On matters of faith, even tiny gestures can cause an uproar. Take the number of fingers raised in a Christian blessing.

The Russian Orthodox church split apart more than 350 years ago in a squabble about fingers and other liturgical matters that might seem inconsequential today. For centuries the faithful had used a two-fingered blessing to signal that Christ was both divine and human. Then about 1650 a new church leader added the thumb, making the official gesture a three-digit affair that deeply offended traditionalists.

When they balked, the church divided, the czar stepped in, and the squabble escalated into a tax showdown and persecution of the Old Believers, as they came to be known.

If the Old Believers hadn't been such skillful artisans, none of this would matter much to outsiders. But they were very talented indeed, as an elegant jewel-box of an exhibition proves at the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) in south Minneapolis. On view through Jan. 20, "Cast Icons: Preserving Sacred Traditions" presents more than 100 gleaming bronze-and-enamel sculptures about the size and shape of book covers. Each is a little essay in Christian storytelling, with the beautiful bronze images enhanced by lovely backgrounds of pale blue enamel, or picked out with lime green, gleaming black, or flecks of sparkling white enamel.

As always at TMORA, the installation is exemplary. Gold lettering and walls of azure and red complement the art; historic photos and informative texts provide context, and magnifying glasses amplify details on some pieces. Gleaming like burnished gold, the icons are expressions of an ancient faith whose appeal reaches across the centuries to sparkle again in this fetching display.

Old Believer communities

Concentrated around the Vyg monastery near the White Sea in northwestern Russia, Old Believer communities cherished cast-metal icons as "incorruptible images" that had been purified by fire.

Foundries in the area became expert at producing intricate biblical scenes in bas relief panels that were hinged to fold like devotional books or stand open like little personal altars. Larger, cross-shaped icons were displayed on church altars or held aloft in processions.

Here, nine of the larger crucifixes, each about 15 inches tall, are spotlit against a wall whose dramatic blood-red hue underscores the theological weight of Christ's death even as it enhances the beauty of the objects.

For viewers unfamiliar with Russian Orthodox versions of Christian iconography, text panels explain symbols (skulls, flowers, vines) and abbreviations that refer to God the Father, Christ the Son and Golgotha, the "place of the skull" that was, according to legend, also the burial site of the first human, Adam. The three horizontal beams of the Russian crucifix, for example, are meant to remind believers that "as Adam lost Paradise through the tree of knowledge of good and Evil from which he ate, Christ, as the new Adam, brought Paradise through the tree of the Cross."

Although Czar Nicholas I closed the Vyg monastery in the early 19th century and forbade icon production, the process simply moved to Moscow and nearby cities. Eventually the Old Believers dispersed to more remote areas in the Ural Mountains and Siberia or left Russia entirely, some emigrating to the United States, taking their faith and icons with them.

Popular saints and the Virgin

Mary, the virginal mother of Jesus, is a popular figure whose life story is recounted in myriad vignettes: a winged being delivers startling news to a modest teenager; a childbirth in a stable; a donkey-back trip through an exotic landscape; a proud mom watches her son's public speaking debut, his gruesome death and so on. Fretful petitioners surround her, seeking relief from blindness, mental illness, infertility and other problems. A woman of many skills, she's alternatively depicted as a young mother, a spiritual guide or the Queen of Heaven. Lest anyone forget, she's always labeled "Mother of God" in Greek.

Certain saints have long been popular in Russia, especially the warriors Demetrius and George, patron saint of the Romanov dynasty and protector of Moscow. Nicholas, a real guy from what is now Lycia, Turkey, was known for secretly dropping coins into the shoes of the needy, a custom that inspired the modern Santa Claus. They and a bunch of lesser known figures -- saints Boris, Gleb, Basil, Modestus, Florus, etc. -- are vividly depicted with their noble steeds, flowing robes and spears.

Watch especially for St. Antipas, a martyred bishop known for his dentistry skills who is labeled in Cyrillic letters as "Tooth Healer," and St. Elijah, the "thunder-throwing" prophet who controlled summer storms and is shown wheeling through the skies in a wagon pulled by winged horses. In a field below, a farmer waves -- or rails against him -- as a stream tumbles from the hills or heavens.

Vivid, engaging and all too human, the icons reach across time and cultures to beguile modern viewers as they have touched the faithful for centuries.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431