His Excellency Dmitry A. Medvedev, president of the Russian Federation, has granted his patronage to the upcoming exhibition, “The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in The Moscow Kremlin,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
of the Smithsonian Institution May 9 through Sept. 13. “The Tsars and the East” displays 65 sumptuous diplomatic gifts given to the Russian tsars by Turkish and Iranian diplomats in the 16th and 17th centuries. An unprecedented partnership between the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Moscow Kremlin Museums has allowed these objects, rarely seen outside Russia, to be viewed for the first time in the United States. The Sackler Gallery will be the only venue for this exhibition.
“Expect to be dazzled,” said 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 exhibition includes jewel-encrusted arms and armor, equestrian trappings and luxurious carpets and textiles. 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 bestowed by neighboring powers hoping to advance their economic and political agendas.
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 were 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.