BALTIMORE, Nov. 11 - St. Andrew the Fool was, at first, nonplussed. Keeping vigil one night in a church where the robes of the Mother of God were preserved, he saw the Virgin unfurl her veil over the congregation. He turned to a companion. "Do you see what I see?" His friend was young; the hour was late. Maybe he saw; maybe he didn't. But to Andrew, all was now clear. The wardrobe was in use; the Iconostasis doors from the late 15th or early 16th century, with the Annunciation, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom.
Andrew had his vision in Constantinople in the 9th or 10th century. Six hundred years later, when an artist in northern Russia painted an image of it, the vision happened again, in the picture. That's the way icons work. They aren't just records of the past; they're live events in a constant present, déjà vu in reverse.
In such wonder-working objects - "art" on the static Western model isn't really the word for them - martyrs bleed warm blood; the Virgin weeps salt tears. Communication is intimate and interactive. You look at icons, and they look at you. You talk to them, and they answer. In such transactions, belief runs deep and emotions run high. The gulf between heaven and earth dissolves.
"Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod," which opens on Saturday at the Walters Art Museum here, negotiates precisely that divide. Cogent, propulsive, quite unlike the Guggenheim's Russian extravaganza, the show illuminates two overlapping realms: the secular life of a once-grand commercial city; and the religious life of the same city, which was itself in some sense a giant icon, a sacred space.
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