It was in 1968 that the Temple Gallery first took a dozen people to see the great medieval architecture and icons of Russia. It was the era of Leonid Brezhnev and travel to the USSR then seemed a sombre prospect. But the image of Russia coming from politicians and the media at that time (and perhaps now) was not the whole picture.
We were not prepared for the warmth, intelligence and friendliness of good ordinary Russians. Certainly conditions for them were difficult, especially for the educated – the ‘intelligentsia’ – who were not part of the nomenklatura system. Most academics, museum staff and scholars were poorly paid but they developed a non-materialistic attitude in which flowered an intellectual and artistic culture that I have never found elsewhere. As a young man I was astonished and charmed to be with people for whom art, music, poetry and literature were life-sustaining nourishment rather than the commercialised ‘leisure industry’ that we know today. Russians seem to have a natural sensitivity to the basic humanity in all of us. It is what gives them the ability to laugh and cry at the same time, as one sees in Chekhov, and it gives them a wonderful sense of fun.
On that first trip forty-eight years ago on the Moscow-Leningrad train a Russian asked us if we were a theatre group, ‘you seem to be having too good a time to be just a tour group’. It was true, we were having fun. It was the beginning of both a love affair and a personal course of intellectual and philosophical enquiry that I have consistently followed over the years and now I am happier sharing the fruits I gathered not so much through dealing in art but by travelling with companions to look at it in situ.
My study of the great icons of Andrei Rublyov and the fifteenth century Moscow and Novgorod Schools led me to the discovery of a vast body of sacred and mystical knowledge that has remained partly hidden in the obscurities of fourth century theology and other ancient Gnostic literature. It is the key to the symbolism and spirituality expressed in Byzantine mosaics and icons, the forerunners of Russian sacred art, for we discover that Russian religious culture was wholly derived from Constantinople and Mount Athos. It is also the key to what was going on in Italy and elsewhere in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, in more hidden forms, in the Renaissance. I have written about all this in my Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity (out of print but available on Amazon.com) and in my doctoral thesis Pieter Bruegel and the Esoteric Tradition (not published but available at Templegallery.com).