Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Icons by Fabergé at the Vatican Museums

Among the Christians of Eastern Europe, the custom of elaborately decorating eggs in a variety of styles is one of the most beautiful parts of the celebration of Easter. Each country has its own traditional types of decoration and traditional means of producing them; the Ukrainians, for example, have at least nine different techniques, and a Pysanka Museum in the western city of Kolomyia, which houses a collection of over 10,000 from various parts of that country and the world. (On the eggs pictured at right, the letters XB are the first letters of the two Russian words "Khristos Voskres - Christ is risen", the traditional greeting among Byzantine Christians of all languages in the Easter season.)

The most famous Easter eggs of all are of course those created by the house of Fabergé in the late 19th century. The first of these was made as an Easter present from the Tsar Alexander III to his wife, the Tsarina Maria Fyodorovna, in 1885, and pleased the Empress so much that it became a tradition to give a new one every year. Fifty such eggs, now known as the Imperial eggs, were produced for the Romanov family between that year and the fall of the monarchy in 1917, and more than a dozen others for a variety of wealthy clients. Most of the eggs are made to be opened, and contained a surprise of some sort, although many of these have been lost; the egg known as the Peacock, for example, contains a tiny mechanical peacock which walks around and opens and closes its tail.

The years of Soviet communism did incalculable damage to the cultural patrimony of Russia, whether through deliberate acts of destruction, the ravages of war, or the selling off of many artistic treasures to foreigners. A group of the Imperial Fabergé eggs were sold at Stalin's orders in 1927, and 14 more left the country in the early 1930’s. Several of these were acquired by the American magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes; after his death, the collection was bought en-bloc by Russian oil magnate Viktor Vekselberg, whose collection of fifteen eggs (including 9 of the Imperials) is currently the single largest. Vekselberg’s acquisitions are now in the hands of the Link of Times Foundation, created by himself to recover dispersed objects of Russia’s patrimony and return them to their native country. In 2007, for example, the foundation paid for a set of bells to be returned from Harvard University to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow; they had been saved from being melted down by the communists by American industrialist Charles Crane, and brought to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1930. Not only were the eighteen bells restored to their original location, but the foundation donated copies of them to Harvard, which had kept the originals safe for so long. (One of the originals weighs 13 tons and has a 700 pound clapper!)

The foundation’s collection also includes a large number of late 19th and early 20th century icons, some of them the work of the same artists that crafted the famous eggs, others by artists of the same time, though not associated with the house of Fabergé, and in a similar style. A selection of these, along with a number of the eggs, and various non-religious objects (for example, a whole case full of snuff boxes), is currently being hosted by the Vatican Museums, in a show running until June 11th. Among these is the only one of the Fabergé eggs with an Easter theme to it, the Resurrection Egg, displayed in the same case as the Renaissance Egg, the last presented by Tsar Alexander to the Empress Maria, in 1894.

The Renaissance Egg (left) from 1894, and the Resurrection Egg. Recent research makes it seem very likely that the latter is really the "surprise" that originally came with the former.

An icon of a Guardian Angel, with frame by Carl Fabergé, 1908-17.

A folding triptych of Our Lady of Kazan, with the Mandylion, and Saints Nicholas and Catherine of Alexandria (the latter here hidden behind the left wing), by Carl Fabergé, 1894. This was a gift to the Empress Alexandra on the occasion of her marriage. (In the background, one can see a part of the famous Raphael tapestries, which were written about on NLM last July.)

A miniature Gothic reliquary, and other minatures by Fabergé, late 1890's.

The image of the Savior Not-Made-Hands, with Saint Xenia and Prince Alexander Nevsky,
by the Ovchinnikov studio, Moscow, 1894.

On the left, an icon of Saints Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, Sergei of Radonezh and
Alexander Nevsky, 1908; on the right, Our Lady of Kazan, with Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Alexis, 1890-5 ca.; both works of the Tarabrov studio in Moscow.

Icon of Saint Nicholas, a gift to Tsar Nicholas II from the Old Believers;
Mishukov studio, Moscow, 1894.

A case full of icons by Fabergé and others, various dates from ca. 1890 to 1917.

Icon of the Savior Not-Made-By-Hands;
Sazikov studio, St. Petersburg, last quarter of the 19th century.

The Kelch Hen Egg, one of seven eggs made by the house of Fabergé for the industrialist Alexander Kelch between 1898 and 1904. The tiny portrait on an easel fits inside the hen, which fits inside the yolk, which fits inside the egg, as seen here.

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