Eagles, unicorns, and flowers. Heraldic symbols of Russian noble families

January 30
Culture

Inheritable heraldry became common in the Middle Ages among knights. During tournaments, when their faces were hidden behind visors, the knights’ family coat of arms helped distinguish who was who. Eventually, heraldic achievements became predominant attributes of families in European high society. Heraldry first became popular in Russia in the 18th century during the reign of Peter the Great.

Russian armigerous families used their coats of arms to reveal the history of their family and profess their values. Many of these heraldic designs are now on display in Moscow museums. Mos.ru together with Mosgortur agency explores the symbolism behind the coat of arms of five local noble families.

The Pushkins: Crown, eagle and sword

The State A.S. Pushkin Museum

Poet Alexander Pushkin’s father descended from an old family which is said to have been started by a man named Ratsha (or Racha, as the poet called him) who was a kholop (a feudal serf) of Kiev prince Vsevolod Olgovich. Interestingly, in his poem My Ancestry, Alexander Pushkin wrote that his ancestor had served a different Russian ruler:

My ancestor Racha worked his cursed muscles hard

To serve Nevsky the Saint.

In fact, there was a person among the genius poet’s ancestors who was close to both Alexander Nevsky and Ratsha. Ratsha’s grandson, Russian boyar Gavrila Aleksich, was a military commander serving under Alexander Nevsky and a hero of the Battle of the Neva.

Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. By Vasily Tropinin. Fragment. 1827

The Pushkins’ coat of arms includes many references to Ratsha. A crown on a velvet cushion depicted on an ermine-coloured background (the symbol of power) in the top section of the escutcheon represents Ratsha’s service to the sovereign. An outstretched arm protected by armour with a sword in hand at the bottom left-hand section refers to Ratsha’s Slavonic ancestors, and the eagle in the bottom right-hand section was the emblem of Ratsha’s descendants. Similar things can be seen on the coats of arms of other centuries-old noble families descending from Ratsha. A good example is the Buturlins, the Muravyovs and the Shcherbinins. The heraldic helmet situated at the crest was an essential part of the nobility’s heraldic designs.

The Pushkins’ coat of arms had a French-style escutcheon (a rectangle with a pointed bottom). This shape is not only common in family coats of arms but also can be found in the emblems of Russian cities.

The Pushkin family’s coat of arms. The State A.S.Pushkin Museum collection

The Alexander Scriabin Memorial Museum

There were several unrelated Scriabin families (also spelled “Skryabin”) in the Russian Empire, both boyars and gentry. Prominent Russian composer Alexander Scriabin belonged to a family that was granted a high rank for distinct military service. The musician’s grandfather, Second Lieutenant Ivan Scriabin, was bestowed nobility by birth in 1819 and included in the Family Register of St Petersburg Nobility. In 1858, his son, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scriabin, was included in the Family Register of Moscow Nobility.

Alexander Scriabin. The Alexander Scriabin Memorial Museum collection

The Scriabins’ escutcheon is divided into four parts. The crossed swords, the yatagans and the grenades pay homage to the family’s history of military service and their commitment to protecting the interests of the country. The white horse symbolises courage and strength. According to Symbols and Emblemata, the first Russian guide to heraldic interpretation published in 1705, a horse also stands for war and victory.

The shield is supported by two white unicorns. The mythical creatures started to become popular in European heraldry during the medieval era as a symbol of sensibility and caution. Russian Tsar Ivan III was among the first to use their images in the country when unicorns were featured on gold coins circulating during his reign. Armigerous families later started including unicorns in their coats of arms.

The Scriabin family’s coat of arms. The Alexander Scriabin Memorial Museum collection

The Sheremetevs: Crown, oak and two crosses

The Kuskovo Museum and Estate

The title of count has been known throughout Europe since the early Middle Ages but it did not come to Russia until the early 18th century. Boris Sheremetev was the first royal subject in Russia to be bestowed this inheritable title by the Russian tsar. Peter the Great granted him the title in 1706 for suppressing the Astrakhan Uprising.

Portrait of Field Marshal Count Boris Sheremetev. By Ivan Argunov. 1777

The Sheremetevs’ coat of arms features two lions symbolising courage and strength. One of the animals is holding an orb and the other a sceptre which refer to the family’s regal roots. According to some sources, the Sheremetev family descended from Widewuto, a legendary king of the pagan Prussians. The royal theme can be found in several other parts of the coat of arms, including a count’s crown in the middle of the escutcheon and two broadened crosses that “migrated” to the Shremetevs’ emblem from the coat of arms of Gdansk. The coat of arms is crowned with a worship oak (an oak tree under which people worshipped their idols), a symbol of the Prussians’ paganism. The crown at the crest of the escutcheon represents the Sheremetevs’ title of count. The bottom section contains the family’s motto: “Deus conservat omnia” (Latin: “God preserves everything”).

Some references to the Sheremetev family’s symbol can be found on the coats of arms of two Moscow districts, Veshnyaki (an oak, a count’s crown and two broadened crosses) and Vykhino-Zhulebino (a lion).

The Sheremetev family’s coat of arms. The Kuskovo Museum and Estate collection

The Platovs: Horseman, cannons and two-headed eagle  

The Battle of Borodino Panorama Museum

Prominent Russian general Matvei Platov, the son of a lieutenant colonel, began his military career in 1766 at the age of 23. Over the years, Platov earned the reputation of a brave soldier and a wise commander. In 1801, the emperor conferred the title of lieutenant general on him and appointed him the hetman (chief commander) of the Don Cossack Troops.  Subordinates called Platov a “whirlwind hetman.” Matvei Platov received the title of count that he was permitted to pass on to his descendants in 1812 “for faithful service and dedication” during the Patriotic War of 1812.

Posthumous portrait of Matvei Platov. By George Dawe. 1820−1825

The Platovs: Horseman, cannons and two-headed eagle  

The Battle of Borodino Panorama Museum

Prominent Russian general Matvei Platov, the son of a lieutenant colonel, began his military career in 1766 at the age of 23. Over the years, Platov earned the reputation of a brave soldier and a wise commander. In 1801, the emperor conferred the title of lieutenant general on him and appointed him the hetman (chief commander) of the Don Cossack Troops.  Subordinates called Platov a “whirlwind hetman.” Matvei Platov received the title of count that he was permitted to pass on to his descendants in 1812 “for faithful service and dedication” during the Patriotic War of 1812.

The central part of the Platovs’ coat of arms is a soldier riding a white horse dressed in the uniform of the Don Cossack Troops. The image is surrounded with military insignia: the cannons and banners of Platov’s army at the bottom and a black two-headed eagle at the top. Two members of the Don Cossack Troops support the escutcheon. The soldier on the left-hand side is holding a St George’s bunchuk (a hetman’s staff) and the soldier on the right-hand side is holding a banner conferred upon the hetman’s regiment. A count’s crown and the helmets of three nobleman are at the crest of the escutcheon. The coat of arms is topped with a two-headed eagle holding an olive branch and a laurel branch that symbolise peace and glory, respectively. The family’s motto can be seen below the escutcheon: “For loyalty, courage and tireless service.”  

The Platov family’s coat of arms. The Battle of Borodino Museum-Panorama

Matvei Platov actually met Napoleon Bonaparte in person. The commander was a member of Emperor Alexander I’s entourage when the Russian ruler was signing one of the Treaties of Tilsit with Napoleon in 1807. As recognition of Russian generals’ military achievements, Napoleon decided to present them with the orders of the Legion of Honour. Platov rejected the award. However, a conflict between the French emperor and the Russian hetman was avoided and the two even exchanged presents. Matvei Platov gave Napoleon a military bow and Napoleon reciprocated with a tobacco box depicting his portrait.

The Tsvetayevs: Flower and two scrolls

The Marina Tsvetayeva House Museum

The Tsvetayev family received a heritable noble title in 1897 thanks to Marina Tsvetayeva’s grandfather, Dmitry Tsvetayev, who had a very successful career as an historian. In 1895, Dmitry Tsvetayev was granted the rank of a state councillor in deed for his service at the Ministry of Justice.

Dmitry Tsvetayev. 1913

The historian started working on a family emblem in 1916. On 5 May 1916, the Governing Senate accepted Tsvetayev’s formal request for approving his family’s coat of arms. Dmitry Tsvetayev was actively involved in designing the family coat of arms and his correspondence with heraldry experts, who suggested several different variations, took months. The selected design included a dark red flower (a reference to the family’s surname) and two crossed scrolls that symbolise knowledge and go back to Dmitry Tsvetayev’s work at the Moscow Archives of the Ministry of Justice. The blue background refers to his work at the Ministry of Education. The family’s motto at the bottom says: “Scholarly work for the Motherland” (the motto is absent from some images of the coat of arms). Earlier drafts were only slightly different from the final design, mainly in the colour scheme and the position of the scrolls.

On 9 June 1917, Dmitry Tsvetayev filed the final version of his coat of arms with the Heraldry Department of the Governing Senate. On 24 August, the coat of arms was included in Volume 21 of the General Armorial of the Noble Families of the Russian Empire. The revolution prevented the volume from being finished so only one copy of it still exists and it is currently stored in the Russian Historical Archives in St Petersburg.

Source: mos.ru

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