In 1918, amid the ruins of the Russian state, the Soviets moved their new nation’s capital back to Moscow after an absence of two centuries. In the interval, the focus of the Orthodox empire was St. Petersburg — Russia’s “Window on the West,” where the Romanov tsars and tsarinas in their Winter Palace ruled the largest realm in history.
The Romanovs’ Russia was a contradiction in many ways: a backwards and impoverished state ruled by an elite that clung to tradition, yet whose fascination with Western Europe created a hybrid overlay culture of arts and crafts.
See for yourself in Raleigh, N.C..
Through March 5, the North Carolina Museum of History has twin exhibitions that focus on the splendor of imperial Russia: The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts Under the Romanovs and Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons from the Lilly and Francis Robicsek Collection of Religious Art.
The former is a nationally touring show that points up the Russian dynasty’s taste for opulence. There’s hand-painted porcelain from the Imperial Porcelain Factory, including figurines depicting different people of different ethnic groups within the empire, pieces of imperial table service, a gem-encrusted jewel casket and a gilded silver and shaded cloisonne enamel cigar case made by the famed Russian jeweler Faberge. There are more than 230 decorative objects, spanning reigns from Peter the Great to final tsar Nicholas II.
Windows into Heaven profiles a different Russian artistry, the fascination that members of the Russian Orthodox faith had for religious icons during the Romanov centuries. The Russian faith is an offshoot of Byzantine Christianity, which formally parted ways with Roman Catholicism in 1054. Icons — whether painted or carved — are religious images created for veneration. As a focus for prayers and meditation, they serve as “windows into heaven” for believers.
They were traditionally crafted by monks and nuns and are stylized and rich with religious symbolism.
The 36 on display in Raleigh are from the 18th and 19th century Romanov heyday and are from the private collection of Dr. Francis Robiscek, the eminent, now-retired Charlotte heart surgeon, and his wife, Lilly.
The shows are adjacent on the Raleigh museum’s third floor.
The pairing of The Tsars’ Cabinet and Windows into Heaven — baubles and religious art — points up Russian artistry as well as cultural contradictions.
• The Tsars’ Cabinet and Windows into Heaven, through March 4 at the North Carolina Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh. Museum admission is free, but there’s a fee ($7; $5 for ages 7-17, 60 and older) for those exhibits. Details: www.ncmuseumofhistory.org.