Medieval Embroidery. Five exhibits of the new exhibition in Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve

November 1, 2019

Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve, Alexei Mikhailovich's Palace's basement, hosts an exhibition 'History of Russian Embroidery of the 16th— early 20th century'. The exhibition has brought together church, folk and secular works by Russian embroiderers.

For the first time, the Museum presents an extensive collection of Russian embroidery from its holdings. Read about the most interesting exhibits in the collaborative article by and Mosgortur Agency.

'The Conception of St. Anne' hanging altar-cloth

One of the exhibition's highlights that sets the tone for the display is a hanging altar-cloth for the icon 'The Conception of St. Anna' from the Conception Stavropegial Convent in Ostozhenka Street. This embroidery dates back to the reign of Ivan the Terrible's son Fyodor Ioannovich, the last Russian Tsar of the Rurik dynasty.

Tsar and his wife Irina Godunova could not have children for a long time. Shrines were built for the relics of saints, with temples and churches erected, and altar-cloths embroidered to pray for the birth of an heir. The altar-cloth presented at the exhibition is one of them. Boris Godunov, an aristocrat of the 16th century, who served Ivan the Terrible, granted it to the Convention Monastery.

The altar-cloth depicts a story of saints Anna and Joachim, the parents of St. Mary. According to the Apocrypha, they had been married for 50 years, but had no children. Once, the high priest accused Joachim of 'not having offspring for Israel' and did not allow him to make a sacrifice in honour of God. The old man could not bear such humiliation and went into the wilderness. When Anna and Joachim separated, an angel appeared to them and told them that soon they would have a daughter who would save the human race. The messenger of heaven told the couple to go to Jerusalem, where they soon met. The moment of their reunion is depicted on the altar-cloth.

Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve

Tombstone cloth

In the Middle Ages, people considered earthly life only as a preparation for the afterlife. That is why they seriously prepared for death. Ancient Rus had a Medieval tradition to embroider a tombstone cloth on the fortieth day after a person's death. In order to speed up the process of creating such a canvas, embroiderers worked in a relatively fast application technique.

The canvas highlights the chief Christian symbol of the soul immortality, the crucifixion. There is a skull and crossbones below (Adam's head). The Old Testament says that the ashes of Adam, the first man on Earth, rested on the Mount Calvary, on which Jesus Christ was crucified. After crucifixion of the Son of God, his blood washed Adam's skull thus purging mankind from sin. For a medieval man, every element of embroidery was clear and understandable from childhood.

Remarkably, European embroiderers were mostly men, while it was women's work in Rus. Religious embroidery was considered as a man-made prayer, bringing a person closer to God.

Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve

Women's holiday shirt

Russian folk embroidery is the guardian of pre-Christian traditions. Almost all of its elements have pagan roots. Russian embroiderers looked for subjects in the world around them. The world tree, a symbol of nature and fertility, was one of the first embroidery patterns. Animals — roosters, deer, horses and frogs — were depicted, too.

Flowers were also used as embroidery elements, but embroiderers did not strive for botanical accuracy of the depicted plants, using their imagination. The exception was poppies, roses, tulips and carnations, which were depicted realistically.

Diamond and square were favourite geometric elements of folk embroidery. They had several meanings. First of all, they symbolised the dwelling, and were also used to designate the four parts of the world and the unity of the four elements of nature.

While today Russian folk embroidery patterns are considered merely fancy pictures, in ancient times they performed several more functions beyond decorative ones. Embroidery was a means of communication for peasants. A strip of a certain colour or other element could tell where the owner of the item came from, what was his or her social status and origin. Embroidery on clothes served as a talisman, too. Patterns were placed on the slits, open places, where demon spirits could enter, on the cuffs, collar and hem.

Painting 'In the Storm of Cruel Fate…'

The Middle Ages was a heyday of pearl fishing in Ancient Rus. There were so many pearl shellfish in the northern rivers that one did not even need any special tools to fish. Even a child could do it. Pearls were extremely popular, as they were equated to precious stones. For many years, pearls decorated icons, kokoshniks and dresses until the early 18th century, when it was gradually replaced by imported beads. By the way, according to one of the etymological theories, the word 'beads' (Russian biser) came from the Arabic 'busra' or 'buser' that means 'fake pearls'.

In the 17th century, beads were brought to Russia by Venetian merchants. At first, they were not popular. It took about 80 years for a coloured glass factory to appear in the Russian Empire. Mikhail Lomonosov was its production's pioneer. The Russian academician experimented with coloured glass at his Ust-Ruditsa Estate. In 1754, his company produced the first batch of glass items. Unfortunately, his factory closed shortly after Lomonosov's death in 1765.

Beads grew popular among Russian masters. 19th century was their Golden Age in Russia. 'Fake pearls' were used to embroider not only patterns and ornaments, but also full-fledged subject works. Among them is the painting 'In the Storm of Cruel Fate...' dating back to the 1820s. Under the image of a woman, the embroiderer placed an excerpt from the poem by Alexander Pushkin 'I Have Outlasted All Desire...' in her loose adaptation:

In the storm of cruel fate,

My blossoming crown has withered.

So, I keep on living my sad and lonely life

And wait for my death to come.

Next to the embroidery, the exhibition authors placed the edition of 'The Caucasian Prisoner', released during the life of Pushkin in 1828. It has been placed here for a reason, as the poet wanted to include the elegy 'I Have Outlasted All Desire...' into his poem.

Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve

Double-sided banner

This double-sided banner, used during religious processions, takes us not to the Middle Ages, but to the early 20th century. Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve acquired it from the Old Believer Ovrazhnaya Chapel opened in Kolomenskoye in 1908.

In ancient times, the village of Kolomenskoye was one of the centres of old believers in the Moscow district. Records from the book 'List of Dissenters Assigned to the Church of John the Baptist, 1766' speak for the fact that the first old believers settled there as early as the late 17th century. By the end of the 19th century, about 80 percent of all the old believers of the Moscow district lived on the grounds of Kolomenskoye.

The construction of the Chapel that had this banner was funded by old believers. The Peretryakhins took active part in fund-raising, that is why the Chapel was sometimes called Peretryakhins' Chapel. Its congregation made up about 500 people. Ovrazhnaya Chapel existed in Kolomenskoye about 30 years until it was closed in 1939. Many items from this Chapel are now held by the Museum. In addition to the banner, the exhibition presents some prayer books kept by the Kolomna old believers.

The banner's technique sparks the interest, too. Images of Archangel Michael and the great martyrs Vlasius, George the Trophy-Bearer, Panteleimon are embroidered with gold threads in the overlaying technique, but the faces of the saints are painted in oil, as on icons.

View these and other exhibits at the exhibition 'History of Russian Embroidery of the 16th — early 20th Centuries' running at the Kolomenskoye Museum Reserve until 23 February 2020.


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