“The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin” Opens May 9—First U.S. Exhibition of Rare Russian Treasures at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
What sort of gift is fit for a tsar? The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery offers some stunning examples in its upcoming exhibition, “The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin,” on view May 9 through Sept. 13. Sumptuous textiles, bejeweled arms and armor, gold equestrian trappings and other unique objects illustrate the story of diplomatic relationships between 16th- and 17th-century Russia and its eastern allies—Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran.
Some of the objects were given by Ottoman sultans and the shahs of Iran, and others were offered by wealthy merchants to the Russian tsars and patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church. All were originally bestowed on Russia by neighboring powers hoping to advance their economic and political agendas.
“Expect to be dazzled,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “These are rare, one-of-a-kind objects, which have been carefully preserved in the Kremlin treasury. Most have not been seen outside Russia until now.”
“The Tsars and the East” is the result of an unprecedented partnership between the Freer and Sackler Galleries and The Moscow Kremlin Museums, allowing 65 of the Kremlin’s finest works of art to be on view for the first time in the United States. In honor of the occasion, President Dimitry Medvedev of the Russian Federation has granted the exhibition his high patronage. The Sackler Gallery will be the only venue for this exhibition.
Unlike the purely ceremonial gifts typically exchanged by heads of state today, the Ottoman sultans and the Safavid shahs presented gifts that were luxury commodities—items that held both ceremonial and economic value. Gifts were regularly exchanged between sovereigns but also offered by diplomats, merchant traders and others in search of royal favors.
“Merchants played an important role in the diplomatic embassies of the period, much like today’s ambassadors,” Farhad said. “They understood that a gift to the tsar was intended not only to impress and flatter, but to aid in negotiating a good deal between trading partners.”
Some of the earliest gifts on view are extraordinarily fine arms and armor from Iran, including an early 16th-century shield inlaid with gold. The shield was acquired by Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich in 1622 upon the death of Prince Fedor Ivanovich Mistislavsky, who served as a commander for Ivan the Terrible. Exquisitely decorated with intricate figural designs, the shield is the only extant example of its kind.
During the 1620s and 1640s, close relations between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (which spanned three continents at the time) resulted in numerous diplomatic Ottoman missions to Moscow. The exhibition features unique and lavish Ottoman gifts presented to the Russian court: a large jasper bowl encrusted with gems and a bejeweled rock-crystal tankard presented to Tsar Fyodorovich in 1632 were admired at court and used for royal receptions in the 17th century. In exchange, Russia typically offered sought-after raw materials, including rare ermine and sable furs.
Iranian and Turkish ceremonial arms and armor were part of the “Grand Attire,” a designation given to the most valued treasures of the tsar. Objects were often assessed and ranked by value. One superbly crafted Turkish steel helmet in the exhibition was so highly esteemed by the court that it was ranked second in value in the vast Kremlin inventory.
The Russian church received splendid silks and velvets, which were often fashioned into elaborate ecclesiastic garments. One magnificent example on display is a sakkos (ceremonial robe) of Turkish satin woven with gold thread, which was acquired by the Russian ambassador to Turkey in the early 17th century. Eventually, the garment was embellished by a Russian craftsman, who embroidered a decorative yoke in the Ottoman style.
By the 17th century, many Russian craftsmen had begun to assimilate Ottoman designs into their work, combining eastern designs with traditional Russian motifs on imported Iranian and Turkish fabrics. Over time, this artistic and cultural blending contributed to a new Russian aesthetic and ceremonial etiquette that defined the imperial style of the 17th-century Russian court prior to the reign of Peter the Great. The exhibition concludes with exquisitely rendered garments and other objects that illustrate an emerging imperial Russian identity.
A gala benefit celebration will launch the exhibition May 7. A delegation from The Moscow Kremlin Museums, including General Director Dr. Elena Yurievna Gagarina, will be recognized at the gala celebration.
“The Tsars and the East” exhibition catalog features 111 full-color illustrations and 65 detailed entries on the history and materials of the featured works of art written by curators of the Kremlin Museums, including a main essay by Inna Vishnevskaya, head of the Kremlin’s textiles department.
The exhibition is supported by Lukoil, and additional support is provided by the U.S.-Russia Business Council and the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce in the USA. The exhibition is also supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities and organized in cooperation with the Russian Embassy.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Dec. 25, and admission is free.
The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public is welcome to visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.
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