Agecroft Hall: Discover 17th Century England in Richmond
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Icon, Kazan Mother of God, c. 1900 (AH1967.0011A-B)

Russia 

 

             T.C. Williams, Jr., bought Agecroft Hall with the intention of having it turned into an art museum after him and his wife, Elizabeth Williams (Morton) either passed away or moved away from the home. Agecroft Hall turned out to be the residence of Mrs. Morton for over 40 years. In 1969, the house opened to the public as a historic house museum focusing on the British Renaissance while also showcasing some of the pieces that Mrs. Morton had collected during her four decade residency of the home.

            Most of the house is dedicated to portraying life in 17th century England. Mrs. Morton asked that one room depict how the home looked while she lived there—the Williams Library, so called because of the vast collection of books on display; books collected by both T.C. Williams, Sr., and Jr., and Jr. This 20th century room is vastly different from the other rooms on display in the museum.

            Many treasures can be found on display in this room, including the Kazan Mother of God icon. This is a silver plated Russian Orthodox icon, or a venerated image of a divine figure that maintains the earthly and heavenly worlds, a connection between the worshiper and the divine (1). Although icons are not to be idolatrized, they are venerated. Daily veneration includes lighting candles and incense for purification, lighting lamps around the icon, prostrating one’s self before the icon, and kissing it.

            The Russian icon found at Agecroft was crafted around 1900, probably for private use. It has a silver gilt repousse covering, called the oklad, over an enamel image of Mary and Jesus (3). The oklad is placed over the venerated image to protect the painting from kissing and the byproducts of burning candles and lights used in veneration (2). The silver repousse, or metal work punched from the reverse, give the piece a sculptural relief-type quality.

            This icon is of one of the most common patterns in Russia, patterned after the miracle-working icon found in Kazan, and kept in the Theotokos Monastery church for nearly 500 years (4). One such miracle occurred in 1893, when a 14-year-old boy of the Kazan diocese who was ringing the church bell when he was visited by a female figure in white who instructed the boy to tell a priest about an icon abandoned in the church’s storage room. When he failed to do as instructed, the boy was again visited, this time by angels in a dream, telling his to tell a priest of the icon.

            There are no such miraculous occurrences associated with the icon found at Agecroft. According to Vera Shavzov, although an icon may be a copy, it still has the ability to produce supernatural incidents, as copies of icons, similar to mirrors, reflect the magical powers of the original—essentially every icon has the potential for miracles and healing powers, as it’s up to God to choose a particular icon with which to perform miracles (5).

            Nothing is known of the provenance of Agecroft Hall’s Russian Orthodox icon. It is assumed to have been used by a family for private veneration. The real question is why an early 20th century family, who was presumably neither Russian Orthodox nor Catholic, would have a religious icon such as this on display in their gorgeous library. One possible, and very simple, explanation is that this magnificent piece, with its beautiful silver overlay and colorful enamel image was seen as a piece of art. For some, it could be a strictly religious piece, valuable as a vehicle to get closer to one’s deity, and for others, it is an object d’art, valuable for its inherent beauty.

 

 

 

References:

 

  • Agecroft Hall Object File (1)
  • Salmond, Wendy R. "The Art of the Oklad," The Post. 1996 (1) (2) (4)
  • Shevzov, Vera. "Icons, Miracles, and the Ecclesiastical Identity of Laity in Late Imperial Russian Orthodoxy," The American Society of Church History. Vol. 69, Issue 3. 2000. (5)

 

 

Prepared by Josh Kline, Assistant Curator, and Libby Howlett, Manager of Collections