An obsession with Russian icons grows into a local museum

CLINTON, Mass. (AP) – American businessman Gordon Lankton was walking through Moscow in 1989, witnessing just how hard communism had fallen, when he came across a minor piece of art that would start an obsession.

He found the painting in an outdoor flea market filled with impoverished locals trying to sell what little they had left. Amid offerings of old hardware, garments, even door locks, Lankton picked a painted icon of St. Nicholas off the dirt and paid $20 for it.

A fascination with icons had begun, but Lankton didn’t then know it.

“It was an insignificant event when it took place,” he said. “I was just going through there and I needed a couple of things that told me where I’d been.”

Lankton recently opened the Museum of Russian Icons, which displays 110 of the 270 icons he’s collected since.

The longtime executive at Nypro Inc. plastics company sees the museum as a gift to the central Massachusetts town where he’s done business for decades. It’s also a tribute to the resilience of the Russian people, whom he came to admire during dozens of business trips there, and a place to preserve the beauty of his collection, he said.

For a decade, his collection has been displayed on the walls of his home. Lankton, 75, said the idea of building a museum came as he realized his children would have nowhere to keep his collection after he died. He approached local museums about taking it, but learned his collection would, at best, be rotated into their displays every few years.

Unsatisfied, he decided to make his own place. He spent $480,000 to buy an old building that once housed the town post office and library, and $2.5 million to renovate it.

“I like the collection,” Lankton said. “I think others should be able to see it.”

A religious icon is an image of Jesus, Mary or other religious figures, such as a biblical character or saint. Such images are nearly identical, copied by unknown artists from originals prescribed by the Russian orthodox church, though style changes over the centuries can be seen in the way a tree or mountain is painted. The icons can also depict a biblical story or notable religious place.

The first icon Lankton bought wasn’t of high enough quality to display, but the liturgical calendar that fueled his passion is prominently featured.

The calendar, called a minyeia, shows the months of the year and the saints for every day, with their names written in Russian above their heads. It was a $6,000 gift from a business partner who had noticed Lankton poring over it during a visit to Russian painting school.

To that point, Lankton’s interest in icons was casual, following his first purchase about a year earlier, and he’d never spent more than $100 on an icon for his tiny collection.

“All of the sudden, I had a $6,000 icon,” he said. “I was so impressed with this minyeia, I thought maybe I should make a hobby of getting really good ones.”

Most of the icons on display at the museum were painted with egg yolk and natural pigments on wood panels made smooth by a mixture of plaster and glue called gesso. The backs of the icons are untreated and bend with age, so the older icons at the museum bow out from the brick walls.

The icons are displayed on three floors, which are connected by an open, curved staircase in the center. The icons are grouped when possible by the religious figure they portray. One of Lankton’s favorites, a reproduction of an icon of Christ, hangs off the third floor ceiling in a spot where it can be seen from each floor.

The primitive quality of the icons has an artistic appeal to Lankton that he said he can’t explain. Their appeal was increased by their link to the Bible and Russian history. Their mere existence is also part of the attraction, Lankton said.

When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 after the Russian Revolution, they ordered religious activity to cease and told people to burn their icons in public bonfires. Many refused, and the icons were hidden in barns and attics through decades of communism.

Artist Taiya Barss, 63, said she was struck by the commitment the Russians had to preserving the icons, when she saw the icons on display.

“Looking at all this and reading about this, I realize they were extremely valuable in the everyday lives of the Russian people,” she said. “The fact that so many have survived all this oppression, they sort of shine through the centuries.”

Lankton travels to Russia several times a year, but can’t take any icons back because leaving Russia with an icon is now illegal. He augments his collection with regular visits to Western Europe, and just bought five from a Swiss collection.

“Once you get hooked,” he said, “there’s no stopping.”