Students explore rare, medieval Russian icons

February 8, 2018
Students at Chazen Museum of Art
Students at Chazen Museum of Art
Students at Chazen Museum of Art

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Fourteen University of Wisconsin-Platteville students recently had an opportunity to view rare, medieval and early modern Russian icons at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. The trip was organized as a part of the History 4110, Early Russia to 1856 course, taught by Dr. Andrey Ivanov, assistant professor of history at UW-Platteville.

During the hands-on learning experience, students achieved expertise and knowledge in the study of Russia through collaborative learning with leading experts in the field and through learning in the context of explorative teamwork.

First, students attended a special seminar where they viewed and discussed unique and very rare Russian icons stored in Chazen’s exhibited collections and special storage. The seminar was presented by Maria Saffiotti Dale, curator of paintings at the Chazen Museum of Art, and Dr. Thomas Dale, director of medieval studies and, for many years, the chair of the Department of Art History at UW-Madison.

The icons were acquired by Joseph E. Davies (1876-1958), a Watertown, Wisconsin native, UW-Madison alum and the United States’ second ambassador to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1936-1938. Ivanov noted that Davies maintained very friendly relations with Stalin while in Moscow, which helped him procure some very rare paintings, icons and works of art that he later donated to UW-Madison’s art museum. 

Among the icons the students explored was a rare, 16th-century tryptich of the Great Diesis, acquired from East Slavic lands’ most ancient monastery, Kiev Caves Monastery. According to Ivanov, the icon has puzzled art historians worldwide who travel to Madison to study it. The particular focus of historians’ fascination is the coat of arms of Pope Paul III (1468-1549), which suggests that the icon has Mediterranean provenance.

Following the seminar, students toured additional icons and rare Russian paintings in the main collections of the museum. The field excursion also included the viewing of Klavdiy Lebedev’s original, famous 1891 painting “The Fall of Novgorod,” which depicts the end of Novgorod’s Hanseatic Republic and amalgamation of that republic into the autocratic state of Muscovy in 1478 – an event that is often portrayed as the end of the Russian experience of limited medieval democracy.

In the afternoon, students toured the Russian/East European Collections Center of the Memorial Library, particularly the Michael B. Petrovich Reading Room, led by Ivanov. They also attended an informational session at the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia at UW-Madison, presented by Kelly Iacobazzi, assistant director for operations at the Center. To wrap up the day, students enjoyed Central Asian and Afghani food, including dishes from the cultures of former Soviet Union’s Muslim republics at the Kabul Restaurant on State Street in Madison.

Ivanov said the experience enabled students to learn about Russian history through a physical encounter and experience of Russia’s medieval riches.

“They learned history by looking at art collections and primary sources, which is the best way to experience the past without inventing a time machine,” said Ivanov. “They were able to interact with the best experts in Russian medieval history that Wisconsin has to offer and learn from them as well as from the objects they studied and interpreted.”

Ivanov said that most classes provide educational experience though an indoor, in-classroom environment and agreed that is the way most learning should take place. He also noted, however, that experiential learning often deepens one’s understanding of the subject, and enhances one’s ability to analyze data or information by looking at the material artifacts. 

He said the experience also helped prepare students for their future careers.

“Investigating events through the study of artifacts always enhances analytical and investigational skills,” said Ivanov. “This experience gave them a chance to develop their research skills and to interpret and be exposed to multicultural environment and study of cultures other than their own.”

Field trip participants included Ellen Antoniewicz, Jaclyn Boyes, Nathaniel Brimeyer, Zachary Burkholder, Mackena Collier, Connor Doyle, Ezekiel Eisenhauer, Madison Hans, Chad Jones, Kody Kraabel, Ethan Kilbey, Martin McClure, Eric Weber and Dong Hee Won. They came from a variety of disciplines, including history, political science, criminal justice, international studies, business administration and chemistry.

High-impact practices are an important component of UW-Platteville’s 2017-2018 strategic work plan, which includes the institutional priorities of improving student learning, data-informed decision making, budgeting and planning, supporting student success through retention and recruitment initiatives, and campus climate.

The hands-on, experiential learning experience at the Chazen Museum of Art was made possible with the support of UW-Platteville’s College of Liberal Arts and Education/Department of History High Impact Activity Fund.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,


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