Сoins and medals in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts


Concerning the exhibition and catalogue

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is exhibiting its collection of medals relating to events which took place in the reign of Peter the Great together with a selection of its engravings. This is the first exhibition from the series entitled "Great Russian Victories seen through Medals and Engravings". It is devoted to the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, in which one of the outstanding victories in Russian military history was won on June 27, 1709.

In our museum there are more than 500 commemorative, award and personal medals immortalizing the events of the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 (523 of these have been included in the catalogue). They include true masterpieces of Baroque art and numerous copies of works by both acknowledged masters of the 18th-19th centuries and also by lesser known craftsmen.

The artistic and historical importance of medals is revealed to the beholder through the complex artistry involved in their creation. This would begin with a sketch - a drawing or engraving, after which a relief model would be made in wax, from which the metal engravers would work to create a stamp for minting the commemorative or decoration series. The engraving made as the initial expression of an idea and the end-product of the medal were two stages in the process which would give rise to a special work of a historical, heroic, commemorative or allegorical kind dedicated - depending upon its purpose - to outstanding events or individuals.

The centre-piece of this exhibition is provided by images of the main participants in the Great Northern War - Peter the Great himself (1672-1725) and the Swedish King Charles XII (1682-1718), the outstanding military commander of his time. The medals bear the key dates from this war, references to their illustrious deeds and commemorate the battles in which these two rulers participated personally.

The medals and engravings relating to the events of the Northern War are displayed in accordance with the chronology of the historical events themselves, the most important of which was the Battle of Poltava.

The exhibition includes medals issued as decorations and also commemorative medals in honour of numerous Russian victories personally commissioned by Peter the Great, which were fashioned by the outstanding German medallist Philipp Heinrich Müller (1654-1719). Apart from medals created during the reign of Peter the Great - works by both other well-known European and Russian medallists - Arvid Karlsteen, Solomon Gouin, Gottfried Haupt, Fyodor Alexeyev - numerous copies are included in the exhibition which were created in the next two centuries by craftsmen who had been inspired by Müller's renowned series. The simultaneous display of originals and copies makes it possible to admire an uninterrupted historical canvas bringing together the masterpieces of the medallist's art from the late 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th and also later examples of Russian commemorative medals. This approach is also justified in view of the composition of the Museum's collection, in which unique examples of rare medals of the early 18th century are to be found alongside numerous copies - both early and late ones. These medals include creations by talented Russian craftsmen such as Osip Kalashnikov, Timophei Ivanov, Samoyla Yudin, Anton Shults, who created new portraits of Peter the Great.

The complex system for medals used for decorations and for commemorative purposes during the reign of Peter the Great had roots which could be traced back both to the European tradition and to the independent Russian tradition. The earliest medals extolling the personal merits of Peter the Great and his early victories were created at the end of the 17th or beginning of the 18th century. During the sojourn of the Grand Embassy of 1697-1698 in Holland, commemorative medals depicting the capture of Azov by the Russians in 1696 were presented to the Russian Tsar[1]. Later the Russian craftsman Fyodor Alexeyev created a medal in honour of that same event[2]. The Pushkin Museum collection contains copies and late replicas of his works, which are considered to be the first Russian examples of the medallist's art. They are also represented in the exhibition and in the Catalogue, although they do not constitute a group of medals directly linked to the events of the Great Northern War.

A special place in this field is that occupied by the so-called retrospective medals created in honour of Peter the Great during the reign of his daughter Elizabeth thanks to a project devised by J. Shtelin[3]. Three medals - celebrating the birth of Peter the Great, his accession and commemorating his suppression of the revolt of the streltsy (musketeers) - have been included in the Catalogue in accordance with the chronology of the events themselves, despite the fact that the medals had been created in the second half of the 18th century.

Many medals dedicated to the events of the Great Northern War and to those who took part in it, were created using engraved plans of fortresses, towns and types of battles executed in the workshops of the Dutchmen Adrian Schoonebek and Pieter Picart. These outstanding engravers and also their pupils - Ivan and Alexey Zubov - were responsible for the portraits of Peter and his comrades-in-arms, scenes of the battles in the Great Northern War and triumphal processions, allegorical compositions and geographical maps. Some engravings were enclosed in copies of the first Russian newspaper News of Military and other Affairs, which first appeared in late 1702 or early 1703 bringing the public information about the course of the war. The engraved pages were distributed to those serving in the army, displayed in the streets and, finally, brought together in the renowned Book of Mars in the various editions of the latter which began to come out in 1713.

At this exhibition some engravings are displayed which formed the basis for medals and others which drew on medal compositions or reproduced them. These were off-prints from the dies used by European and Russian artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The engravings come from famous collections belonging to Y.B. Iversen, A.V. Morozov and D.A. Rovinskii. Some of these had formed part of the collection in the Engravings Department of the Rumyantsev Museum, which was transferred to the State Museum of Fine Arts in 1924. Over 50 works were chosen from this extensive collection of Russian engravings, which illustrate important episodes in the history of the Petrine period and which have been an important source of inspiration for craftsmen seeking to create commemorative medals ever since.

The collection of medals in the Pushkin Museum has been gradually assembled over a period of more than 200 years. Some of the earliest acquisitions were Swedish medals donated by P.G. Demidov to Moscow University in 1806, which became part of its coin collection (Münzkabinett). In 1888 the University's coin and medals collection was broken up and the collection of Russian coins and medals was transferred to the Historical Museum. Only isolated specimens, which had not been the subject of detailed description, remained in the University's Antiquities Collection and together with other original items formed the basis of the collection in the Museum of Fine Arts which bore the name of Emperor Alexander III.

The medals relating to events from Russian history were acquired by the Pushkin Museum after it had been officially opened in 1912. Some of these medals had previously belonged to such well-known collections as that, for example, of Count A.A. Bobrinskii, which had been nationalized in 1918 and transferred to the State Museum Fund. The collection in that fund was subsequently distributed between museums and certain interesting numismatic items found their way into the State Museum of Fine Arts in 1927.

In 1951 and 1963 large groups of medals were transferred to our Museum from the Museum of the Culture of the East and the duplicate reserves of the State Historical Museum. Thanks to that, many interesting works by well-known medallists and those who copied their creations are now represented in our collection.

Attention should be drawn in particular to medals from the collection of Alexander Alexandrovich Stakhovich (1884-1959), a Russian émigré, who was one of the founders of the Russian Military History Society in Paris and had collected medals linked to events in the reign of Peter the Great. In 1983 his collection was acquired by the USSR Ministry of Culture and transferred to the Pushkin Museum (378 items). In the course of the negotiations preceding the acquisition of this collection, a gift was made to the Museum by the son of A.A. Stakhovich and his friend S.S. Palen of a further 23 medals (in 1980-1981). This acquisition immediately made this section of the Museum's numismatic collection a notable one. The value of the collection lies in the breadth of its range of medals associated with events in the Petrine period. It includes some unique items, which had originally been part of the famous numismatic collections of E.K. Gutten-Chapskii and Grand Prince Georgii Mikhailovich. His ownership of a large number of medals from Tsar Peter's reign and his passion for collecting and studying them had enabled A.A. Stakhovich, who had himself compiled a catalogue of those coins, to carry out research into the art of the medallists from the Petrine era and discover a good deal that was new as he did so[4]. Of the 401 medals in the A.A.Stakhovich collection 352 pieces have been included in the exhibition catalogue.

The Russian victories in the Great Northern War and its most important battle - the Battle of Poltava, which had rendered Russia one of the most powerful nations - had been fittingly proclaimed abroad through these commemorative medals, which became so popular that even in 18th-century catalogues depictions of copies were used, because the originals were distributed or sold so quickly that they became unobtainable[5]. The dies used to create these medals could not be used for large series and so in order to make as many off-prints as possible, it was decreed by Peter himself that a supplementary series should be made in pure English tin[6]. Thanks to that decision, the number of specimens of the medals from Peter's reign minted using the original dies of P.H.Müller was increased.

The popularity of the Petrine medals created by Müller and Alexeyev, Gouin and Haupt led to frequent copies being made by medallists of the 18th and 19th centuries - O. Kalashnikov, T. Ivanov, S. Yudin, P. Bobrovshchikov, S.Ivanov, M. Kuchkin and P. Stadnitskii.

After the death of Peter the Great plans were made to create new series of medals to immortalize both this ruler and his achievements. These plans were not, however, fully realized either during the reign of Empress Elizabeth or that of Catherine the Great.

Some famous dates - anniversaries of outstanding events - have been marked by highly artistic medals. Karl Leberecht created medals in memory of the centenary of Saint Petersburg and that of the Battle of Poltava. Anton Vasyutinskii brought us a new interpretation of the figure of Peter the Great in his medals commemorating the bi-centenary of the Battle of Poltava.

The jubilee medals of the 19th and 20th centuries included in this exhibition are dedicated to Peter the Great and to the main Russian victories in the Northern War. As had been the case during the reign of Peter the Great, these medals remind us of events which enabled Russia to achieve the status of a great power and become the dominant nation in Eastern Europe, after Sweden had lost its former might and its landed possessions on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea.

This exhibition would not be complete without the Book of Mars, which was kindly made available to the Museum for display and reproduction purposes by the Museum of Rare Books of the Lomonosov Moscow State University.

The authors of this project should like to express their sincere gratitude for help with this catalogue to E.S. Shchukina, Curator of Medals in the State Hermitage Museum, Doctor in Art History, to V.A. Kalinin, Head of the Numismatics Department and also to O.V. Smyka, Senior lecturer at the Lomonosov Moscow State University and T.Yu. Stukalova, Curator of Medieval Numismatics at the State Historical Museum.

We should also like to convey our profound gratitude for their support of this project to Mr. A.Yu.Krupnov, collector and founder of the D.A. Rovinskii Museum of Engravings and to the non-commercial organization - the "Lukoil Charitable Foundation". It proved possible to publish this catalogue thanks to their timely support.

[1] E.S.Shchukina, 1977: "On the Creation of the Medal commemorating the taking of Azov by Y. Boscama" in the book: Kultura i iskusstvo petrovskogo vremeni. Publikatsiya i issledovaniya (The Culture and Art of the Petrine Era. Publications and Research), Leningrad, pp. 159-162; V.A.Kalinin, "Commemorative Medals from the time of the Grand Embassy", Trudy GE. Materialy i issledovaniya Otdela numizmatiki (Proceedings of the State Hermitage Museum, Materials and Research from the Numismatics Department) (forthcoming). Two of the three surviving medals form part of the Hermitage collection.

[2] Е.S.Shchukina, 2000: Dva veka russkoi medali. Medalernoye iskusstvo v Rossii 1700-1917 (Two centuries of Russian Medals. The Medallist's Art in Russia - 1700-1917), Moscow, pp. 8, 15.

[3] A.N.Alexeyev, 2006: "The ‘Medals History' of Peter the Great in the projects of J.Shtelin", Materialy i issledovaniya Otdela numizmatiki (Materials and Research of the Numismatics Department) in Trudy GE (Proceedings of the State Hermitage Museum, Vol. XXXI), Saint Petersburg, pp. 59-63.

[4] A.A.Stakhovich, 1958: Kommentarii k "Medali na deyaniya Imperatora Petra Velikogo" Yuliya Bogdanovicha Iversena (Commentaries on "Medals for the Achievements of the Emperor Peter the Great" by Yulii Bogdanovich Iversen), p.11.

[5] E.S.Shchukina, 2006: p. 12.

[6] Ibid., p.25.