Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Russia celebrates 450th anniversary of St. Basil’s Cathedral

Russia, St. Basil'sIt’s the most recognizable icon in Russia, reproduced on millions of postcards, books, and websites. St. Basil’s in Moscow is a colorful cathedral that’s celebrating its 450th anniversary this year. As part of the celebration, the cathedral is opening an exhibition tomorrow dedicated to the mad holy man for whom the cathedral is named.

St. Basil lived during the time of Ivan the Terrible (reigned 1533-1584) and soon became a local celebrity by going naked even in winter and speaking out against the czar. For most people this would have led to a visit to one of Ivan’s overworked executioners, but mad saints have always been respected in Russian culture and Ivan was scared of Basil.

Basil was born a serf in 1468 or 1469 and developed a habit of going naked weighed down by chains. He was a bit of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from shops and giving his loot to the poor. He criticized Ivan the Terrible for killing thousands of innocent people and not giving enough money to the church. When he died, Ivan acted as pallbearer at his funeral.

Later, Ivan the Terrible built the cathedral in 1561 to celebrate defeating the Mongols. He decided to build it atop the grave of the Basil, in order to honor the man in death who had mocked him in life.

The cathedral has just finished a $14 million restoration in anticipation of the anniversary.

[Photo © by James G. Howes, 2009.]