Russian Artistic Movements Medieval Medieval Russian Jewellery

Medieval Russian Jewellery

The Mongol invasion was unable to completely extinguish cultural life in Russia. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, there was a movement to restore Russian towns. Several works from this period display artistic and technological features dating from before the Mongol invasion, demonstrating the perpetuation of the traditions of the previous period of national independence.

The grand princes of Muscovy pursued a determined and far-sighted policy to unite the Russian lands around their city. Throughout the fourteenth century, Moscow gradually grew in power and influence. The wills of Ivan I Kalita (1325–40) and Dmitry Donskoi (1359–89) list golden sabres, helmets, precious belts and plates made by Russian and oriental masters.

In 1412, before setting out on a dangerous mission to the Golden Horde, Grand Prince Basil I of Moscow commissioned a small silver folding icon with traces of motifs from Romanesque art. The inscription on the leaves states that the icon was created in 1412 by the master Lucian. This makes the triptych one of the very few surviving signed medieval works.

The first jewellery workshop on the territory of the Moscow Kremlin was founded by Metropolitan Photius, who had moved from the Peloponnesus to Moscow in spring 1410. The Greek metropolitan was one of the most educated men of his time and his large retinue appears to have included several silversmiths.

Precious stones were used as a popular decorative technique in medieval Russia. The magical properties of gems were a popular superstition in medieval Russia. Each colour had its own symbolical meaning. Red stones signified valour, strength, courage and fire. Green represented life, fertility, hope and joy. Blue symbolised success, composure and tranquillity.

Prior to the seventeenth century, Russian masters did not know how to facet precious stones. They simply polished the surfaces, attempting to create a regular form and to bring out the colour. Such highly polished, unfaceted gems were known as cabochons (from the Old North French word caboche, meaning head).

The reign of Grand Prince Ivan III (1462–1505) witnessed a series of important historical events. Moscow’s recent rivals – Novgorod, Tver and Vyatka – were absorbed into the Muscovite princedom. The Battle of the Ugra (1480) completed the liberation of the Russian lands from the Mongol yoke. The Moscow Kremlin was rebuilt and the foundations of the Dormition Cathedral were laid in 1475.

The majestic and monumental forms of the Dormition Cathedral were intended to symbolise the power of the young Russian state. Large and small zions were specially created in 1486 for important religious services in the cathedral. Used to keep holy relics, a zion was a closed shrine designed in the form of a church topped with a cross.

The reign of Ivan the Terrible saw the entrenchment of the autocracy, the territorial expansion of Russia, bitter struggles against groups of discontented boyars, the final introduction of serfdom, the establishment of a state within a state (oprichina) and a policy of mass terror. Ivan’s involvement in the costly and disastrous Livonian War (1558–82) brought enormous casualties, exhausted the exchequer and led to the loss of many ancient Russian lands.

The Russian court was nevertheless one of the richest in Europe, stunning foreign ambassadors and travellers with its sumptuous luxury. Many painters, gunsmiths, embroiderers, casters and other masters worked in the artistic workshops of the Kremlin. Silversmiths toiled in the jewellery workshop, creating precious works of art for the tsar’s court.

In 1554, Ivan the Terrible celebrated the birth of his son Ivan by commissioning a “measure icon” of St John Climacus (Ivan is the Russian equivalent of John). Measure icons were the exact same size as the new-born infant. The golden cover of the icon was adorned with enamel on filigree – one of the most popular ways of decorating jewellery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Filigree enamel was similar to the cloisonné enamel technique employed before the Mongol invasion, except that the enamel lay lower than the filigree ornamentation and was never polished. The elegant combination of white and blue enamel is simple and refined, as in many other works of Russian jewellery in the sixteenth century.

The sixteenth century was the golden age of the art of niello, coinciding with the introduction of book printing. Niello was an ancient technique in which an engraved design in metal was filled with powdered niello alloy – a special mixture composed of silver, copper, lead and sulphur. The entire metal piece was heated in a kiln and the melted niello alloy fused with the underlying metal. The object was then polished, creating an enamel-like effect.

Ivan the Terrible was succeeded by his son Theodore Ioannovich (1584–98). During his reign, the patriarchate or office of patriarch was established in Russia. Tsar Theodore and his wife, Irina Fyodorovna, commissioned a magnificent panagia – a small icon on a chain worn around the neck by the upper clergy – to celebrate the ordaining of the first Russian patriarch in 1589.

There was no practice of erecting monuments to the dead in Old Russia. Relatives commemorated the deceased by making rich endowments to the monasteries, churches and cathedrals containing their crypts. In 1598, in memory of her husband, Tsarina Irina Fyodorovna endowed six golden ornaments – a chalice, a paten and asterisk, two plates and a censer – to the Archangel Cathedral in the Kremlin (the burial place of the Russian tsars).

Gold and silver mining only began in Russia during the reign of Peter the Great. Before then, West European coins were used as precious metal. Gold ducats and silver talers were melted down and used as the raw material.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, Russian silversmiths continued the cultural traditions of the preceding century. Moscow continued to be the artistic centre of Russia. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Silver Chamber was founded in the Kremlin, before being divided into a Silver Chamber and a Gold Chamber in the early seventeenth century.

These two workshops were like an early form of academy of arts. From all over Russia, leading masters were invited to train and work there, creating objects which set the national standard of beauty and were copied by silversmiths in other towns. One of the most famous masters in the first half of the seventeenth century was Gavriil (Gavrila) Ovdokimov, who worked at the Silver Chamber for over forty years. This remarkable silversmith created several works now in the Armoury collection.

Gavriil Ovdokimov created one of the masterpieces of Russian seventeenth-century jewellery – the lid of the shrine of Tsarevich Dmitry. In 1628, Tsar Michael Romanov commissioned Gavriil Ovdokimov and his assistants to create the silver gilt shrine for the remains of Tsarevich Dmitry. The shrine was stolen by French invaders in 1812; all that remains is the lid with its full-length portrait of the young prince. The lid of the shrine is decorated in the complex technique of high-relief embossing – a popular device in early-seventeenth-century silverware.

The seventeenth century was the golden age of ornamentation in the history of Russian jewellery. The use of bright enamels, shining gemstones and snow-white pearls made works even more splendid, vivid and festive. Besides opaque enamels, silversmiths also began to employ transparent enamel, adding a special elegance to their creations. In the seventeenth century, precious stones ceased to play the role of individual patches of colour and were skilfully combined with the multi-coloured enamel.

In the mid-seventeenth century, enamel patterns became increasingly important in the decoration of Russian gold and silverware. Designs were made from special enamel paints and volatile oils, allowing the silversmiths to accentuate the tiniest details of the image.

The art of fretwork and niello continued to develop in the second half of the seventeenth century. The main decorative role was played by gilt carved designs of magnificent stems, leaves and flowers, forming bright patches against the niello patterns of grasses and volutes. This technique was used to decorate the plate and glass made in Moscow in the late seventeenth century.

The production of silverware flourished in all major Russian cities throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The main centres were Moscow, Novgorod, Kostroma, Yaroslavl and Solvychegodsk (formerly known as Usolye).

In the mid-sixteenth century, Solvychegodsk was an important trading post on the route between Kholmogory (and, later, Arkhangelsk) and Siberia. The favourable geographical location led to the influx of a large number of merchants and craftsmen, including many silversmiths. Enamel-painted silverware from Solvychegodsk enjoyed great popularity among both the local population and the Moscow nobility.

The production of enamel-decorated works in Solvychegodsk dates from the 1670s and 1680s. The golden age of Solvychegodsk enamel was the 1690s. A special feature of the local tradition was the white background. The contours and lines were applied in black or brown-red enamel, after which the design was painted in such rich, multi-coloured tones as yellow, orange, blue, green and red-violet. Works reproduced genre scenes from popular lubok prints or biblical and allegorical subjects from albums of engravings. The rims were decorated with bright coloured patterns similar to European Baroque ornamentation.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such important events as the coronation of a new tsar, the birth of an heir to the throne, royal marriages and the reception of a foreign ambassador were celebrated with great pomp and circumstance. The festivities invariably ended with a banquet at the Palace of Facets inside the Kremlin.

These magnificent feasts were intended to demonstrate the power and wealth of the Russian sovereign. Heavy oak tables draped with precious fabrics groaned beneath the weight of exotic dishes served on gold and silver plates. The cutlery was manufactured at the Golden and Silver Chambers and kept in a special crown office lying between the Archangel and Annunciation Cathedrals.

Only an hour was required to prepare the hall for a royal banquet. The sovereign’s table was the first to be set, with vessels ranging from miniature spice racks decorated with precious stones to enormous gold plates for bread and pastries. Gilt vessels stood at the places reserved for important boyars and foreign guests. Silverware was used at the tables for the other guests. Prior to the late seventeenth century, knives and forks were a great rarity, given only to privileged guests.

Banquets lasted for eight or nine hours. After the pronouncement of grace, cup-bearers and table-deckers entered the hall dressed in kaftans of expensive white brocade decorated with precious stones and pearls. The number of attendants could reach two or three hundred people, depending on the number of guests. The waiters carried large silver jugs of wine or vodka, which they poured into tots and glasses. Vessels for strong drinks were made of gold, silver, transparent rock crystal, grey onyx and red-brown cornelian. The rims were often decorated with moralistic inscriptions warning against drunkenness.

When the vodka was served, roast geese, swans and grouses were carried into the banquet hall on enormous gilt plates. Silver buckets containing various beverages – foreign wines, vodka and meads – stood on each table. Foreign wines were drunk from high goblets of mostly Western production. Goblets made by Moscow silversmiths were similar in form to chalices, the only difference being that the traditional liturgical inscription was replaced by the owner’s title.

A special instrument called a kovsh was used to scoop up the meads served at banquets. The form of the kovsh recalled a swan swimming on a river. Meads were red or white, depending on the berries from which they were made. Red meads were drunk from a gold kovsh; white meads were drunk from silver ones. In Russia, kovshs were originally made from wood. In the fifteenth century, Novgorod masters reproduced the form in silver and the new fashion soon spread across the whole country.

Beer was drunk from the bratina – a large pitcher similar in form to a legged goblet. The name derives from the Russian word for brother (brat). At banquets, the bratina was passed from “brother to brother”; each person would pronounce a toast, take a swig from the vessel and pass it on to his neighbour. Silver bratinas were adorned with magnificent floral patterns, “spoons”, scales and rhombuses. The rims were decorated with inscriptions including the names of the owners and various exhortations. Bratinas were sometimes crowned with keel-shaped wings reproducing the pointed helmets of Old Russian warriors.

The bratina could also be used as a memorial cup. Vessels were filled with hydromel – a mixture of water and mead – and placed on the graves of the dead. In the late seventeenth century, kovshs and bratinas gradually lost their traditional functions, becoming instead signs of royal acknowledgement. Their complex forms increasingly employed West European decorative elements.

The seventeenth century was the final stage in the history of Russian medieval art. A mixture of the old and the new, this period witnessed the formation of new aesthetic ideals and the growth of secular culture. In the space of a few decades, the reforms of Peter the Great overturned every aspect of Russian life, elevating Russia to the ranks of the other European powers. Although the national traditions continued to be preserved in the eighteenth century, Russian art now followed the same stylistic course as Western culture.

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