Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Dutch Windmill as an Icon of Russian Mennonite Heritage

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Dutch Windmill as an Icon of Russian Mennonite Heritage

Article excerpt

Abstract: Just as religious icons provide a means of experiencing God, secular icons enable the viewer to participate with a collective experience. As with their religious counterparts, secular icons gain their power through ceremonies of dedication; and they serve as destination sites for pilgrims, some of whom travel great distances to be in their presence. The Dutch windmill has come to function as a secular icon for many Russian Mennonites. Using the A.S. Friesen windmill located in Steinbach, Manitoba, as an example, this essay explores how the windmill evokes deep cultural and theological meaning for contemporary Russian Mennonites.


Hanging on the wall in my parents' house is a photograph of my great-grandfather's gristmill. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Sawatzky mill ground grain into flour on the family estate in southern Russia. Each of my father's seven siblings has this photograph in their homes. For the Sawatzky siblings the windmill of their ancestry serves as a symbolic reminder of their family history. Although I was too young to know my grandfather before he died, the photograph of the windmill connects me with his life and with the region where he lived.

The powerful memories evoked by the image of a Dutch windmill, however, extend far beyond my own family. More than merely an item of material culture from a distant time and place, the Dutch windmill has come to function as a secular icon within Russian Mennonite communities in North America. Unlike a religious icon, whose image is intended to evoke veneration, prayer and contemplation of the divine, a secular icon invites the observer to commune with an emotion or experience. As this experience or feeling is recalled, the icon connects the viewer with a host of cultural memories and ideals that are shared by a broader community. For Russian Mennonites living in Canada today, the Dutch windmill typical of their southern Russian communities a century ago functions as such an icon.


Like an Amish quilt, the Statue of Liberty or the familiar golden arches of McDonalds, the Dutch windmill is an object of material culture. Material culture, according to Leland Ferguson, consists of "all the things people make from the physical world--farm tools, ceramics, houses, furniture, toys, buttons, roads, cities." (1) They are "all the things that people leave behind." (2) All cultures make and use objects that express something about their deepest values. Mennonites are no different. Despite their tradition of simplicity and living "more-with-less," Mennonites are not exempt from creating a distinctive material culture. Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen, a Mennonite art historian, writes, "Things embody who we are and what we are historically ... they concretize history." (3) Mennonite material culture provides a window into a distinctive society; it both solidifies history and helps to define who Mennonites are. (4)


In the Eastern Orthodox tradition religious icons--often in the form of small painted panels depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary or saints--serve as a medium through which individuals encounter God by the Holy Spirit. Henri Nouwen writes, "[Icons] ... are created for the sole purpose of offering access through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God." (5)

An image becomes a religious icon through a formal ceremony of priestly blessing and dedication, carried out by someone of authority within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. (6) Once the icon is recognized, it inevitably attracts visitors. Since 1382, for example, pilgrims have flocked to southern Poland to view and pray before the icon Our Lady of Czestochowa, or the Black Madonna. (7) Thought to have been painted by Saint Luke, the Black Madonna is said to have healing powers and has been highly venerated for centuries. …

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