Objects of beauty from ‘Mother Russia’

Dec. 12, 2013 @ 10:59 AM

“The Tsar’s Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts under the Romanovs and Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons from the Lilly and Francis Robicsek Collection of Religious Art,” N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh, through March 5. Hours are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-807-7900.


“Mother Russia” conjures up images of great writers; vast expanses of unbelievable cold; royal courts with tsars and tsarinas, the peasants or serfs, who were little more than slaves; the psychic Rasputin; the assassinations of the last tsar and his family; and the people’s devotion to the Eastern Orthodox Church. All this is part of the mystique surrounding this exhibition of more than 200 decorative and religious objects, which date from the first Romanov, Peter the Great (1672-1725), to Nicholas II (1868-1918), the last. 
On the walls of the N.C. Museum of History are large poster images of the various tsars during that time, including the women who were powerful leaders in their own right. As spectators, we move through the vitrines of magnificent porcelain and then into the quieter gallery of 18th century religious icons, constantly aware of the history of these objects and their relationship to this vast land known as Russia.  
But this is not a history lesson as such; it is a display of beautiful things wrapped in the desire by the early Russian monarchs to westernize their giant, lumbering country. They wanted the Russian Court to be as sophisticated and cultured as those of Europe, especially France, and one of the ways to attain that goal was to match the glorious celebratory feasts hosted by their European counterparts. Up until 1709 when the formula for porcelain was perfected in Meissen, Saxony, the china was imported from China and Japan and primarily only used for the dessert course. As other countries developed their own recipes, large, lavish services became the hallmark of each royal house.
Anne Odom, curator emeritus of Hillwood Museum and Gardens, wrote in her catalogue essay, the royal events, where hundreds were served, became “a theater of self-representation.” The Romanovs were determined to duplicate this mark of wealth and sophistication, and during the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1741-1761) the recipe for porcelain was developed in Russia. It was Catherine (r. 1762-1796), however, who attained a level of splendor that matched and ultimately surpassed anything seen in Europe; she even had special ware created for her yacht. 
During the next several centuries dozens of patterns were manufactured, including ones with cameos and designs found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been newly discovered. Small figurines which depicted the various nationalities among the Russians were also created; probably intended as parts of centerpieces, they ultimately became objects of art for display. By the time Nicholas II came to the throne, Russia was in serious financial trouble, but this final Romanov court was still the most lavish in Europe.  One of the most beautiful sets of all was the Raphael Service, created during this time, with its central scenes taken from Raphael’s 16th century designs for the Loggia at the Vatican.
Examples of most of this dinnerware are on display plus large urns, teapots, cutlery, glassware, a jeweled cigar case, even portraits done on porcelain and the Durnovo jewel casket, which was presented as a gift to Ivan Nikolaevich Durnovo in 1889 by Tsar Alexander III. While these lavish objects reflect enormous wealth and a total disregard for the great poverty in Russia, they are beautiful and speak to the unbelievable craftsmanship that flourished during the reign of the Romanovs. 
The exhibition moves on into a quieter area where the mysteries of the Eastern Orthodox Church are presented. Any exhibition which attempts to explain the Orthodox Church is taking on an impossible task. The ritual, the art, the history is more complicated than 10 shows can explain, much less one, so go into the gallery prepared to give your full attention to reading the labels and to looking closely at the familiar images of Mary, Jesus and the stories surrounding his life. 
The pictures are called icons or images and depict religious personages and scenes in the Orthodox tradition. That traditional style renders the figures flat and stylized rather than as three-dimensional forms, and they have looked almost the same since the fourth century. A cursory look at history reminds us that in the fourth century Constantine moved his court and his religious leaders across Europe to the eastern city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) while a handful of clergy remained in Rome. Ultimately the two seats of the church separated and the church in Rome became the Roman Catholic branch and the church in Constantinople became the Eastern Orthodox branch. 
The Roman church, the patron of religious art, came under attack by the chaos in Europe from the fourth to the 12th century. Wars, invasions and migrations forced cultures to clash, mingle and finally combine into something new and dynamic; art was part of those changes. Constantinople, on the other hand, was isolated and relatively peaceful and until the Ottoman invasion had no outside influences on its religious art.  In 988 Prince Vladimir I of Kiev sent emissaries to study the religions of his neighbors and they found the ceremonies at Hagia Sophia, the great church in Constantinople, so glorious they encouraged the prince to adopt Eastern Orthodoxy. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the Grand Dukes of Muscovy saw themselves as the successors to the Byzantine Empire and the headquarters of the Eastern Church. 
The 36 icons on display were created during the 1700s and 1800s, and classical influences, brought about by the same push to westernize, can be seen in traces of shadows and the modeling of faces to appear more realistic. Although the making of religious art stopped during the Revolution, it has resurged since the 1980s. These objects are very special. I encourage you to spend an afternoon with them.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.