Thursday, September 29, 2016

Guided Mini-Tour: “Gifts and Prayers: The Romanovs and Their Subjects”

On your way to view the newly arranged permanent collection, be sure to stop in the Dorothy Alexander Roush and Martha Thompson Dinos Galleries. They’ll be easy to spot because they’re the ones painted verdant green. They feature highlights drawn from an extensive collection of 2,217 objects on extended loan to the museum and make up “Gifts and Prayers: The Romanovs and Their Subjects,” on display through December 31. The exhibition illuminates a culture of gift-giving in the Russian Empire, where rulers could maintain their benevolent image and their subjects could appease those in power.

Vasilii, F. Timm (1820–1895) [Georg Wilhelm Timm], chromolithograph. From the coronation album of
Alexander II: Alexander II receiving felicitations from the Cossacks in Saint Andrew Hall
of the Great Palace in the Moscow Kremlin

With just over 140 objects ranging from miniscule medals to towering trophies, it’s easy to feel lost in the grandeur, so we’ve put together this guided mini-tour to help you make the most of your visit. As you first enter the Roush Gallery, take in the presence of the silver trophy from a distance, then begin to notice the masterful craftsmanship in its details. It is topped with the doubled-headed eagle, an important feature in the Russian coat of arms; its two heads represent the Russian Empire as the great bridge between East and West. You might recognize it multiple times throughout the exhibition. In this case, the double-headed eagle was used to call attention to the valor of a commander during the Crimean War.

Breastplate with the imperial
double-headed eagle, ca. 1900
In the middle of the room sits a large, wooden cigar box covered in miniatures to represent the empire’s territories. It was given to Alexander II at his coronation to commemorate a specific moment in which the tsar and his people blessed and prayed for one another. Opening the box was like reliving the experience.

Presentation cigar box with a coronation scene and coats of arms, 1856

Now, turn toward the doorway where you entered to view a silver snuffbox with a portrait of Alexander I. The relief depicts him wearing the traditional laurels of victory in reference to his triumph over Napoleon’s forces. His profile sits atop a pedestal surrounded by weapons, armor and imagery resembling the Ark of the Covenant. As you move back toward the entrance, notice a painting of a little boy. This 1827 portrait was a previously unknown and undocumented work created by the famed painter Aleksei Venetsianov, and it shows a delicate sensitivity for the vibrancy of youth. It demonstrates the power of portraiture, and its placement in the exhibition shows the diverse use of portraits in 19th-century Russia. To the right, a pair of luminous objects feathered with gold will surely catch your attention. The first, a triptych, was presented to the Lifeguard Volinsky Regiment by the last imperial couple in 1907. It shows gratitude for the unit’s safeguard, complemented by the prayers of protection written on the outside. The other object showcases the opposite direction of giving gifts. It was presented by a monastery to the court of Saint Petersburg, and it speaks praises and prayers for the ruling family through the select use of Christian saints. In the corner opposite to the icons is a document of particular importance, a Charter of Ennoblement signed by Alexander I. It was gifted to a civil servant whose dedication in service progressed him to a status of nobility; the charter includes his new coat of arms, verified by the emperor’s seal and signature.

Making your way into the second gallery, you’ll see a vast array of jaw-dropping, brilliant medals and orders made with the highest degree of precision and beauty. Each object displays exacting craftsmanship with precious metals, enamel, and guilloché (a mechanical decoration technique that engraves patterns into materials such as metal). Every one is superb on its own, but imagine the men decorated with a mass of them as seen in the portrait of Alexander II in the first gallery. Last, three ribbon-shaped decorations known as cockades sit next to the helmets on the corner pedestal. They were placed on the front of helmets to reward exceptionality in battle, and they represented the divine in subtle ways. The ribbon suggests the iconography angels, and the ephemeral tips were meant to invoke the Holy Spirit.

This selection represents highlights in the exhibition, but there is much more for all to see and learn. An accompanying catalogue, published by the museum, will be available for purchase in the Museum Shop or by phone at 706.542.0450.

Benjamin Thrash
Publications Intern

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