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11. Rarities of Peter’s Kunstkammer: a bottle with fossilized gun-powder, Turkish cannon balls (one of stone one of wrought iron) brought by Peter from the Pruth campaign. 

These cannonballs witnessed the most tragic days in the life of Peter the Great. The tsar ordered them put them on display «as a reminder to the future». In 1711 Russia was at war with Sweden when Turkey also started a military campaign against Russia. In early spring Russian troops marched from the Baltic states to the borders of Wallachia and Moldavia. Peter was a clever and astute strategist, but was overwhelmed with a sense of foreboding that later justified itself. In July Turkish troops surrounded the Russian army, having cut it off from its rear troops. The former triumphant victors of the Poltava battle found themselves under constant enemy fire and scorched by the burning Moldavian sun in a waterless steppe that had been devastated by locusts. Turkish artillery would open fire on anyone who tried to approach the river bank to get water. The Turks replied with showers of cannonballs to all proposals for a treaty — the same cannonballs exhibited in the room now. The situation was becoming so critical that Peter, according to the words of Schtelin, thought about writing a will. At last Peter decided to attack. Such an undertaking was nothing if not suicidal, but at that moment Catherine, his true comrade-in-arms, took matters into her own hands. While the tsar was resting in his tent, she held a meeting with his generals and persuaded them to send another letter to the Turkish Grand Vizier along with all her jewelry. This proved to be an ingenious solution. The Grand Vizier gave his consent to start peaceful negotiations and the Pruthian nightmare was over. And in 1714 Peter awarded his wife the newly established order of St. Catherine. Its motto reads: «For love and motherland».

12, 13, 14. Galvanic copies of Scythian gold ornaments brought to the Kunstkammer by Peter’s decree.

In 1715 the famous collection of Scythian gold was brought to the «tsar’s study». It was presented to Catherine I by N. A. Demidov, the owner of several factories in Tagil, in honor of the birth of her son tsarevich Peter Petrovich. This collection also contained some objects «found in the soil of old burial mounds» by Siberian governing princes I. Gagarin and A. Cherkassky in the course of following Peter’s orders to uncover such objects.
The collection numbered 1250 gold objects. When the Hermitage museum was founded, almost all the precious ancient objects in the city were transferred there for safekeeping.

The gold ornaments are excellent artistic samples of nomadic art, the so-called «animalist style», a unique and original artistic manner. The «animalist style» is a name given to the artistic manner of the first half through the middle of the first millennium BC. Beasts and various mythological zoomorphic monsters form the main subject of all ornaments. Another typical subject is fighting among predators or attacks of predators on cloven-hoofed animals. According to the canons of this style, predators were always depicted in a standing position, muzzles lowered to the ground, as if following some obscure tracks, curled into a circle, or fighting each other. The deer, elk or other cloven-hoofed animals were always depicted lying with their legs tucked under them. The deepest foundation of the nomadic animalistic style was formed by their idea that people had taken their origin from animals.
Images of animal figures adorned ceremonial and ritualistic garments, weapons and equestrian articles as well as cult objects. All of them possessed some magical meaning: any object decorated in the animalistic style was considered an amulet or talisman. The Scythians ascribed to such images the ability to symbolically pass a keen eye, a quick step, great strength and other animal characteristics to a horseman, his arms and his horse. Each image bore a concrete meaning, though today it is not always possible to decipher.

15. Ethnographic collections of the Kunstkammer. China.

This ivory statuette which was most probably acquired in China by Academician Franz Lukas Elachich in 1753-1756 is of special interest among the Chinese objects, which are quite numerous in the Kunstkammer collection. It represents Shao-sin, «the star of longevity». This venerable carved ivory patriarch with a pleasant smile and an unusually high brow is the Chinese god of longevity. His name was given to the a star we call Kanopus in our astronomy system. The statuette, which dates back to the 18th century, was among the first possessions of the Kunstkammer. The god appears here with his attributes: a staff in one hand and a fan in the other. According to Chinese tradition, the staff was made of peach-tree wood and had a gourd tied to it. Often he may be depicted holding a scroll instead of a fan. All these objects, including the gourd, the scroll and the peach tree are symbols of longevity. Shao-Sin is a symbolic deity, and he coexisted with many other symbols of longevity. According to custom, it was much more important to use his good wishes with frequency and variety than to observe strict rituals in honor of the star-god. These symbolic good wishes were well known, loved and understood by all. Many images of Shao-Sin existed in China, most of them in the form of statuettes. Usually they would be placed at the home altar or in a temple. His image was also depicted in drawings that people would glue to the inside walls of their house. Artists often depicted peaches and pomegranates at his feet, with a stork and deer at his side: all these objects rendered the same symbolic meaning. In ancient times temples were raised to honor Shao-Sin. According to ancient astrology, the appearance of this star promised a sovereign a long and prosperous rule, while its absence portended grief and misfortune for the ruler and his empire.

16. Ethnographic collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century. Mongolia, China.


Items from the Mongolian collection are exhibited along with the Chinese objects; this is a unique collection unmatched by that of any other Russian museum. The collection displays articles dating back to the 17th century.

This bronze image of a Buddhist lama-mentor is one of the first possessions of the Kunstkammer and it dates back to the 18th century. Most probably the statuette represents some real religious leader. The statuette is made according to the canons of the Tibetan school of gelukpa, also known as the yellow cap school (since the yellow naring cap was a required attribute of followers of this school). The school itself was founded by Jonkhava (1357 - 1419) and continued to be the leading doctrine in Tibetan lamaism until the second half of the17th century. Jonkhava did not offer any new religious dogma, but reformed old doctrines, which at that time had broken down into a great number of sects. The cult tradition of the gelukpa school created a vast pantheon of gods with a complex hierarchical system. It also included real historical figures who had made themselves famous through some great deed in glory of the Faith. Buddhist art, as well as any other ritual art, is severe, laconic and strictly canonical. This "art of esthetics of the identity" has a profoundly peculiar nature of perception: it simply reminds the viewer of something that is already common knowledge. For a Buddhist the image does not convey any new information, but only reminds him of all the other things connected with the character represented. The lama is sitting in the "lotus position", called padmasana in Sanskrit, with his legs crossed. His arms are clasped in the mudra-gesture, also known as a "gesture of meditation" (Sanskrit Djianamudra). The figure of the lama, dressed in a monk's habit, is modeled according to the principles of bilateral symmetry: it conveys the impression of stability and harmonic tranquillity, nirvanic detachment and freedom of the spirit.

17. Panoramic view of St. Petersburg. Lacquer on bronze. 18th century.


Originally St. Petersburg was not intended to be the capital of Russia; it was constructed as a fortress to protect Russia against Sweden on the first recovered lands. But in time the tsar started to pay more attention to the city: St. Petersburg became the symbol of all the new reforms that Peter was trying to introduce in the country.

18. Japanese brass mirrors

Brass mirrors played an important role in magical and mystical rites: they were considered talismans and were normally used during incantations. It was generally believed that the back side of the mirror disk — often thanks to some astrological images depicted there — provided support from the heavenly forces. This, in its turn, provided the front side with the ability to show the real face of demons, reflected in the mirror, and therefore disarm them. Fascinating stories about the magical power of such mirrors circulated among the nobility, and their happy owners believed that they were protected against all evil forces.

19. Siberian collections of the Kunstkammer. 19th century.

The maskoids, cult images of the Evenks (the Tungus tribes), served as details of a shaman’s ceremonial dress. The shaman was a «specialist in spirits» and «master of archaic ecstasy». These and similar pendants, which had a deep symbolical significance, were sewn onto a shaman’s caftan. Usually they symbolized spirit-protectors, assistants or ancestors, who helped the shaman to make mystical tours in different worlds, both upper and lower, during his magical ceremonies. The older and more experienced a shaman got, the more pendants and other symbolic details were attached to his costume, so in the end the total weight of his dress could reach thirty kilos.

20. Siberian collections of the Kunstkammer. 19th century.

The snow glasses from the collection of Kastren (1846-1848) introduce to us the amazing culture of the Nenets tribes (before the October revolution they were called the Samoyeds), who populate the vast tundra territories from the Kolsk Peninsula to the delta of the Enisey River. Their style of life and all essential cultural aspects were well suited to the severe arctic conditions. A good example are the glasses exhibited here, which protected the eyes of deer-breeders from reflected rays of the sun-light. The eye-flaps of the Chukchis — sea-hunting tribes — who lived in North-Eastern Asia, displayed below, served the same purpose.

21. Siberian collections of the Kunstkammer. 19th century.

These smoking pipes (the two upper ones are of Nenets origin, are carved in a mammoth bone and come from the Kastren collection of 1847; the lower one is from the lower reaches of the Amur River) present us with fine examples of the art of bone-carving mastered by some Siberian peoples. Looking at the samples one can’t help but admire the precision of form, keen sense of observation and proportion of those bone-carving masters whose trade secrets were passed from one generation to the next. Bone carving is a traditional craft of the Evenk and the Nenets peoples. Objects made of bone were often adorned by figures of animals, thus stressing the kinship between hunters and animals. Pipes were also decorated with engraved ornaments bearing symbolic meaning.

22. Siberian collections of the Kunstkammer. 19th century


Models of sleighs (narts) (the upper one is of Chukot or Koriak origin; the lower one was sent by the Irkutsk governor in 1748 and is of Itelmen, or of Kamchadal origin as the people were called in those days). Both models have been manufactured with great skill; they demonstrate the main means of transport in the tundra regions. Their design is well thought out: the runners were made of larch, cedarwood or spruce and topped with «narts’ legs» or wooden bars connected with the upper cross-bars; the seat boards were then placed over them. The narts were driven by dogs or deer; the driver managed them with the help of reins and a long stick with a thickened tip. The narts were an ecologically ideal means of transport: after it had been pressed down by the runners, the moss ground cover soon returned to its original state, and the upper layer of soil remained undamaged.

23. Siberian collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th — 19th centuries.

These Siberian household utensils and decorative objects come from the old collections of the Kunstkammer: the needle case and pendant made of mammoth tusk, and the animal and human figurines not only demonstrate the consummate skill of the bone-carvers, but also give us a good idea of the fascinating esthetic understanding of some Siberian peoples (presumably the Evenks, the Chukchis and the Koriaks). The Nenets carved calendar (lower left side) was very useful and convenient for calculating the time, and the freight narts (lower model) were a convenient and ecologically sound means of transport.

24. American collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century.

This bag, woven of wild rye, looks quite modern, and would probably appeal to even the most choosy fashion-plate as a nice accessory to her beach ensemble. It is hard to believe that the bag was made two centuries ago by Eskimo women who must have also desired to look fashionable for the most prosaic reasons. The wooden idol displayed here, which used to play a magical and ritualistic role in the spiritual life of the Eskimo people, dates back to the same period. Seeing these objects, one recalls the words of Russian ethnographer V. Bogoraz about the Eskimos: «Despite primordial conditions and way of life, these tribes created a peculiar culture perfectly suited to the conditions of the Northern mountain climate, the hard burden of snows and frosts, the tragic void of the tundra, treeless and barren...»

25. American collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century.

These objects — a hat and an arrow — were brought to Russia by the expedition of I. Billings and G. Sarychev in 1785-1794 and went straight to the Kunstkammer. The expedition explored the North-Eastern regions of Asia, the Bering Strait, North-West America and the Aleut islands. In the course of this expedition the explorers managed to gather a lot of varied and valuable materials, including a great number of «American» objects. By order of Catherine the Great all of them were delivered to the Academy of Sciences. All objects from this collection belonged to an Eskimo tribe called the Koniagimiuts, who populated the island of Kodiak. The hat, woven from roots of local plants, is one of the most typical headdresses of this tribe. Such an early collection of Alaskan Eskimo objects is a great rarity in ethnographic museums of the world. It bears not only ethnographic, but also great historical value, since it shows us pages from the history of discoveries and exploitation of the American Northwest by Russian explorers.

26. American collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century.

This rattle made of birds’ beaks was never used as a baby’s toy or an exotic souvenir. The sound made by it was supposed to chase away evil spirits and to possess magical power. Such rattle-bags made of birds’ beaks, shells and other «rattling» objects were a typical attribute of any Indian ritual costume: the Indians could tell us many interesting things about the magical power of sounds.

27. American collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century.

The Aleuts and the Eskimos, who were adept sea-hunters, virtually lived in their kayaks, or narrow and light boats known for their speed and maneuverability on water. The wooden carcass was fitted with animal skins from all sides with a narrow opening for the hunter left on the upper side. When going hunting, the hunter dressed in a special water-proof costume, which was closely fitted to the edges of the boat’s opening. The ingenious design of the kayak allowed it to be turned back up in case it overturned in the water during a hunt.

A most unique feature in the culture of the Eskimos and the Aleuts were their wooden headdresses: they protected the hunters from sprays of water and the bright sunshine, to say nothing of evil spirits and their influences. They were fashioned out of chunks of wood, fixed to a bank, and later brightly painted and decorated with beads and feathers, bone figures, sea lion whiskers, etc. Wood was a great rarity and the work laborious and slow, thus a hat like this was very expensive. It is difficult to believe that a wooden hat could be a comfortable headdress, but its magic qualities and powers overshadowed all inconveniences.

28. American collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century

A bag decorated with porcupine quills, a dancing wand and a rope for tying up a prisoner… these are all gifts from an ambassador donated to the Kunstkammer in the18th century. These objects once belonged to the bellicose Indian tribe of the Hurons, which were part of the Iroquois group that populated North America and Canada. The name «Huron» was bestowed on them by French colonists who used these tribesmen as intermediaries in their fur trade negotiations with the Algonquins. The original name of the tribe is the Vendat.

29. American collections of the Kunstkammer. 18th century.

In 1791 the Portuguese scientist Araucho brought a bright headdress made of bird feathers and a ritual stone ax which belonged to the Bororo Indians from the South America. A long time ago this tribe occupied a great territory called Matou-Grossou which now belongs to the Brazilian state, and also adjoining regions of Southwestern Bolivia. Gradually the western group of the Bororo tribe died out in the 19th century, while the remains of the eastern group still dwell on their original territory.

Such headdresses were used by the Bororo Indians at spiritual festivals; they helped to create images of mythological characters or totems who had blood ties with the Bororos. The ritual stone ax was also used for a multitude of purposes.