Anna (Pokrovsky) Gouriev had the rare advantage of growing up in the household of one of the world’s most prominent icon painters, Ksenia (Xenia) Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya, her mother. And so Anna learned the art of icon writing in the gradual and natural way that daughters learn to cook by watching their mothers.

“I never planned to be an iconographer” says Anna, “it wasn’t a decision; it is just my life.”

Anna does not advertize her “life.” People find their way to her by seeking treasure. It’s hard to explain. You look over hundreds of same subject icons by as many iconographers and find one so full of grace your heart stops.

Anna had many years of training in the seriousness of icon writing before taking up the brush. From earliest childhood days in Moscow, Anna was surrounded by the steady coming and going of artists, theologians and intellectuals who were in one way or another involved in the clandestine operations of her mother’s network of secret iconographers. Describing those days, Anna considered the “real world” to be what was going in her parents’ flat. “When we came home from school” (there were five children born to Lev and Ksenia Pokrovsky), “and closed the door behind us, the fantasy ended.” Outside that door “we could never talk about what our mother did; we had to pretend we were a part of that strange outside world where everything that really mattered to us was forbidden.” During Soviet times creating new icons was a crime on same order as trafficking in firearms, narcotics and pornography.

Sought after as experts in icon restoration, the entire Pokrovsky family worked illicitly in various capacities to repair hundreds of icons brought to them from all over the Soviet Union. It was an education by discovery to uncover layer by layer the nearly lost technique and palette of generations of iconographers that preceded them. In her book “Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography”, Irina Yazikova traces the history of icon writing from the catacombs of First Century Rome to the bonfires of communism that consumed millions of icons in 20th century Russia.

Included in the organic chain of heroes who saved iconography is Mother Juliana (Maria Sokolova) and many courageous men and women, among them Anna’s mother.  Ksenia and her associates established Izograph Society in the 1970s and 80s, which became an underground fellowship of iconographers and iconologists who prepared the way for the “New Spring”, as Ksenia calls it, the great renaissance of icon-writing and restoration of churches currently enjoyed in Russia. At the first open celebration in Moscow of works produced by members of the Izograph Society in 1989, Anna exhibited her icons.

Ironically, the Pokrovsky family left Russia in January of 1991 just as the first signs of rebirth of iconography were becoming publicly visible. It was politically and culturally a volatile time, and for the Pokrovskys a time of great personal grief because their beloved spiritual father and friend, Fr. Alexander Men, had been brutally murdered in September of 1990.

St. Mary Magdalen Orthodox Church

News followed Ksenia’s arrival in the U.S. Articles in the Boston Globe and the patronage of the Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and that of many priests who knew of her reputation in Russia led to her establishing a studio in Sharon, MA. While assisting her mother with grand scale projects for churches, such as St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Lexington, Ky., individual orders for icons started coming Anna’s way nearly two decades ago.  Ksenia and Anna continue to work as a mother-daughter team adorning the interiors of churches like the ongoing project for St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church in Manhattan. Other large commissions like the one for Holy Annunciation in Maynard, MA, keep Anna busy.

Anna also shares responsibilities for teaching courses in iconography with her mother and Marek Czarnecki, who has received world-wide recognition for his beautiful panels under Ksenia’s tutelage. While Ksenia often refers to Marek as her mouthpiece because his uncommon gift for articulating difficult concepts and imparting Ksenia’s teaching with great accuracy, no one complains that Anna’s method of teaching is practically wordless.

Watching this taciturn instructor demonstrate the glories of her brush and correct the stray passages of her students is the same way that Anna came to inherit a share of the mantle passed from her mother. If Anna never consciously chose to be an iconographer,  her work reveals the nature of gifts bestowed when there is no ambition to gain them for ones self, only years and years of practicing the life that is hers by both blessing and toil.

Mary Kathryn Lowell

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