Pimen Sofronov, tradition and innovation, with Dr. Roy Robson

We began with lunch service, typically tasty! 

Joe Teti was absent dealing with an illness, so he asked Shan Holt to Emcee the occasion on behalf of her invited guest, Dr. Roy Robson.  She called the meeting to order at 12:20.

Pimen Sofronov’s signature, as it changed through his career.

Our Treasurer, George, reported $1397.41 in hand before today’s lunch.  His report was approved by voice vote.  He reminded Symposium members to pay up with next year’s dues.

We were also happy to welcome Dan Aubrey and Mike Smoliga new members of the group.  Dan has spoken to us twice recently, and it is nice to have him as a member.

As we were finishing lunch, Shan introduced Roy, with thanks to Rob again for setting up the audio and video service.  Roy is Shan’s colleague at Penn State Abington and a specialist in Russian history and especially interested in Russian orthodoxy.  He came to speak about iconographer Pimen Sofronov, whose work is to be seen decorating St. Vladimir’s on South Broad Street.

The talk was titled:  Pimen Sofronov:  Eastern Christian Art and Identity in Trenton.  Robson is interested in hybrid identity development for Sofronov both as an ancient and a modern artist and as an immigrant in Trenton.

Sofronov was trained at the absolute pinnacle of ancient iconographic tradition as an apprentice to Gavriil Frolov.  Born in 1898 to an Old Believer family, Sofronov was schooled the ancient Orthodox traditions, including a love of icons.  His teacher showed him the technique of using prorisi – paper patterns with pinholes through which the artist could apply colors, reproducing ancient images precisely each time.  The point of the art form was to freeze the image as it had earlier been rendered; the artist was not to add or change anything and indeed iconographers avoided drawing attention to themselves by signing their work, as indeed there was nothing individual about it.

Sofronov’s early work, Madonna and child

Caught up in the Russian Revolution and forced to flee, Sofronov traveled Europe between the 1910s and the 1940s, becoming the quintessential practitioner of the art of “great old Russia” while simultaneously soaking in the diversity of religious art across Europe. Exiled White Russian aristocrats patronized him generously while he executed works for church and political leaders in Paris, Prague, Belgrade, and Rome.  He was still using the ancient technique for his paintings, but in the 1930s in Belgium, he showed some impact of Western European religious art by decorating a shawl around the Virgin Mary with a prayer rendered in ancient Church Slavonic.  Elements of his paintings also soften in these year, especially showing more humanized figures, an influence perahps from his time among Serbian artists.

In 1939, Sofronov went to Rome at the urging of Pope Pius XI and his successor, Pope Pius XII.  His commission was to paint icons for an exhibit about “real Russians.” Again revealing Western influences, Sofronov combined Western and Eastern imagery in this Roman work, specifically by including Roman Catholic prayers rendered in Eastern Orthodox lettering.  Though Pius XII is notorious for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities against European Jews, he did choose to shelter Sofronov from Mussolini through the Second World War.  While under papal protection, Sofronov reached the pinnacle of his stature as the representative of ancient Orthodoxy.  Thus securely positioned, he began to experiment artistically, even making a sharply Europeanized self-portrait. 

In 1945, he left Europe to settle for a time at the Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, NY.  He was invited, and eager, to introduce Eastern iconography to Orthodox communities in the United States, where religious art had long been only Roman.  His greatest commission in this period was to decorate Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox church in Syracuse, NY.  Here he executed a striking image by including St. Veronica with her veil imprinted with the sweating face of Jesus as he carried his cross.  St. Veronica and her veil do not exist in Orthodox tradition, only in Roman Christianity, but Sofronov from this painting forward adds her to every Orthodox church he painted.  Robson surmises that he might have been purposefully bringing some ecumenical spirit to the churches, or he might have been making a visual joke…challenging priests and the faithful to actually see what was before them.

His next great work in the United States was St. Vladimir’s in Trenton.  There was a concentration of Orthodox immigrant communities in the neighborhood of S. Broad Street, sufficient to support a number of separate churches within blocks of each other.  Decorating St. Vladimir’s took Sofronov 4 years of painting night and day.  He adopted a special diet designed to sustain him through this rigorous practice.  He solved some architectural problems with wit and insight in his mural on the dome, locating the electrical anchor for the necessary chandelier on a book held by Christ at the top center of the painting, so that the chandelier actually represented the Light of Christ emerging from the Word. 

As further evidence of Sofronov’s own cosmopolitanism, he provided figures of St. Olga and St. Vladimir, though partisans of each saint competed for the honor of having founded Russian Orthodoxy.  His painting seemed to elide these conflicts, inviting immigrant worshipers from Ukraine and Russia to bury their differences.  As another gesture toward shared cultural traditions, he featured St. Cyril and St. Methodius, jointly credited with originating Cyrillic writing.  Finally, he mixes English and Church Slavonic in legible prayers, including the Roman form of the Lord’s Prayer.  Robson argued that by this point in his life, Sofronov was mixing his identity from elements of Orthodox, European, and American experiences, as did many of his immigrant contemporaries in the 1950s.

Sofronov’s last big commission was the tomb of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, but the detail that marked his earlier work blurs noticeably, suggesting both his waning strength and his failing eyesight.  While formally retired in Millville, NJ, Sofronov continued to paint, including one striking icon executed (like a painting of Elvis) on red velvet. He died in Feb 1973, and was buried in Millville.

Robson finished the talk by showing us a triptych of Sofronov’s signatures, tracking his evolution from fidelity to ancient Orthodox icon principles to the hybrid artist he revealed in his New Jersey works.

He also noted the fate of the work Sofronov left at his death.  It was stored rather carelessly in Millville for decades and then nearly discarded when it was rediscovered and in very poor condition.  Ultimately, many of his books were auctioned by Sotheby’s and most of the art went to Ohio State University to be preserved and exhibited.  Ohio State offers a webpage devoted to their first exhibit of Sofronov’s oeuvre, called From Pattern to Painting at https://library.osu.edu/exhibits/from-pattern-to-painting-the-religious-iconography-of-pimen-sofronov.

Questions included whether Sofronov continued to use the prorisi methods he had learned as an apprentice.  Robson indicated that he might have into the 1940s, because his library included a few hundred examples of prorisi, including ones he marked as from his own master.

Carol pointed out that the other churches around St. Vladimirs are also stunning inside.

Mike suggested possible layers to why Sofronov might have chosen St. Veronica as his “signet.” First, her absence from Orthodox tradition absolutely required that he invent something of his own.  Secondly, the Biblical story of St. Veronica concerns her making an image, and indeed the name “Veronica” means “true image” in Greek.

In answer to Stephen’s question, Robson indicated that Sofronov’s reputation had been eclipsed in the Soviet Union, but since the revival of the Russian church, interest in him in his native Estonia has begun to filter back into Russian circles.  Some guardians of Orthodox tradition feel that Sofronov strayed too far and sold out the tradition, and others scorn him for the entrepreneurial tone of his artistic life.  He remains beloved in Italian circles, though.

Dan mentioned that Princeton Theological Seminary invites iconographers to visit, and brings them to St. Vladimirs in Trenton to show them Sofronov’s work.  They are a generation removed from the ancient traditions, and the first working in America who were not trained either by Sofronov himself or by one of his students.  St. Vladimirs is, apparently, very welcoming of these visits and proud of the paintings on their walls.

Currently, Robson is exploring an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum, since the Wyeths, like Sofronov, worked frequently in egg tempera.  The sulfur-smelling and complex egg tempera method did not remain popular once longer-lasting and clean-able acrylics became available, but Robson personally finds the acrylics less luminous than the old methods.

The symposium adjourned at 1:20, with thanks all around.

We will meet again on Monday, Nov 25.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary