Romanov Dynasty treasures debut at Prague Castle

Czech Position

Exhibit from Moscow’s Kremlin Museum brings expensive trinkets, and lots of history, fittingly, to Prague Castle’s Imperial Stables

An exhibition of 16th and 17th century Russian history sounds more like a nap than a must-see for some people; but a display on just that is proving quite popular at Prague Castle. One would expect a Monday morning to be fairly quiet, but ‘The Tsar’s Court under the Romanov Dynasty’ now showing at the Imperial Stables saw people craning their necks around other people’s heads for glimpses into the display cases.

An exceptional window into the life, times and wealth of the Romanov Dynasty, the exhibition presents a fine selection of items from the Kremlin’s treasury.

The idea for this exhibition came out of a 2009 meeting in Moscow between Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (who visited Prague earlier this month). Russia, much less the Kremlin, rarely loans out items because of property disputes, so the Czech government amended the heritage law to stipulate that items loaned by foreign countries cannot be confiscated.

“It was very difficult,” said Magda Novotná, one of the exhibition organizers. “It’s not normal that the Kremlin loans these items — they aren’t even often displayed abroad. Presidents Klaus and Medvedev initiated the project; without them we wouldn’t have it here.”

The exhibition covers the start of the Romanov dynasty and the first two leaders, Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich Romanov and his son, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov. Divided into sections, the exhibition moves you through some of the most important moments in the royal families’ lives. With nearly 170 pieces on display, it is a rich show filled with beauty and power.

The first section introduces the coronation ceremony, an opportunity to flaunt symbols of the tsar’s power. One example is a chain that the tsar wore – it contains 88 links because the number is the symbol for infinity.

“This was the last dynasty to really use such symbols, when Peter the Great (grandson of Tsar Mikhail) came to power, he limited their use,” Julie Jancárková, the art historian in the Slavic department of the Academy of Science who assisted in putting the exhibition together, told Czech Position.

Another way for the tsars to show their power was through imperial processions. These were impressive, carefully organized and executed performances. Even the horses got into it, being sumptuously decorated along with their riders. The gear on display also demonstrates the international acumen of the Romanovs – this was a gift from a German duke, given as a thank you for negotiating a trade route through Russia to Persia.

Ridding the kingdom of scurvy

Feasting was another popular pastime; Jancárková said these parties usually offered between 150–200 different dishes, mainly meat and sweets.

“At that time, fruits and vegetables weren’t all that popular, but Tsar Mikhail changed that,” she said. “He planted vineyards in the south, grapes not just for wine, but also eating, as well as apples, plums and melons.” On display are a variety of gilded silver serving dishes, including one reserved for marinated fruit, very modern for its time.

The private life of the wives and children is included as well. Both lived a very secluded life, kept out of sight for most of their lives. Jancárková said that historians have learned more about this from reading journals of visiting diplomats which mentioned how severe the living conditions were for noble women of the time.

On display is a cradle, more like a velvet hammock, that Jancárková says they believe may have belonged to Peter the Great. This was a very important piece of furniture in a young baby’s life – made only from the finest fabric, they weren’t allowed to sleep in it until after they were baptized and they were filled with icons devoted to the child.

“Every year the cradle was adjusted and recovered and kids slept in this until they were eight or even 12 years old,” Jancárková said. “A special prayer was said before the baby was placed in it for the first time; it was quite a ceremony.”

Next to the cradle you can find the oldest item in the exhibition, a child’s iron helmet from 1557. Made by Ivan IV for his son, also called Ivan the younger, who was eventually killed by the elder in a fit of rage.

The religious picture

There are a number of icons in the exhibition; these artifacts had important meaning connected with the Orthodox Church. For children, their ‘measured icon’ was one of their most significant belongings.

“Children were measured at birth, and a measured icon was created based on their height and width showing the child’s heavenly patron,” Jancárková said. “The icon is given to the child at baptism, placed in their room and remained with them their entire life, even buried with them.”

The final part of the exhibition displays artifacts connected to the Orthodox Church. On display are objects and clothing used in church ceremonies, including a representative saccos said to belong to Patriarch Filaret. The patriarch was the supreme representative of the Orthodox Church, this one also happened to be the father of Tsar Mikhail.

Made from heavy fabric, they typically weighed ten-20 kilos and were supposed to look like metal. There are also items used in communion, like the veils used to cover the wine and bread and a spoon and spear used to serve them. A golden bucket has an interesting story.

“The original purpose was to cool beverages but this one was used to bring water from the river to be turned into holy water,” Jancárková said.

Art history fans will be pleased to note you can see pieces from three of the most well-known Russian painters of the time; Fedor Zubov, Ivan Saltanov and Simon Ushakov. Artists in the Tsar’s workshop, they didn’t get to spend their time only painting pictures of icons like the ones shown here.

“We think of them as artists, but working at the Kremlin means they had to do everything the tsar asked of them,” Jancárková said. “They painted the family’s rooms, which were repainted every year, the children’s toys.”

So in the end, not a monotonous history lesson in the least.

“If you introduce or present a time of history, it’s hard to portray it in not in a dull way; we believe we’ve made this really interesting,” Jancárková said. “Just to have the Kremlin’s treasures in Prague is really unique, but these were items that really belonged to the tsars, their wives and children. You can feel the power of them being someone’s real possessions.”