From Russia, With Sparkle

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Kremlin Comes to Town Bearing Tsars' Gifts From Turkey, Iran

At once beautiful and portentous, the jewel-encrusted sabers, daggers and scabbards carry a message of friendship in their sparkle. In the 17th century, they — along with helmets, armor and fine fabrics — were gifts to Russian tsars and priests from Ottoman sultans and Iranian shahs as part of a diplomatic courtship that exposed Russia to the East. Today, the dazzling tokens have made yet another cross-cultural trek to Washington for “The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin,” now at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“The objects in this exhibition are the glittering remnants of the exchanges that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries between the tsars of Russia and their imperial counterparts in Istanbul, the Ottoman sultans, and Isfahan … shahs,” said Julian Raby, director of the Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art. “These exchanges were driven by the twin and often simultaneous imperatives of diplomacy and trade.”

Because Congress strictly limits the value of gifts that the president can accept, Raby added, such lavish gifting is unfamiliar in the world of U.S. diplomacy. “But the reality was that the status of a donor and the sincerity of his purpose were most often measured by the splendor of his gift,” he said. Among the 65 pieces — all on view in the United States for the first time — is a mesmerizing 16th-century Iranian shield made of a single sheet of watered steel and decorated with spiral bands of inlaid gold as well as rubies, pearls, turquoise, fabric and fringe. Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich added it to the Grand Attire, a collection of the ruler’s greatest treasures, in 1622 when he acquired it upon the death of Prince Fedor Ivanovich Mstislavsky, a commander for Ivan the Terrible.

Another visually stunning item is a double-edge dagger and sheath set from 17th-century Iran. Intricately coated in wood, gold, turquoise, pearls and a large ruby, the items were given to Fedorovich by a merchant named Muhammad Qasim.

But not all of the gifts were intended for use in battle. A merchant of Greek descent in Turkey gave a spectacularly bejeweled bowl to Fedorovich in 1632. The floral-motif bowl, made of nephrite, is decorated in an intricate garden of gold, emeralds, rubies and sapphires.

The beauty of Eastern art in turn influenced Russian artists. Many began not only incorporating Eastern elements into their works, but sometimes used parts of the gifts to create new works. For instance, a 17th-century cover for a saadak, a case for bows and arrows, was made in Russia from a Turkish cushion cover and velvet from Iran.

“[The exhibit] really deals with objects that show the impact of these gifts from Iran and Turkey on Russian and foreign craftsman who were working at the Kremlin,” said Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art at the Freer and Sackler galleries. “You can see how masterfully the craftsmen were able to draw on these gifts both in terms of materials, in terms of designs, and create some of the most remarkable objects that are Russian but with an Eastern influence.”

The exhibit charts this cultural fusion, which contributed to an emerging imperial Russian style, throughout four rooms. The first houses early gifts from the 14th and 15th centuries, before the relationship among the Russians, Turks and Iranians blossomed. The Russians and Ottomans aimed to prevent each other from allying with Poland, while the Safavids of Iran depended on Russia for military assistance against the Ottomans. The next two rooms are devoted to gifts from Iran, then from Turkey, and finally the “Russian response.”

Amid the glitter lies a message, said Elena Yurievna Gagarina, general director of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, home to all of the objects on display: They convey the need to accept great cultural traditions regardless of the limitations imposed by religious conflicts and historical contradiction.

“This event is of great importance in the history of cultural exchanges between Russia and the United States,” she said. “The subject of the exhibition this time is to display, in powerful visual images, the story of cultural, diplomatic and commercial contacts between Russia and the East, beginning with the 14th and 15th centuries and focusing on the 17th century, in moments of most vigorous and yet peaceful connections.”

Gagarina in fact was on hand at a recent gala celebration that also brought over Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Russian dignitaries for the big U.S. debut.

In mentioning a Turkish helmet with Arabic inscriptions from the Koran and a rug depicting images of Jesus Chris and cherubim, Gagarina pointed out: “One cannot refrain from thinking that our ancestors were much more tolerant in mutual acceptance of cultures belonging to different civilizations and religions than many of us today.”

“The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin” runs through Sept. 13 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave., SW. For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit www.asia.si.edu.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014