The Armoury Chamber Museum
of the Moscow Kremlin

The Armoury Chamber Museum

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The Armory collection is based on the precious items that had been built up and preserved for centuries in the treasure-house of the Moscow Grand Princes and Tsars,” Natalya Sidorova says. “Some of the exhibits were made in the Kremlin’s workshops, others were brought as ambassadorial gifts. In 1806 it was opened for the first time as a museum and took the name of the largest workshop - the Armory - known since the 16th century, where battle and ceremonial armor and weapons were made and stored. Over 4.000 exhibits dating from the 4th to the early 20th centuries are shown to the public in its nine halls located on two floors.

The first record of the Armory is dated 1547. However, treasures of the Moscow Grand Princes were mentioned as early as the 14th century. Testaments of that period tell us of the armor, gold sabres, helmets and other precious objects, which were treasured and handed over from one generation to another. The Armory was both a depository and a workshop producing dress and all kinds of armor for the equipment of Russian soldiers. The most gifted and highly skilled masters of different trades from all Russian lands toiled in the Kremlin’s workshop. By the end of the 15th century, the treasury of the Moscow Grand Princes grew so enormously that in 1485 a special stone building was erected for it between the Cathedral of the Archangel and the Annunciation Cathedral. All treasures – gold crowns, thrones, jewelry, gold and silver dishes and other costly tableware used for ceremonial receptions of foreign ambassadors and solemn church services -were transferred there from the cellars of the Kremlin cathedrals.

In the mid-16th century the Armory building was destroyed during a severe fire in Moscow, which caused enormous damage to the Kremlin. In 1851 architect Konstantin Thon built a two-storey edifice especially for the Armory treasures, which houses the world-famous exposition to this day. The architect adorned the museum’s façade with white-stone carved columns and window surrounds in the early Russian style.

Prominent Russian scholar Dmitry Likhachev called the Armory “Russia’s holy place where the entire history of the nation is represented”. It is truly a museum of Russian history told by wonderful works of art made by skilful hands of the best Russian, European and oriental craftsmen. Ancient state regalia, ceremonial tsar’s attire and coronation dresses, vestments of the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchs, the unrivaled collection of gold and silverware by Russian craftsmen, West European artistic silver, ceremonial weapons and armory, carriages, thrones and ceremonial horse harness – all these are unique exhibits of great historic and cultural value.

Many exhibits on display in the Kremlin’s Armory Chamber are connected with notable events and prominent personalities, primarily, Tsar Peter the Great. Visitors entering the front vestibule of the Armory can see Tsar Peter’s gala portrait painted during his lifetime by a German artist. Contemporaries considered it the most true-to-life portrait of the reformer Tsar, on which he is depicted in his prime – an outstanding statesman and military commander.

The Armoury Chamber Museum collection includes 10 Faberge eggs

“It was Tsar Peter the Great who laid the foundation for the museum,” Natalya Sidorova goes on to say. “In 1718, the Tsar ordered to arrange the exhibition and place the items in glassed-in cabinets. After that, almost a century had to pass before the Kremlin depositories became a museum institution. All successors of Peter the Great contributed to that process. Today the Armory has quite a number of objects reflecting great reforms of Tsar Peter that affected all spheres of life of the Russian society. Some of them also tell us more about his personal talents and interests. During his lifetime the reformer Tsar mastered 14 different crafts. He was a skillful carpenter, a turner and a shoe-maker. The jack-boots on display in the Armory are believed to have been made by the Emperor himself. Peter grew to be a giant – over six feet seven inches tall. Therefore, the boots are huge and could be worn over fur-boots. Judging by the inscription on it saying, “From the hands of the Reformer and the deed of his own hands”, the walking-stick of apple-wood next to the boots was also made by Tsar Peter.”

On display in nine spacious halls of the Armory are thousands of unique exhibits that never fail to evoke the admiration of visitors. One of them is the Temple of Glory clock, a remarkable work of art created by an Englishman Michael Medox. A Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, Medox came to Russia in 1766, accepting an invitation of Empress Catherine the Great, who patronized him. He came as a tutor for the future Tsar Paul I, but left his trace in Russian history as a prominent engineer and clock-maker.

The Temple of Glory clock exhibited in the Kremlin’s Armory is his best known work. This masterpiece was made in Moscow between 1793 and 1806 for Catherine the Great. Its bronze sculptural and architectural parts were meant to symbolize the most significant and glorious events during her reign. Unfortunately, the Empress died before the clock was completed.

“The clock is made in the form of an ancient temple and is 2,5 meters high,” Natalya Sidorova says. “A very elaborate mechanism hidden inside it put into motion the bronze and cut-glass decorative parts of the clock. The upper part of the “Temple of Glory” clock is decorated with a massive figure of the ancient hero Heracles with a cudgel and a huge solar disk in his hands. The clock’s face is surrounded by crystal twisted tubes, which, when rotating, created the impression of the sunlight aureole. There’re columns at both sides of the disk. Each column is crowned by a figure of a she-eagle that has spread its wings over a fledgling in a nest. Every five seconds the eagles dropped a tiny pearl into the opened beaks of their nestlings. Every three hours the central doors of the Temple were flung open and music played. The mechanical organ could perform 13 different pieces. Visitors standing in front of the clock could see in the depth of the music box a spectacular waterfall made of crystal twisted tubes in motion. The longer they watched the waterfall, the more real it looked. The waterfall was a beautiful backstage setting for the figures dancing in front of it. That was a fairy-tale breath-taking sight. The clock stands on a stepped marble pedestal with four female statuettes. They personify different parts of the Earth - Europe, Asia, Africa and America.

After the death of Medox, the clock was kept in private collections. In 1872, it clock was exhibited at the Moscow Polytechnical exhibition, and in 1929 - added to the collection of the Armory Museum. The clock is in a functional condition, though it has been stopped for reasons of the time-keeping device preservation.”

Cap of Monomakh

The Kremlin’s Armory boasts a large and varied collection of Russian gold and silver articles of the 12th through to the 17th centuries, many of which can rightfully be considered masterpieces of Russian national art. The oldest exhibits that survived unscathed through foreign invasions and frequent fires, testify to the great skills of ancient Russian jewelers.

The early-Russian art traditions of Kiev, Vladimir, Suzdal, and Novgorod paved the ground for the subsequent development of the early Muscovite style. In the 15th century, Moscow became the center of Russian art. Works by Moscow masters of that time combined Byzantine traditions and skills of Russian artisans. They point to the long-standing relations of ancient Russia and Byzantium. The 16th century was a time of great change in Russia. In 1547, Grand Prince Ivan the Terrible became the first Tsar of Russia. The items needed for ceremonial receptions and Tsar’s feasts were created by the best masters working in the Kremlin’s workshops. The Armory Chamber preserves a unique collection of jewelry artworks made in the niello and enamel techniques.

Visitors of the Kremlin Armory Chamber can also see a rich collection of Russian gold- and silverware. An outstanding work of 16th-century art is the round gold dish of Tsarina Maria, the second wife of Ivan the Terrible. It was made as a wedding present for that ‘wild-tempered and hard-hearted’, but very beautiful Caucasian princess. An anonymous Kremlin goldsmith decorated this dish with an ornament in niello and an inscription saying that it was presented to the Tsarina.

The dippers, goblets and cups displayed in the Armory collection are traditionally simple in shape. This originates from national Russian pottery and wooden utensils. Noteworthy is a number of 17th and 18th-century dippers, often bearing a dedicatory inscription. In ancient times, a traditional Russian drink called mead was drunk from them. The museum collection also includes items executed by St.Petersburg and Moscow masters in various styles – from Baroque to classicism. Of particular interest are famous works by the Russian court jeweler Carl Faberge.

The museum was named after the largest workshop on the territory of the Kremlin fortress, where combat and ceremonial armory was made and stored. On display in two of its halls is a vast collection of Russian, European and Oriental firearms, side-arms and armor. Works by leading European armor production centers displayed in the Armory date back to the late 15th through to the 19th century. Oriental weapons are presented by artworks by masters of Persia and Turkey. Shields, daggers, sabres and helmets are decorated with gold, silver and jewels. Many of them were brought to Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries as diplomatic gifts.

The Armory collection includes quite a number of guns, pistols and ceremonial weapons made by Russian gunsmiths of the Armory workshops. They are distinguished for their high combat qualities and exquisite ornamentation, such as chasing, carving, inlay with mother-of-pearl and ivory. On display are also helmets and cold steel dating back to the 12th through to the 17th centuries. The earliest specimens of Russian flint-lock firearms are the rifles of the Holy Trinity Monastery of St.Sergius not far from Moscow. They were used to defend the Monastery from foreign invaders in the early 17th century. The Armory Museum also presents military and civil orders and decorations of Russia of the 18th-19th centuries.

Crown of Empress Anna Ivanovna (1730-31)

The ancient state regalia kept at the Armory Chamber include most valuable items dating to the period between the 13th and 19th centuries. The oldest exhibit is the famous Hat of Monomakh – a gold crown of oriental work adorned with filigree, emeralds, rubies, and pearls. It used to symbolize supreme power in Russia. In the 16th century it was believed that this crown had been sent, together with other insignia of imperial power, by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomakh to his grandson, Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Eventually, the crown came down to the Moscow Princes and Tsars, and since the 16th century it has been called the Hat of Monomakh. Also on display is the gold crown of Tsar Ivan IV and objects, which made up the Grand Attire of the first Romanov Tsar, Mikhail – the crown, orb and scepter made in the workshops of the Moscow Kremlin in the first half of the 17th century.

Ceremonial horse harnesses made in Russia, Europe, Turkey, and Persia in the 16th-18th centuries are exhibited in the eighth hall of the Kremlin’s Armory. Horse-covers, saddles and bridles are displayed on stuffed horses. The exhibits include saddles of Tsars Ivan the Terrible, Boris Godunov, and Mikhail Romanov.

A collection of West European silver - unique in many ways - occupies one of the nine halls of the Armory Museum. Most exhibits were ambassadorial gifts to the Russian Tsars by diplomats and merchants from England, Austria, Holland, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, and France. The gifts were carefully treasured. A detailed description indicating the item’s number and weight of precious stones was put down in a special book. Very often the name of the giver and the date of the presentation were engraved on the article itself. English silver items of the 16th-17th centuries are noteworthy for their austere shape and realistic ornamentation. Gifts from Holland include works by Amsterdam masters of the middle and second half of the 17th century adorned with the national ornament of embossed tulips. On display in the Armory are Turkish gifts of the 17th century, among them gold and jasper vessels richly studded with gems.

Noteworthy among the gifts from Poland are objects with well-pronounced Baroque features made by Gdansk silversmiths of the 17th century. Ambassadorial gifts from Sweden include quite a few silver dishes and other household objects. There’s a vast and diverse collection of works of art by German masters of the 15th-17th centuries. French decorative and applied art of the 18th and 19th centuries is represented by items made by Parisian silversmiths. The best known of them is the Olympian service of Sevres porcelain made in the early 19th century and presented by Napoleon to Russian Emperor Alexander I after the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807.

Displayed in a separate hall is a collection of precious fabrics. The most ancient are the Byzantine fabrics of the 14th and 15th centuries, of which the vestments of the first hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church were made.

Secular garments displayed in the Armory include coronation gowns and wedding dresses of Catherine I, Peter II, Catherine II and other Russian monarchs.

Rare samples of artistic embroidery complete the display.

The Armory preserves a very valuable collection of ancient thrones – six in all.

Throne of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1740-42)

“The earliest throne in the museum’s collection is a 16th-century ivory throne, a fine specimen of Renaissance culture,” Natalya Sidorova goes on to say. “It is shaped as an armchair with a tall, straight back, arm-rests and a foot-rest. This throne was made by Western European craftsmen of wood and faced with plates of ivory and walrus tusk. For this reason it was called “the carved bone chair” in inventories of the Tsar’s treasury. Plates with relief carvings of historical, mythological, heraldic and everyday scenes decorate the throne. Russian written sources link this throne to the name of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. In the Tretyakov Art Gallery in Moscow there is a sculpture of Ivan IV depicting the Tsar sitting on that very throne. The bone throne was renovated several times by Russian craftsmen. In 1856, on the occasion of the coronation of Emperor Alexander II, the throne was decorated with a gilded silver double-headed eagle, Russia’s state emblem.”

Another 16th-century throne exhibited in the Armory is oriental in shape and ornament. It has a low back flowing smoothly into the sloping armrests. The craftsmen used the most popular ornamentation in the East. Stamped gold-leaf, blue turquoises, rubies and tourmalines decorate the wooden frame of the throne. This precious piece was presented to Tsar Boris Godunov in 1604 by Shah Abbas I of Persia. Old documents refer to it as the “Persian throne with gemstones”. The back and the seat of the throne are covered with French velvet that replaced the Persian covering in 1742 for the coronation of Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great.

The ornamental design of the throne that belonged to the first Romanov Tsar, Mikhail Fyodorovich, is somewhat similar to that of the “Persian throne” of Boris Godunov. It was remade in the early 17th century from the old oriental throne of Ivan the Terrible. The Russian craftsmen gave it the form of an old Russian armchair but left the oriental motifs in the decoration. This throne is faced with stamped gold and decorated with turquoises, rubies, chrysolites, topazes, and pearls. Unfortunately, some of the gold strips that used to decorate the throne haven’t survived to this day. The foot-rest of the throne has also disappeared.

“The most sumptuous and valuable in our museum’s collection is the Diamond throne made in the late 17th century,” Natalya Sidorova says. “It is made of sandalwood and decorated with gold and silver plates arranged like mosaics and also of more than 800 diamonds which gave the throne its name. The back of the throne is covered with black velvet with the embroidered images of two angels supporting a crown over the inscription in Latin: “This throne of wonderful art was made for the most powerful and invincible Emperor on Earth, the Tsar of Muscovy, Alexei, reigning prosperously, and may an augury of eternal bliss wait for him in heaven. Summer, the year 1659.” This throne was presented to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1660 by merchant Zakhary Saradarov on behalf of the Armenian trading company in Persia interested in receiving favorable terms in trade with Russia. It is also presumed that Saradarov had his own art workshop in Persia, where this magnificent throne was made. In return for this throne the Tsar gave the trading company 4,000 rubles in silver and 19,000 rubles in copper – an astronomic sum at that time.”

There was an occasion in Russian history when two Tsars were crowned simultaneously. Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich had three sons - Fyodor, Ivan and Peter. The eldest, Fyodor, did not rule for long and died unexpectedly in 1682. The law of succession demanded that the next son, Ivan, ascend the throne. However, Tsarevich Ivan shone in neither health nor intellect. It was therefore decided to crown both brothers, 15-year-old Ivan and 10-year-old Peter, who was to become Peter the Great. In the 1680s the double gilt silver throne was built especially for the occasion by Kremlin craftsmen. It looks like a huge architectural piece – an elaborate arch resting on two twisted columns as the background and two red velvet covered seats. The total weight of the throne is 340 pounds. A secret hiding-place was built for their mentors at the back of the throne, behind the seat of Peter. The necessary instructions were whispered to him through a small curtained window cut in the back of the throne. In front of the throne there are two silver stands with a hollow in the middle for the orbs.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the ancient thrones, with the exception of the double throne, were an integral part of the coronation ceremony, and the new Emperor sat on a throne which had once belonged to his ancestors.

Berline carriage of Empress Catherine the Great (1769)

The museum possesses a truly impressive collection of Tsar’s carriages – one of the largest in the world. It began to be formed in the 15th century, having become part of the Armory exposition in 1834. The collection consists of 17 magnificent coaches that have survived to the present day practically in their original form. There’s virtually every kind of carriage used in Russia and Western Europe between the 16th and the 18th centuries built by the best masters of Moscow, St.Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, London, and Paris.

“The oldest in the Kremlin’s Armory collection is the English coach dating from the late 16th century, which was presented to Tsar Boris Godunov by King James I of England,” Natalya Sidorova says. “It topped the list of gifts brought to Russia by Sir Thomas Smith in 1604. Despite its large size, the coach was intended to seat only two people. Its handsome body is suspended on straps. The roof is supported on eight pillars. The open upper part of the body is hung with curtains. Carriages did not have glass windows at that time.

Despite its luxury, it was not the most convenient form of traveling. With no turntable or springs, such a heavy vehicle could be turned only with great difficulty. It needed a large space to turn in. If no such space was available, the back wheels had to be physically lifted off the ground and moved by servants. The coach has no coachman’s box. Therefore, the coachman had to either walk alongside the horses and lead them by the bridle or guide them from a seated position on the leading horse. The carriage is interesting for its high-relief painted carvings depicting hunting scenes and battles between Christians and Moslems, reflecting complex relations between the European powers and Turkey. For more than 80 years the carriage was used by Russian monarchs in their ceremonial processions. In 1834, when it became too fragile for use, it was transferred to the Armory.”

Of exceptional value are two children’s coaches made in the Kremlin workshops in the late 17th century. The covered winter sledge belonged to the children of Tsar Ivan, half-brother of Peter the Great. Another one is a summer wheeled coach made for 2-year-old Tsarevitch Alexei, son of Peter the Great. Both carriages were intended for children’s games. Such 17th-century ‘amusement’ coaches for children are not found in any other museum of the world.

The ceremonial carriage that belonged to Empress Anna Ioannovna, a niece of Peter the Great, was built by St.Petersburg craftsmen in 1739. Its windows and upper part of the doors have plate glass. The footstep is inside. Technically, it was more advanced. Iron springs disguised behind a bronze decoration, a turning wheel and a box for the coachman are its new features.

The museum also possesses the garden coach of Anna Ioannovna. It was intended for drives in the parks and on hunting trips. The coach has low wide wheels so as not to destroy the paths in the garden. It was decorated with gilding, relief carving, the crown, the emblem and the portrait of its owner.

Coronation uniform of Emperor Nicholas II and coronation dress of Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna

“A covered winter sledge-coach on runners was a very suitable means of transportation in Russia for longer distances,” Natalya Sidorova goes on to say. “One such covered winter sleigh for several passengers was made in Moscow in the first half of the 18th century. It could sit up to ten passengers. On display in the Kremlin’s Armory it is the only surviving carriage of this kind. It looks like a huge house on runners, has four doors and ten windows. The runners are decorated with large wood-carved figures of sea beasts. Inside the coach there are benches and a long table. It was heated with special silver braziers with burning charcoals. According to archive documents, this sleigh belonged to Empress Anna Ioannovna and later to Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who used it for a journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1742 to be crowned in the Moscow Kremlin. The sledge was drawn by 23 horses - a leading pair and seven troikas. It took the Empress three days to reach her destination, traveling at daytime only and resting at night.”

The Armory has two Viennese carriages dating back to the early 1740s, and two - made by Berlin craftsmen during the same period of time. All four carriages belonged to Empress Elizabeth. Three carriages of the Armory collection belonged to Catherine the Great. One of her favorite was made in Paris in the 1760s. The second is an exceptionally beautiful carriage with an elegant oval body built in 1769 by Johann Konrad Buckendale, who was in charge of the St.Petersburg Stables. Catherine the Great used it for important ceremonial occasions. The third is an open carriage intended to be used in warm seasons. Its body is shaped as a golden Italian gondola. The coachbox is supported by carved eagles with outspread wings. The gilded carving and floral design are executed of maple wood so skillfully that they seem to be cast of metal. The collection completes with a sedan-chair made in France in 1760s-1770s. It came to Russia as a gift to Catherine the Great.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
9 August, 2011