From 29 July, the exhibition “The Hermitage Encyclopaedia of Textiles. History” in the Winter Palace will be presenting for the first time the Hermitage’s textile collections in all their great variety, from prehistoric examples to 20th-century fabrics, from Antiquity and the Orient to present-day Europe
The Hermitage possesses one of the world’s richest collections of fabrics, carpets, costumes, embroidery and lace. In its diversity, the museum’s textile collection can lay claim to encyclopaedic coverage of both historical periods and geographical areas, where fabrics were produced at any time.
The St George Hall of the Winter Palace presents the finest pieces from the State Hermitage’s textile stocks: tapestries, carpets, embroideries, lace, fabrics and clothing from Western European, Russia and the East. Here visitors can see the Fairy Godmother Gobelins tapestry that was presented personally to Nicholas II by the French President Félix Faure and has never left the Winter Palace. Among other valuable gifts to the Russian ruling house are tapestries that Peter I brought back from Paris exactly 300 years ago. One rarity is a complete set of robes for a knight of the British Order of the Garter presented to Alexander II by Queen Victoria, while the unique exhibits include a set of clothes worn by Eugene Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, that came to Russia in 1839, following the marriage of his son, Maximilian, to Nicholas I’s daughter, Maria.
Also on display are examples of ceremonial outfits, military and court uniforms: dresses worn by Catherine II, Alexander III’s wife Maria Feodorovna, and the last Russian empress Alexandra Feodorovna that were made by gifted Russian and foreign craftspeople and by leading fashion houses in Europe and Russia between the 18th and early 20th centuries. Besides military uniforms, the exhibition also features striking examples from the splendid collection of banners.
As well as items from the Winter Palace and other imperial and grand ducal residences, the Hermitage stocks also contain works once owned by Russian aristocrats. The collections of the Yusupov family were especially rich, containing first-rate tapestries, clothing and lace, including a sumptuous wedding bedspread incorporating the arms of the Yusupov family and Count Sumarokov-Elston.
The collection of Eastern textiles in the Hermitage is made up of precious, rare and interesting pieces. The Russian rulers kept a large quantity of Chinese silks and embroideries in their treasury, many of which had been acquired as diplomatic gifts. For example, a silk tapestry depicting a crane woven that was given to Peter I from the Chinese Emperor.
Persian and Turkish velvets from the 16th century can be seen in Russian church vestments, whose shoulder parts were embroidered in the 17th century by Russian needle workers. The exhibition also provides a rare opportunity for visitors to acquaint themselves with luxurious Eastern carpets woven in the workshops of India, Iran and the Caucasus.
The Picket Hall contains textile collections from the Neolithic era up to the Renaissance. These stocks, numbering thousands of items, are shared between different Hermitage departments. The earliest examples of fabrics are in the Department of the Archaeology of Eastern Europe and Siberia, the Department of the Ancient World and the Department of the East.
The textile collection of the Department of Archaeology comprises more than 1,000 items dating from various historical periods, from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages. The oldest fabrics in the exhibition come from the late Stone Age (3rd millennium BC) and were made by the builders of pile villages in north-west Russia.
The Hermitage possesses a large and varied collection of articles from the Scythian era (9th–3rd centuries BC) that includes finds of textiles. Particularly rich sources for these were the burials of nomad “chieftains” in the Altai-Sayan region: the early Scythian Arzhan 1 and Arzhan 2 complexes in Tuva and, of course, the famous “ice kurgans” of the Altai mountains, especially the Pazyryk burials.
The geography of later finds is considerably broader. Rare examples of early Byzantine fabrics – gold-brocade edging – come from a collection recovered from a ruined tomb of the 6th–7th centuries on Gospitalnaya Street in Kerch.
Archaeological exploration of Staraya Ladoga, a well-known site from the time of the Vikings and Early Rus’, produced a significant collection of 8th- to 10th-century fabrics. Investigation of mediaeval sites in the Baltic states provided many fragments of woollen and linen fabrics that belonged to Latgalian tribes in the 800s–1100s.
Finds from the burial mounds of mediaeval nomads of the 12th and 13th centuries on the Dnieper form a collection of patterned silk fabrics and embroideries, some of them probably of Byzantine origin. Patterned fabrics and embroideries of Chinese silk were found in a noble burial of the Mongol era in southern Siberia.
The Department of the Ancient World has a collection of fabrics from the ancient necropolises of the Northern Black Sea region. The textiles date from various periods of Antiquity, from the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD. The earliest woollen fabrics are painted with patterns and figurative pictures where the names of those depicted are given.
The collection of the Hermitage’s Department of the East contains around 10,000 textile items of various sorts (clothing, lengths of cloth, archaeological finds), including some 500 carpets from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, China and India. The largest group of articles of clothing, carpets, Chinese silk fabrics and embroideries comes from burials of the elite of the Xiongnu nomads in the Noin-Ula hills of northern Mongolia. The unique fabric items from the Alanian Moshchevaya Balka burial ground (Adygea, Northern Caucasus) were preserved by the natural conditions of that highland region through which one of the branches of the Silk Road ran in the 8th and 9th centuries. (The remainder of this collection is exhibited in Hall 57 of the Winter Palace.) At the other end of the Silk Road, by the city of Dunhuang in north-west China, the Mogao Buddhist cave monastery was the source of fragments of Chinese silks from the 8th–10th centuries. An extremely important collection of fabrics and Buddhist banners of the 12th–14th centuries was brought to St Petersburg from the ruins of the city of Khara-Khoto, a centre of the Western Xia state that existed in north-west China in the 10th–14th centuries.
The dry, hot climate of Egypt has served to superbly preserve textiles from various eras. The colourful fabrics from early Coptic burials of the 4th–12th centuries represent one of the most brilliant chapters in the Christian artistic culture of Egypt. Patterned hangings, shawls, tunics, covers and napkins were woven from wool and linen using what is now known as the Gobelins tapestry technique. These items were acquired from local inhabitants and dealers in the late 19th century.
In 1885 the Imperial Hermitage purchased in Paris a collection of mediaeval and Renaissance articles which included fabrics, embroideries and tapestries that are now one of the prides of the museum. On display for the first time in this exhibition are mediaeval Italian fabrics and embroideries from the Low Countries as well as fabrics of the same period from China and Egypt. which makes it possible to trace mutual influences and the exchange of weaving technologies, as well as artistic connections between various countries.
A considerable portion of the Hermitage’s collection of fabrics, embroideries and tapestries from the 13th–16th centuries that illustrates all the stages of production comes from the stocks of the museum of Baron Alexander von Stieglitz's School of Technical Drawing in St Petersburg. In the Picket Hall of the Winter Palace visitors can see 15th-century Italian figurative fabrics intended for ecclesiastical use, and also Italian velvets woven with gold and Renaissance-era embroideries. Examples of Persian and Turkish fabrics from the same time are on show together with the Italian fabrics, illustrating mutual borrowings in the patterns.
The display of “The Hermitage Encyclopaedia of Textiles. History” allows visitors not only to see items not featured in the permanent displays, but also to discover the interconnections between textile technologies and decorations of different countries.