In many ways, the icon collection of the artist Nikolai Kormashov (1929–2012) is exceptional. Saved Sanctity is not just the title of the exhibition, but it describes the long-term selfless activity and life philosophy that is behind the development of this collection. Nikolai Kormashov, whose path to becoming an artist had several decisive turning points, was able to rescue several sacred images that were in danger of destruction.

This collection, with its rare icons, took shape during Kormashov’s trips to northern Russia, his birthplace of Murom, and villages of Old Believers in remote areas. Along with the stories of how the icons were discovered, the exhibition deals with their complicated fate and role in the art of the second half of the 20thcentury art and in spiritual culture.

The exhibition includes more than 150 icons dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries. These range from ones that came from iconostases and were executed at high artistic level, as well as simpler provincial icons. There are traditional sacred images as well as a large number of unique and rare icons. According to Natalia Komashko, head researcher at Moscow’s Andrei Rublev Museum of Early Russian Art and Culture and a consultant for this exhibition, in the scientific sense, Nikolai Kormashov’s collection is one of the most comprehensive private collections that she has come across and Kormashov was one of the most serious collectors.

Nikolai Kormashov’s icon collection and its fate reflect the state of icon collecting and the interpretation of Old Russian art in the second half of the 20th century. An exhibition of Kormashov’s icon collection was organised at the Art Museum of Estonia in 1971. This was the first museum exhibition of a private collection of icons in the Soviet Union. In retrospect this was seen as a very daring undertaking, because, at that time, art collecting could easily be interpreted as an illegal activity. The first exhibition was followed by other exhibitions in Moscow (1974) and elsewhere. In 1997, Nikolai Kormashov organised a large-scale icon exhibition at the Mikkel Museum. Most of the sacred images that were exhibited at that time are also on display now. He also highlighted Estonian icon art as a significant topic of research. This was the subject of an exhibition at the Kadriorg Art Museum in 2011, which was accompanied by an in-depth catalogue.

Nikolai Kormashov’s collection grew and developed organically. He did not sell or trade any icons from his collection and, over time, each icon that ended up in his possession found its place in this unique collection. The collecting of icons was an integral part of his work as a painter, and it was closely intertwined with the lives, values and fates of Kormashov and all of the members of his family.