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Faith and Art On Display in the Columbia River Gorge

Railroad executive Sam Hill left behind two monuments in the Columbia River Gorge. The Historic Columbia River Highway, on the Oregon side, was the first scenic highway in the United States. And on the Washington side, the castle-like Maryhill Museum of Art stands guard over the stark beauty of wind-scoured hills.

The museum will host a landmark exhibition of historic and contemporary Orthodox Christian icons from August 6 to November 15. Sacred Presence: The Eternal Tradition of Orthodox Icons is curated by Willamette art historian Ann Nicgorski.

She hasn't caught her breath since a year and a half ago, when she began preparations for the exhibition. That effort came on top of Nicgorski's regular schedule, which would exhaust the average marathon runner. She served as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, teaches art history, delivers community lectures and conference presentations, publishes book chapters and academic and popular press articles, curates exhibits for the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, serves as president of the Salem Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, and is helping coordinate an international conference. That doesn't include the most important activities -- raising her four-year-old daughter and walking her dogs in Minto-Brown Park.

The tall windows in Nicgorski's brick-lined office let in a quiet radiance, offsetting the hectic pace. Trees filter the light as it plays over stacked art books and paper. On her desk are slides of the icons she has come to love.

"Icons were created as aids to prayer," Nicgorski says. "They are representations of the sacred persons and scenes that originated in early Christian and Byzantine times, and are intended to open a window into heavenly realms." Over the centuries, many people have used icons as intermediaries, hoping to communicate with the divine.

In Nicgorski's case, the gold-leafed images with their jewel-like colors have been communicating with her since her Catholic childhood, when she grew up "in the shadow of the golden dome" at Notre Dame, where her dad is a professor.

Nicgorski graduated from college as a Great Books major, but after a stint as a student intern at Notre Dame's Snite Museum of Art, she switched to art history in graduate school. "I became fascinated with the way the intellectual history of the Western world is reflected in art," she says. She lived in Greece for a few years, excavating the site of Mochlos on Crete while writing her PhD thesis. "I was headed for museum work but fell in love with teaching as well," she says. It was during this time in Greece that her interest in Orthodox and comparative Christian iconography was born.

Nicgorski teaches a wide canvas of art history, from cave paintings to medieval art, as well as Christian iconography up to the present day. She even uses Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," as a starting point for student discussion about the controversies in how artists have portrayed the crucifixion over the centuries.

There are those who believe icons work miracles -- that Madonna figures cry and Christ figures bleed -- and Nicgorski is awaiting the opening of the exhibit with a sense of the miraculous, too. It's finally coming together, making the transition from her desk to the Maryhill Museum. As her elaborate preparations unfold in the galleries overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, she hopes it will be a sacred experience for both art lovers and the spiritually minded.

Images that Tell Stories
The Sacred Presence exhibition includes traditional styles and rural folk art, as well as modern icons by contemporary iconographers from the Pacific Northwest, California and Alaska. Several large, elaborate pieces have been restored for the exhibition. Most pieces are from Russia, and date as early as the 17th century.

Older icons are rare, with few having survived the Iconoclastic Period of the 8th and 9th centuries, when emperors labeled them idolatrous and had them destroyed. Fortunately, many people appreciated the role they played in teaching Christian narratives to a largely illiterate populace, and sought to preserve the "Bible of the Illiterate."

"The use of icons is still a bit controversial," Nicgorski says. "Some Christian denominations revere icons, while others find them curious or suspicious or even idolatrous."

According to Orthodox believers, icons transcend the earthly realm. Thus, figures don't cast shadows and are often depicted against a luminous gold-leaf background that removes them from this world. The flattened, stylized human forms were typically painted in jewel-like pigments on wooden panels, with the brilliant blues coming from ground lapis lazuli stone. Many are in the form of cast metal, mosaic, relief sculpture or glass painting. Beginning in the 17th century, some Russian icons were portrayed with three-dimensional "Renaissance style" modeling.

Most older icons were not signed, but painted by anonymous clerics and monks who considered iconography a spiritua l-- not an artistic -- activity. Later pieces are often ascribed to individuals. "By the hand of [the iconographer's name]" indicates the belief that God is guiding their hand.

Many icons are believed to have worked miracles, especially in Russia. Today, they are primarily displayed in Orthodox -- but also in some Catholic and Anglican -- churches, where visitors show devotion in the form of prayers and lit candles.

Unusual Collection Attracts Thousands
The Maryhill Museum has a history as interesting as its collections. Samuel Hill, a wealthy railroad executive and investor, wanted to establish a utopian Quaker community in the Gorge, but few families wanted to brave settling where the wind blew 12 months of the year and rain was almost non-existent. So Hill embarked on a worldwide mission to promote peaceful trade and devoted himself to the construction of an imposing home near present-day Goldendale, Wash. Builders didn't use wood in the structure; instead, they erected steel beams and poured concrete. Hill also built the first road in Washington -- in 1909 -- to his remote home, which was converted to an art museum. He named the museum after his daughter Mary.

In 1926, Hill invited Queen Marie of Romania to dedicate his still unfinished museum. Queen Marie -- granddaughter of Russian Tsar Alexander II -- felt deep gratitude toward Hill, who had generously aided Romania after World War I. When the queen ventured to the then-remote Pacific Northwest to dedicate the museum, she brought 15 crates of artwork and artifacts with her, including royal regalia, gilt furniture and numerous Russian Orthodox icons, many with semi-precious stones.

The permanent collection, acquired over decades, is as eclectic as the architecture. It features Queen Marie's royal regalia and icons, a Native American collection, American classical realism paintings, Rodin sculptures, photos by Edward Weston, world-renowned 1946 French fashion mannequins and stage sets, historical chess sets and European paintings.

The museum sees more than 8,000 visitors a month.