The exhibition opened on March 31st,
1998, hosting objects from the eastern Slavic collections of the Kunstkammera as
well as items kindly loaned by the Russian Ethnographical Museum (St.
Petersburg) and individual collectors.
Conceptually, the exhibit takes
everyday traditional objects and uses them as a medium to speak to its viewers:
besides their utilitarian purpose, each item had a concealed ‘magic’ role as
well. The exhibition seeks to reveal the magic aspect of these objects, and to
recreate their role in everyday women’s magic.
The exhibition is divided into four
parts, mirroring the main stages in the life of a Russian peasant woman:
“childhood,” “youth/coming of age,” “maturity & motherhood,” and “old age.”
Each stage of the woman’s life had its own type of magic, goals, and secret
beliefs, best expressed by the various objects from each period.
Childhood was a girl’s introduction
into the society she was born, spent familiarizing herself with her people’s
traditions. This included magic, which is presented here through the various
attributes of the games and rites the girl would have played. The exhibition
includes puppets from the “wedding” game, gyroscopes, balls, koniki, various
objects from the “rite of spring” festival (“lark,” “kulichk,” “magpie,” and
other ‘bird’ pastries), as well as the bird and animal pastries received by
children while caroling on yuletide. Also on display are items from the
tradition of spinning- children’s spools, spindles, and a girl’s first spun
thread. According to a popular belief of the time a girl would grow prettier by
eating a piece of yarn.
A girl’s youth was a magic period in
her life- festive, bright, playful, emotionally saturated, and, as a general
rule, collective. Marriage was a constant theme throughout this stage, exposing
a girl’s amorous intentions, questioning, attempts at attracting a husband, and
efforts to make herself ‘beautiful.’ At that time the ideal qualities of
maidenhood were seen as cleanliness, good health, physical attractiveness, and
fertility. Materially these ambitions are represented by the girls’ many head
scarves and garlands.
As Easter time came it was a time of
play and circle-dance magic. The exhibition presents many items and photographs
of this period connected with the Easter rites. Nearly ever object has an
underlying sexual theme, be it ringing the bells (proclaiming the sudden
explosion in natural and maidenly beauty), rocking on the swings, skipping on
boards, playing ball, eggs, or gorodki (a game similar to skittles). A number of
the objects are from the spring-summer maidenly “kumleniya” rites, rings, links,
small crosses, exchanged during the “pokumivshiyesya” (making friends) between
girls, as well as hair scarves, used during divination games about marriage.
Bird and plant ornamentation is characteristic of all these objects, symbolizing
the prime of both the girl and nature. Also on display are various examples of
maidenly needlework- towels and shirts with the “zagovornymi” pattern, obviously
intended as future wedding gifts.
The wedding magic stands somewhat
apart: wards against wear, traditional designs bidding farewell to girlhood and
welcoming the passage to womanhood, childhood beauty, dressed up saplings,
flaxen braids, maidenly scarves and other head coverings. Also displayed are
wedding crowns, towels, bed linens, tablecloths, as well as other handmade
objects from the bride’s girlhood, which objectively transformed the husband’s
house into “their” house.
The bride’s magic was almost
exclusively connected with conception, the birth and raising (survival) of the
children. The exhibition presents various objects, made during the pregnancy
(the attributes of many needleworks. Journeys, etc.), as well as objects to
magically relieve the birth (arch, waist, chest).
The child’s cradle is located in
another display, along with all of the necessary wards- charms to protect the
newborn from fright, the night-bird, strange and unkind words, arrows, the plow,
The woman’s magical objects permeated
her entire environment, making up almost all of her everyday utensils and
household objects. Their most basic function was related with fertility (either
promoting or restraining), both of her husband, domestic animals, and the
fields. Objects of the “pronimalyni” form were of special importance to a
woman’s magic, that is to say objects with the opening or fork whose use both
practically speaking and magical was based on the operation of “pronimaniya,”
pushing through, or pushing forward. These primarily consisted of the hollow
utensils of the woman’s “kuta,” located in the woman’s half of the cottage on
top of the fireplace. In working fertility magic a woman used pots, the table,
mortar, kneading board, and stove utensils as well: the bread board, oven
prongs, poker, and many others. These objects also served as protection from
hostile forces. Other objects of special magical importance were those with an
opening, for example a stone with a hole in it. This was called the “hen god”
and placed in the cattle shed or chicken coop, while a shchepochka punctured by
a fallen twig was used as a means of treating castle or for guarding the road.
Old age is depicted here in two
separate parts, the “active” and the “departing” stages. Of special importance
to the first is the role of the midwife: the magic rites associated with the
severing of the umbilical cord and the “regeneration” or “overbaking” of the
baby, as well as other therapeutic magical rituals. The second stage corresponds
with a withdrawal from active life, which is supplemented by an increased belief
in faith as a means of staying strong. This is represented by numerous objects,
many of them connected with pilgrimages (bronze icons, monastery spoons, etc),
ascetic lifestyles and “divine” needlework (lestovki).
That is only the most basic overview
of the objects which are exhibited in this display. You will recognize the
virtue of letting the objects “speak for themselves,” radiating their secret
lives more expressively then could be done otherwise. Still, perhaps it is still
possible to describe the exhibition a little more fully…