The goal of this article is to make a preliminary survey of the liturgical embroideries made or commissioned by the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and her sister Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fedorovna. It suggests that the sisters’ needlework for sacred purposes was invested with a significance not seen in elite Russian society since the late seventeenth century. At a time when the arts of Orthodoxy were undergoing a state-sponsored renaissance, the wife and sister-in-law of the Nicholas ii were the last in a long line of royal women seeking to assert their piety and their power through traditional women’s work. In the closing years of the empire, to make and to donate sacred textiles was a way to emulate ancestral women, while providing modern women with examples of piety, industriousness, and patriotism.
This essay examines Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov’s search for a new kind of prayer icon in the closing decades of the nineteenth century: a hybrid of icon and painting that would reconcile Russia’s historic contradictions and launch a renaissance of national culture and faith. Beginning with his icons for the Spas nerukotvornyi [Savior Not Made by Human Hands] Church at Abramtsevo in 1880-81, for two decades Vasnetsov was hailed as an innovator, the four icons he sent to the Paris “Exposition Universelle” of 1900 marking the culmination of his vision. After 1900, his religious painting polarized elite Russian society and was bitterly attacked in advanced art circles. Yet Vasnetsov’s new icons were increasingly linked with popular culture and the many copies made of them in the late Imperial period suggest that his hybrid image spoke to a generation seeking a resolution to the dilemma of how modern Orthodox worshippers should pray.
This overview essay provides an historical context for the evolution of Russian sculpture in the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras, articulating its close connections with developments in Western Europe while also suggesting the specific local factors that contributed to its distinctive identity.