneself lost in the site after clicking through layers of links and menus. This ease of use makes it easy for a visitor to work their way through the entire exhibit, or choose only what interests them without any frustration. The online exhibition of “Holy Russia” further succeeds because it has been digitally curated to be a unique virtual space that enhances the interpretation of the objects. Instead of feeling like simply another page on the Louvre website, it opens in a separate window with different typography, colors, and navigation than Louvre website, with the addition of subtle animation that help bring it to life. The site displays the exhibition’s title in a playful Cyrillic text – НоLу Яцssia – that sets the tone for the Russian visual culture to come. Animated flames on the title’s “y” and “i” transform the letters into an oil lamp and candle that flicker recalling the sacred spaces that the exhibition’s objects were made for, but also helping create a sacred space of its own that invites the audience to explore and reflect.
Throughout the exhibition, varying forces of religion, warring clans, and traveling people are explored in relation to Russia. However, it is unclear whether Russia is being referred to as a geographical region or a nation-state, though neither definition would be consistent throughout the time span being covered in the exhibit. Additionally, the exhibition references the importance of specific sites in Russia as areas of cultural exchange. An integrated map would have greatly enhanced the experience for a general audience unfamiliar with Russian geography beyond Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and would further enhance the notion of the flow of people and ideas into Russia.
I applaud “Holy Russia” for its thoughtful presentation of art and historic objects that represent the rich history of the cultural crossroads of Russia, and for creating an easily navigable online exhibition that feels more substantial than just another section of a website. It is an excellent introduction to both Russian art and history for beginners, while those familiar with Russia will appreciate the incredible quality and importance of the objects on display.