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Collections of the Russian museum

Art of Old Russia

Among the museum collections of Russian icon painting, the icon collection of the Russian Museum, alongside the Tretyakov Gallery and the Moscow Museum of History, has pride of place. The collection numbers more than five thousand icons from the twelfth to the early twentieth centuries. The collection of Old Russian art and craft work, sculpture and applied art stands on a par with the collections of the largest museums in Russia. It is one of the most important collections, providing a view of the development of Russian decorative and applied art over the centuries — from the ninth to the seventeenth.


The genesis of the collection dates back to the time of the opening of the Russian Museum in 1898. The first icons and other antiquities arrived from the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg, which, from the middle of the nineteenth century, had housed the Museum of Christian Antiquities. Among them were icons from the collections of the famous art collectors M.P. Pogodin and P.F. Korobanov, an extensive collection of icons, crosses and folding icons confiscated from the places of worship of Old Believers. Unique sculptures of the sixteenth century were discovered and transported from St Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod; a collection of Russian and Greek artefacts from the Holy Mount of Athos was collected by P.P. Sevastyanov. Later a significant role in forming the collection of the Russian Museum was played by the acquisition in 1913 of the huge collection of the renowned historian and art collector, academic N.P. Likhachev, numbering around 1500 icons. In 1912 and 1914 the museum collection was enriched by antique artefacts from two prominent monasteries — Joseph-Volokolamsky and Pokrovsky in Suzdal, from the sacristy of which 46 icons belonging to nuns from aristocratic families were brought.

The quantity and high artistic level of the artefacts of Old Russian art collected in the Russian Museum allowed the creation of a unique museum within the museum — ‘The Repository of Icon Painting and Church Antiquities named after Nicholas II’ which was officially opened in 1914. The naming of the repository after Nicholas II was not merely a mark of respect to the emperor. Nicholas II was involved directly in the creation of the repository, donating large sums of money for acquisition of the art works. The repository became the largest state collection of Old Russian art in Russia.

After the revolution which undermined the basis of religious culture in the country, the museum almost became the sole reliable repository of artefacts of ecclesiastical art. Thanks to the efforts of museum workers art objects from many ruined or closed churches and monasteries were gathered — for example, from Cyril-Belozersky, Alexander-Svirsky, Solovetsky and other monasteries. In the1920s and 1930s objects were transferred from the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Tikhvin Monastery, Cathedral of Trinity in Pskov, from the museums of the Theological Academy and Archeological Institute in Petrograd.

After the Great Patriotic War the collection continued to grow, mainly due to the expeditions which were aimed at gathering artefacts of Old Russian art. Such expeditions were organised by the museum annually or several times per year. Expedition activity reached its peak in the 1960s. During those years hundreds of icons of the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries were brought to the museum. Today thanks to the efforts of generations of museum workers a collection of significant historic and cultural value has been formed.

The main part of the collection is made up of Russian icons from the major artistic centres of Old Russia such as Novgorod, Moscow, Pskov, Yaroslavl, Vologda and Tver and also from smaller provincial artistic centres. The oldest icon in the collection is the celebrated ‘Angel with Golden Hair’ created at the turn of the thirteenth century. Among the masterpieces of the collection are the icons from the iconostasis of the Uspensky Cathedral in Vladimir, connected with the name of the most important icon painter of the end of the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, Andrei Rublev, a group of icons from the Cathedral of Nativity of the Virgin of Ferapontov Monastery on which the great master Dionisius and his workshop worked in 1502. The work of the masters of the Stroganov school and of the most important icon painter of the Armoury Chamber of the seventeenth century, Simon Ushakov and others are of particular interest. Thanks to the multitude and variety of the artefacts in the collection a full representation of the development of Russian icon painting throughout the seven centuries of its history is offered.

The most ancient part of the collection of the Old Russian applied art is formed with the works of pre-Mongol art which reflect the artistic traditions of ancient Kiev. These are objects of personal piety and decoration made of precious and simple metals: cast amulets, bronze crosses, encolpions, miniature stone icons, details of female precious headgear and princely regalia. The pearl of the collection is the so called ‘Kiev Treasure’ of 1887, found on the territory of the St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery.

Applied art and wooden sculpture of Novgorod and Pskov from the thirteenth to seventeenth century is widely presented in the museum collection. These are painted figures of St. Nicholas the Miracle-worker and St. George the Victorious, Novgorod archbishops and devotees. Cast bronze figurines, icons and images carved out of stone also provide rich iconographic and stylistic material. Particularly significant are artefacts from the second half of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which are exceptionally rare for this time. The flourishing of Novgorodian culture in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and of other centres can be judged also by the outstanding examples of Old Russian embroidery. These are the covering veils for icons and reliquaries, liturgical shrouds, embroidered iconostasis and individual embroidered icons, bishop’s vestments decorated with ornamental and pictorial embroidery. In the supplementary inscriptions the names of contributors and churches and monasteries in which the items have been kept are frequently encountered.

The largest part the collection includes works of applied art from Moscow of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. These are mainly silver work items — a multitude of cups, bowls, liturgical vessels and books in silver frames donated by the great princes and kings to the cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin or held in the monasteries’ sacristies.

The Entombment. Embroidered shroud

The Entombment. Embroidered shroud.

Early 15th century. Moscow. Silk, gold and silver embroidery. From the St Cyril of Beloozero Monastery.

St George the Great Martyr. Carved sculpture

St George the Great Martyr. Carved sculpture.

16th century. Novgorod. Carving and tempera on wood. From the collection of the Museum of the Christian Antiquities of the Academy of Arts.

Icon. The Raizing of Lazarus

Icon. The Raizing of Lazarus

Late 14th - Early 15th Century

1, 2, 3
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