Published: October 7, 2003
In the late Seventeenth Century Tsar Peter the Great pulled Russian out of isolation and propelled it onto the global stage. “Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825,” a major exhibition at The New York Public Library, places Russia in a global context, stressing its interaction with other cultures, and the exchange of ideas within its borders.
The exhibition in two galleries at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at Fifth Avenue and 42 Street, coincides with the 300 anniversary of the founding of Peter’s city: St. Petersburg, Russia’s “window on Europe.” It will remain on view through January 31. Admission is free. A 224-page companion volume will be published by Harvard University Press.
With books, manuscripts, and other works on paper drawn exclusively from the collections of The New York Public Library, the exhibition traces Russia’s development from the insular realm of Muscovy into a global empire and highlights its relationships with western, central, and northern Europe, as well as Asia, the great Muslim empires, and the Americas. The exhibition features approximately 230 rdf_Descriptions, many of which are being shown for the first time. In addition to materials from 12 divisions of the Library, a small selection of decorative and fine art rdf_Descriptions loaned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, A La Vieille Russie, the American Numismatic Society, and private lenders is also included.
The exhibition begins with a dimly lit gallery suffused with Eastern Orthodox chants and evoking the close atmosphere of a Muscovite interior. There are illuminated Church Slavonic manuscripts, among them the brilliantly illuminated Sixteenth Century “Lestnitsa” [The Ladder of Divine Ascent] of St. John Climacus and early printed books, including the first book printed in Moscow (1564), 100 years after Gutenberg. A remarkable, hand-colored 1606 printed edition of the Gospels is believed to have originally belonged to the Moscow Patriarch (later saint) Germogen. The gallery is enhanced with ecclesiastical objects including icons and church vestments. Interestingly, the first Russian secular book, shown here, is a translation of a German treatise on military tactics (1647).
The major part of the exhibition is oriented around the points of the compass, to correspond with various Russian realms. More than a third of the works shown are in languages other than Russian, underscoring the cultural exchanges that were taking place during the time period covered. More than 15 languages are represented, including Mandarin Chinese, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish in addition to English and other European languages.
There is a Seventeenth Century imperial manuscript scroll in colored silk, and engravings from 1725 documenting the ceremony accompanying the arrival of the Russian delegation in the Forbidden City.
The growth of St. Petersburg is represented in maps and rare engravings depicting the majestic expanse of the city, including fine prints by the Eighteenth Century artist and engraver Mikhail Makhaev. In contrast to these are three late Eighteenth Century etchings of the Moscow Kremlin by the Italian artist Francesco Camporesi. A Dutch atlas (1703-1704) by hydrographer Cornelius Cruys is open to the allegorical titlepage showing the foot of a youthful Tsar Peter resting on the maroon and gold crescent ensign of the Ottoman Empire, an allusion to Peter’s capture of the Crimean city of Azov from the Ottomans.
The section of the exhibition devoted to Catherine the Great’s reign is highlighted by “Diversity and Pleasure,” a rare late Eighteenth Century Russian manuscript collection of poetry and prose inscribed to “Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna,” the empress-to-be. Many rdf_Descriptions illustrate the pageantry of the court, among them an engraving depicting the coronation banquet of Catherine II. Exemplifying Catherine’s largesse toward supporters is an Imperial Charter granting privileges and lands. Richly illuminated, and displayed with box and seal, this document is signed by the empress. Another of Catherine’s gifts is a splendid Altar Gospels – a book held aloft during the liturgy to be seen by the entire congregation – given to the Monastery of Aleksandro-Nevsky. Bound in gilded silver with enameled medallions of Christ and the Evangelists surrounded by green stones, it is a rare survivor of the Bolshevik Revolution, when such objects were often stripped of their precious jewels and metal ornaments, which were melted down.
Exhibition hours are Tuesday and Wednesday from 11 am to 7:30 pm; Thursday through Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm. 212-869-8089 or www.nypl.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm