Reflecting a lifelong fascination with the religious and imperial traditions of Tsarist Russia, Dr. James F. Cooper has collected a singular array of religious icons and imperial artifacts illustrating more than three hundred years of Russian cultural history.
The faith of the Russian Orthodox church has found notable expression in the tradition of iconography. Cooper's decades-long passion for these remarkable expressions of belief and beauty has resulted in one of the great collections of Russian Orthodox icons held privately in the United States.
The depiction of sacred subjects in Russian Orthodoxy reflects the great debate of the Byzantine era which ultimately embraced a stylized, two-dimensional method of representing Holy Tradition. Though similar in subject to the religious images of Western Christianity, the icons of Eastern Orthodoxy also differ significantly. The iconographer in the Greek and Russian tradition subsumed a personal and distinctive interpretation of the subject reflecting the expectation that there be no perceivable intermediary between the believer and the transcendent reality presented by an icon's subject. Rarely signed, iconographers are mostly unknown servants of the sacred, whose service was meant to invite the believer into communion with the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
Characterized by geometric harmony, an emphasis upon simplicity rather than embellishment, and a conscious desire to imitate rather than to create anew, the icons of Russian orthodoxy were treasured as devotional objects both in churches as well as in private homes. The Saint Louis University Museum of Art's presentation of Cooper's extensive collection of Russian icons presents to the believer and non-believer alike an opportunity to deliberate upon the sacred mysteries which have so shaped the Russian people since A.D. 988, the date traditionally assigned to the baptism of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, and the conversion of All the Russias to the Orthodox religion.
Cooper's fascination with Russian culture is also revealed in an additional collection of artifacts related to the ruling Romanov family, particularly during the reign of Nicholas II (1894-1917). This eclectic collection of imperial artifacts obscure an era of upheaval, demonstrating the sometimes simple domesticity of the imperial family while also revealing the routine splendor which surrounded the Romanov dynasty.
It is almost too easy to imagine the children of the Tsar and the Tsarina, Nicholas and Alexandra, collecting Russian folk life porcelain figures for the shelves of their bedrooms, delicate figures illustrating Russian life that the crown prince and the imperial princesses would have rarely, if ever, encountered. Even more regal, though everyday objects, like the gilded inkwells and the paperweights made of rare stone in Cooper's collection reflect a domesticity that may have made an imperial residence more of a home than palace. Tea services and dinnerware carry this theme forward. Elaborately decorated and suitable for the imperial table, yet their inherent function is more prosaic. While reminding all of the privileged life of a royal family, their humble function connects the Romanovs to the human family, just as the photographs of Nicholas, Alexandra and their children, which most certainly would have been found throughout Russia, linked the imperial family with the peasants of the country as well as the merchants and shopkeepers of the towns and villages throughout the empire.
Emperor Nicholas II was a doting father and loving husband. He was known to be a devout and pious supporter of the Russian Orthodox church. He took his imperial duties seriously though he had little talent for governance and possessed virtually no curiosity about the conditions throughout the Empire which led to great and near constant privation for so many of his subjects.
As the twentieth-century opened into an age of technological marvels, Russia continued to lag. An emerging middle class struggled against the inertia of aristocracy in the cities. In the countryside, Russia's failure to address the question of serfdom until late in the 19th century meant that the farmer was rarely a landowner and the peasant still possessed little control over his labor. The era of Tsar Nicholas' reign was a progression of missed opportunities for prudent liberalization which may have forestalled the intrigues of opponents who pursued the end of the Russian empire rather than its reform. The last Tsar of the Romanov dynasty ruled over a creaking realm incapable of protecting his subjects, his family, and the imperial dynasty from the armies of Central Europe as well as from implacable revolutionaries like Lenin, Trotsky, and their Bolshevik allies.
Nicholas II was an autocrat, a diffident and ineffective despot, who left Mother Russia in the hands of officials who scrupled little in their use of intimidation to maintain social control. The brutal suppression by the emperor's battalions and secret police of those demanding political reform in 1905 showed the world that the Russian government could be relentlessly and brutally efficient in suppressing opposition. Such capability did not extend to the battlefield, however. The militaria of the Cooper Collection allows us to imagine the Tsar's well-dressed officers on parade even as history calls us to remember that these same officers would achieve few victories in the Great War and to question how the decorations upon their tunics were earned.
An encounter with these imperial objects is made all the more wistful by our awareness of the brutal execution of the imperial family, July 17, 1918. The swift and nasty end of Romanov rule imbues each artifact in Cooper's collection with a melancholy that somehow diminishes the lived experience of so many in the Russia of Nicholas II. Right or wrong, even the artifacts of only passing significance take on a quality like that of the relics of the Roman church. Whether the family knew and possessed the artifacts of the collection cannot be asserted with certainty. But they reflect for us the tragedy of Russia - the missed opportunities that may have forestalled revolution, persecution and suffering while also permitting a glimpse into what we now know was an unsustainable world that helped to birth Russia's great and tragic revolution into being.
Just as an icon is meant to draw the believer into a more intimate relationship with the divine, so Relics of a Glorious Past is meant to draw the visitor into a deeper reflection upon the implications of the last days of Romanov Empire. The experiences of the Russian people in the 20th century touched all the world, in religion, in politics, in the experience of war and uneasy peace, and in the breathtaking embrace of utopian hope.
Sir Winston Churchill once commented that Russia "was a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma." Perhaps that was true in 1939, and may be true still. And yet we may find a key which allows us to puzzle the riddle, unshroud the mystery, and define the enigma through Dr. James F. Cooper's collection. Regardless, for now all that seems necessary to assert is this -
Russia has been and remains glorious.
ABOUT THE COLLECTOR
James Cooper was born in Charleston, Mo. He attended medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas. In 1965, upon completing his surgical residency in St. Louis, Doctor Cooper was drafted into the U.S. Army medical corps. During the height of the Viet Nam war, he was assigned to the 24th Evacuation Hospital, near Saigon.
After serving his tour in Viet Nam in 1967, he was assigned to the surgical department of Fort Leonard Wood Hospital (Fort Leonard Wood, MO) for one year. In 1969 he returned to St. Louis where he was the chief surgeon for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and subsequently, the Teamsters Union. He continued in private practice continued until 2005.
In the late 1980's, Ladue antique dealer, Jules Pass, along with his assistant, Elena Willow, introduced Doctor Cooper to the art of collecting Russian icons. Intrigued by the simplicity and grandeur of the icons, he remains an avid collector.
Doctor Cooper is currently performing clinical work in Native-American clinics located in the states of Arizona, Oklahoma, and Washington.
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