News that Ksenia Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya had fallen asleep in the Lord on Sunday, July 7, 2013 was a profound shock. Though she had chronic hypertension, she had not been ill. She was tired, yes, for many years, but still actively sharing her wisdom and knowledge with clarity and generosity. For both her family and friends and for those who only knew her by reputation, a light has gone out of the world. The universal response of those closest to her and of her many students is that of having suddenly become orphans.
Ksenia’s funeral on Wednesday evening, July 10 at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, MA was followed by the all-night chanting of the psalter. When morning came she was carried from the church to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery in northeastern Pennsylvania to be buried beside her son Dmitri († 2001). Keeping the Russian custom, the mourners themselves closed the grave with shovels and hands full of earth. The labor helped to lighten their burden of grief.
The main elements of Ksenia’s biography (see Wikipedia) are well known. She was born in Kirghizstan in 1942 during World War II when many Muscovites were evacuated because the Nazis were less than 100 miles from the city. Ksenia’s heritage flowed from many streams, including Tartar and Jewish ancestors, as well as Russian, Polish and Bulgarian. She described her mother as “a romantic communist.” It was her paternal great aunt Katya who taught her what a Christian is and cultivated in Ksenia a love of art.
Ksenia met her future husband, Lev Alexeyevich Pokrovsky, while they were students at Moscow University. They were married in 1960 and lived together for 53 years. Lev became a teaching professor and researcher of theoretical physics while Ksenia pursued biophysics. As she completed her studies and worked in the field, Ksenia realized she was more interested in the laboratory of metaphysics than in gathering data in the halls of science. The Pokrovskys were a part of Fr. Alexander Men’s parish in the village of Novaya Derevnya located a short distance from Moscow. When Ksenia told her dilemma to Fr. Alexander, he was forthright, “Alright then, you will be an iconographer!”
Her life’s work as an iconographer reflected a scientific mind that constantly investigated every field of knowledge from chemistry and geology to psychology and history, to philosophy and theology.
After Fr. Alexander was murdered in September of 1990, the family with the exception of one son immigrated to the United States in June of 1991. Together Lev and Ksenia reared four sons: Yevgeny, Dmitry, Nikolay and Ilya; and a daughter Anna.
Beyond the facts of her life there are stories, a bottomless repository of stories that would fill many books. Her family, friends and students will be telling these stories for the rest of their lives. Besides being one of the finest iconographers of contemporary times, Ksenia Pokrovsky was one of the great personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries. Everyone who met her recognized this instantly. For all her great knowledge, she remained simple and approachable. She was very clear about the vocation of the iconographer, and she was keen to separate it from the sometimes ego-satisfying aura of the artist. “An iconographer can never have ambition,” she would say.
Her long-time student Marek Czarnecki tells this story which illustrates Ksenia’s goal as an icon painter.
“I once told Ksenia that I thought she was the best iconographer alive. ‘No’, she said (modestly and honestly) ‘there are many living iconographers much better than me’, citing Zinon as an example. She did know, however, where she had authority. ‘I understand some things well, and I want to be able to leave what I do know somewhere, so it is not lost.’ She said she wanted her students to jump over her. ‘That’s impossible, I said, ‘you are too high to jump over.’ Playfully but emphatically she answered, ‘then I don’t want to teach you.’”
As an iconographer her influence is immeasurable: a hero and pioneer to many generations of icon painters in Russia; a consummate teacher of the sacred art and a peerless example of the profession to hundreds in the West. Truly the light of her accomplishments continue to shine forth in the world and will only grow more bright as future generations come to know her.
Ksenia Pokrovsky was the author of many new icons. Her “Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America” has become famous as the prototype for iconographers to follow. The icon is owned by the Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and is housed in OCA headquarters in Syosset, New York. It was commissioned by Metropolitan Theodosius after Ksenia arrived in America. It is fitting that Ksenia fell asleep on the Feast of the Saints of North America, Sunday, July 7, 2013. The icon appeared on the OCA website that Sunday. For us it was an unforeseen synaxis of events, though surely appointed by God since before the foundation of the world.
It was with great sadness that we learned of the falling asleep of our dear Ksenia. Her warmth and intense ability to listen and digest every word said was a true gift. We are blessed at St. Andrew to have her icons surround us every day and I know that these icons will bring us closer to Christ and His Church. May God grant her rest among the saints and may her memory be eternal.
“We are blessed at St. Andrew to have her icons surround us every day and I know that these icons will bring us closer to Christ and His Church.”
Ksenia was a dear friend and teacher to me. I was lucky enough to be able to visit her home several times. I remember fondly the many hours she would make us sit in her kitchen drinking perpetual cups of tea and talking about theology. Her experienced and level-headed knowledge of icon painting and theory was a great influence on my thinking. It was a valuable counterweight to the emotional and spiritualist talk about icons that so widely prevails today. Ksenia began as a scientist, and never stopped thinking about iconography as an applied science. Indeed, she did not claim to have the virtuosic artistic intuition of a Fr. Zenon. But her practical knowledge of pigments, technique, perspective, and anatomy surpassed anyone else in our age, I am sure. She was in many ways more of a teacher than a painter, and thus her legacy lives on in the work of her countless students.
“Her experienced and level-headed knowledge of icon painting and theory … [is] a valuable counterweight to the emotional and spiritualist talk about icons that so widely prevails today.”
Ksenia, loved of God, I and so many others wish we had been able to know you more deeply in your transit on earth, for the glimpse we have had of the comprehension you have reached in the Holy Faith and in the artistic expression of it. A thousand thanks for all the labors and all the love you have given as teacher and artist in the service of our Lord whom we earnestly pray that perpetual light shine upon you; may you rest in peace. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
The Lord said, one question I will ask on the last day: “Did you visit me in prison?” Indeed, Ksenia did! One day, I got the courage to call her and ask if she would come and teach the men in a high security prison about the history of iconography. She immediately replied, “yes.” So, she and and Anna walked through the heavy gates and passed the strict security apparatus to share the light of the gospel with those men hungering for knowledge in prison. Her talk was esoteric and began at the beginning of time to discuss the meaning of art, and how iconography falls within the history art. The men in prison will surely remember Ksenia, and wil keep her in their prayers. Thanks be to God!
I had the good fortune to participate in the Hexaemeron workshop in Wilmore, Ky in 2012.It was a rich and rewarding experience. I remember when we arrived at applying the first light to our icons I really made a mess of mine. Ksenia came ’round and after one look said, “Did you do this”? Yes, I admitted sheepishly. “No, you did not do this!?, she responded. Alas, yes, I did, I reply. “Tsk, Tsk, Tsk, you did not listen, did you?” And then proceeded to make all clear by manipulating the paint in a way I would not have though possible. She knew just when to cajole, to prod, to encourage or demand, what ever was needed to get your brain and eyes to “click”. She would instantly discern where her students were and then ask them to step up a little higher. Unforgettable.
Letter to Ksenia
Dear Teacher and Friend Ksenia, I will miss you greatly. You will always live in my heart. I remember the first time I came to visit you and Lev to ask if you would please take me in as your student. You said yes, and since that day your presence in my life had profoundly changed me, forever in so many ways. We spent hours talking in your kitchen discussing so many topics. I especially loved our talks about life, history, theology of icons, Orthodoxy, church, Russian life. Each topic was deeply exmained.
I’m not sure which was my favorite the Turkish coffee or Tea but when I came for a visit I felt like I belonged and it was hard to leave. You were always gracious. I am so grateful to have had you as a friend and blessed to have had you as a teacher of icons. Our time together on Earth has ended but I know you will be with me in spirit. I love you. Memory Eternal
It is with a great sense of sadness that my wife and I learned of the death of Ksenia Pokrovsky. I was fortunate to have participated in a sacred art workshop offered by Hexaemeron in 2010. Marek Czarnecki and Ksenia’s daughter Anna Gouriev taught that particular workshop and they were very clear in mentioning that Ksenia’s techniques and understanding were being taught by them. I never had the opportunity to meet Ksenia, however, I feel that I have been influenced by her approach and appreciation for the beauty and significance of the sacred icon. My studies in sacred art have taken me onto a different path, yet I truly appreciate the knowledge and insights that Ksenia promoted and were shared, with great love, by Marek and Anna.
Ksenia, and her family, are in our prayers. May she rest in the love and peace of Christ and His Holy Mother.
Her long-time student and assistant instructor, Marek Czarnecki, has this to say about his teacher. “She explained how all the generations of iconographers that lived before us are lining up like that human chain, interceding and pushing us forward with their momentum. Like those invisible witnesses, she wanted to build a good foundation in a new country that lacked roots or foundations, where “iconoclast” was high praise. She wanted to give criteria that was stable, simple, direct and authentically Orthodox. She knew that is was thankless and invisible work but it’s what was needed here. ‘Just don’t fall backwards, and don’t take me with you if you do.’”
I am blessed to have been able to meet and study with Ksenia Pokrovsky many years ago. I am so saddened by the news of her passing. It is a comfort to know that she is now gazing directly at the face of Jesus whom she painted so lovingly.
Marek Czarnecki has written a beautiful essay about Ksenia Pokrovsky called “Place Keepers.” Marek reflects upon his experience of studying with Ksenia over the last decade and her influence on iconography worldwide. http://hexaemeron.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/place-keepers-2/
New York Times obituary for Ksenia Pokrovsky