Сoins and medals in the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Russian Commemorative medals connected with events from the reign of Peter the Great


Commemorative medals are extremely attractive historical and artistic objects, which can be enjoyed at many different levels. They promoted the lofty objectives of state propaganda and were always the focus of enthusiastic interest among their beholders and collectors.

Medals came into existence as commemorative symbols resembling coins in appearance. Their historic roots can be traced back to coins, but at the same time they were not used as a means of payment but as awards, gifts or signs of commemoration. Various techniques were used for producing medals such as chasing, engraving or casting and a wide range of materials - gold, silver, bronze, copper and (far less frequently) porcelain, bone or wood. Wax models were made based on the sketches of artist-engravers and then these relief depictions of the obverse and reverse of the medal would be carved out on steel matrix-dies which would then be simultaneously struck in metal.

Russian commemorative medals first appeared during the era of Peter the Great's reforms and they were historical works of art, which served as an important medium of political propaganda in Europe and provided a comprehensive reflection of the main events occurring in Russia in the late-17th and early-18th centuries. The very appearance of medals in Russia at the turn of the 17th century, the rapid development of their production during the first fifteen years of the 18th century, the rapid rise of craftsmanship among Russian engravers to the level previously achieved in Europe all testified to the fact that the art of medal-making had become an important phenomenon in the world of Russian culture.

The wide range of Russian commemorative medals in the 18th century includes works by foreign medallists relating to events in Russian history and also medals created by Russian craftsmen. This wide range consists of many different kinds of medals, first and foremost official medals minted "hot on the heels" of the events themselves (originals). Apart from originals of that kind, copies were also issued, minted "not in the same" metal (a gold original might be copied in silver or copper). The range of copies might include medals made which were based on the original model: work of this kind was a common practice for young beginners, who as novices might "get the feel" for their craft in this way. A separate group was that consisting of novodels, which began to appear in a somewhat later period as a result of the fashion for collecting Russian medals. In 1729 a special edict was issued by the Senate permitting those desirous of doing so to order copies of medals at the Mint. The issue of such "novodels" or restrikes - not only of medals but of coins as well - developed on a wide scale and the practice continued at the Saint Petersburg Mint until the beginning of the 20th century1. The restrikes included so-called new-die specimens: these medals were produced using new dies made from old matrices, when the old dies had worn out and were therefore replaced by new ones specially engraved for that purpose. That was how novodels, i.e. medals reproduced with the help of original dies, were ousted over time by copies made with newly made dies.
The emergence and development of the medallist's craft as a distinct art form in Russia in the first quarter of the 18th century was directly linked with the name of Peter the Great. "Until the reign of Peter the Great nothing at all was known about medals in Russia"2. Not only do the notes made by those, who accompanied the Tsar on his first journey to Europe, testify to the way the young Peter the Great was entranced by the creation of medals, but also his own famous work "Journal or Daily Record of Peter the Great..."3.
During the visit to Western Europe in the context of the Grand Embassy Peter learnt a great deal and acquired a variety of technical skills. This journey also stimulated the Tsar's interest in the sciences and collecting. In Amsterdam the engraver Adrian Schoonebek was presented to Peter and that same year (1698) he was admitted to the service of the Russian ruler4. This meeting determined to a large extent the direction in which engraving and, thus, medal-making would develop subsequently in Russia.

In all the cities, where the Grand Embassy sojourned for more than a day - Libau, Königsberg, Magdeburg, Amsterdam, Leiden - Peter surveyed all manner of sights and rarities, which were proudly shown off to the illustrious guest.

One of the numismatic collections which the Tsar was able to see was part of the collection belonging to the Treasurer of the Admiralty in Amsterdam, Jakob de Wilde consisting of engraved stones and coins from the Classical period. A documentary record of this visit exists: the daughter of the collector, Maria, made an engraving depicting Peter I during his visit to her father. A written reference to the visit left behind by Peter also survives in de Wilde's album: "Peter, who was here in connection with certain of his future plans in 1697 on the 13th day of December (according to the old calendar)"5. It is likely that the collection had made such a powerful impression on the Tsar that his interest in numismatics had become a lasting one.

This collection had graphically demonstrated to Peter the unique propaganda potential of medals. He had been so carried away by the minting of coins and medals that, as was his wont, he made a meticulous study of the details of their production. This was made possible through his visits to European mints.

During his sojourn in London the Tsar was able to meet Isaac Newton, director of the Royal Mint in the Tower6. Peter was thrilled by the medal minted in his presence commemorating his visit to the Paris Mint in 17177.

Tsar Peter I brought back from his travels in Europe coins and medals for his collection, which was eventually to form the core of the coin collection in the Kunstkammer. In the light of all this it was only logical that Peter should have decided to use medals as a means of propagating abroad his important ideas regarding the state policy.

The main focus of Russian commemorative medals was the figure of Peter the Great himself. The presentation of the image of the Russian Emperor in the art of medallists working in Russia was based on the West-European tradition. Peter was depicted in armour decorated with arabesques and in the laurel wreath of the victor. At the same time the distinctive feature of these portraits setting them apart from West-European medals was that the portraits of the ruler were en face, as for example in the first Russian medal "In memory of the Capture of Azov" executed by the engraver Fyodor Alexeyev (who fashioned medals in the first decade of the 18th century), a pose typical for the painted portraits of the day8.

Nevertheless, it was not long before the bust-length portrait in profile of a semi-ceremonial type came to predominate9. The key factor which made official portraits en face unsuitable for medals was the technical difficulty involved in reproducing haut relief.

Examples of how Russian medal-makers sought to advance their art are provided by two medals fashioned by Alexeyev: "In memory of the capture of Schliesselburg" (1702) and "In memory of the capture of two Swedish Vessels in the mouth of Neva" (1703). In the collection of the Pushkin Museum there is only one example of his work fashioned in tin using the original dies made by this medallist - the medal used as a decoration for those who took part in the capture of the Schliesselburg fortress.

There is a portrait of the young Tsar on the obverse of both these medals. There are no attributes of power to be seen, all Peter is wearing is modestly decorated armour. The depiction is surrounded by an inscription in Russian which reads: "Tsar Peter Autocrat of all the Russias" on one and "Tsar Peter son of Alexei, Ruler of all Russia" on the other. On the reverse of the first medal there is a depiction of the storming of the fortress. There are inscriptions round the coin: "In the enemy's hands for 90 years. Taken on October 21, 1702" and in the exergue: "Schliesselburg". Inscriptions comment the first outstanding Russian victory - the recapture of the iconic Russian fortress of Oreshek (Noteburg, later renamed Schliesselburg), which occupied a strategically important position near the source of Neva, but which had been in the hands of the Swedes for 90 years after they seized it in 1612.

On the reverse of the second medal two sailing vessels are depicted surrounded by small boats carrying soldiers. The inscription over them reads: "The impossible made possible". The creator of this medal was without doubt acquainted with West-European medals, but he had adapted the well established canon and interpreted it in a way to suit the demands of the moment. His re-interpretation of events in a mythological, allegorical light so typical of all art forms during the reign of Peter comes to the fore in this early Russian medal to a far lesser degree. These medals were called upon first and foremost to render immortal the glory of the Russian Army and the Russian Fleet in a specific historical context10. In depictions on the reverse of Russian medals virtually no symbolism is to be found. Only on one of the variants of this medal is there a symbol of good wishes for the Tsar, when a hand protrudes from the clouds holding a crown and boughs of laurel. It took time to become accustomed to symbols of this kind. For that language to be properly understood, time was necessary for studying it.

Not only Fyodor Alexeyev, but other craftsmen making early Russian medals as well, began without any particular problems to present the very idea of royal power through depictions of their ruler. In the creations of Alexeyev his own attitude to that idea is clearly reflected: the depiction on his medal of the young Peter I was in tune with the idea of emergent Russian statehood. Moreover, if we recall that, even before he set off on his first journey to Europe, Peter had given orders for a seal to be carved bearing the inscription: "I am in the ranks of those who study and summon those who shall teach me" it becomes clear why these early portraits are virtually devoid of any of the attributes of power.

The portrait on the medal created by this Russian craftsman is similar to a portrait on the medal fashioned by the German engraver Christian Wermuth (1661-1739) "In memory of Peter's first journey abroad in 1697-1698": the inscriptions are arranged in the same way and so is the figure in the field of the medal. Peter is shown at about the same age, but Wermuth has dressed the ruler in a more luxurious way: the Tsar is shown in a brocade cloak decorated with precious stones, trimmed with fur and fastened with a clasp pinned on the chest. His richly decorated armour can be glimpsed underneath the cloak.

The legends have been written in Latin but in accordance with the customary Russian titles: On the obverse: "Pyotr son of Alexey by the Grace of God the Great Tsar of Muscovy". On the reverse there is a comment on the event in question: "He girds the globe"; in the exergue round the edge we read: "Germany beheld the unprecedented visitor for the first time". It was not by chance that Wermuth had included this particular legend on a medal. Peter had made an enormous impression on European society: "after an absence of two years and all those labours, to which no-one else would voluntarily have subjected himself, he returned to Russia, bringing with him all the arts of Europe"11.

A wandering Hercules is depicted on the reverse of the Wermuth medal. This mythological figure was the most widespread personification of a ruler on West-European coins. Peter was also often depicted as Mars or as a Roman Emperor.

The French medallist Solomon Gouin, who worked in Russia between 1701 and 1713 created a special portrait of Peter the Great. He also executed a portrait of Admiral Fyodor Matveyevich Apraksin on a medal commemorating the Swedish attack on St. Petersburg which was repulsed in 170812. This latter medal was the first of a number of personalized medals in Russia dedicated not merely to ruling monarchs, but also to members of their entourage and to outstanding individuals.

The compositions on the reverse of these early medals made during the reign of Peter the Great were those which resembled most closely the engravings of the period depicting battles. During the early stages of the design for a medal composition engraved maps were often referred to or engravings complete with detailed expositions of the features of a specific event, such as "The Capture of Schliesselburg on October 11, 1702" by A. Schoonebek (1703), "View and Plan of the Battle at the village of Lesnaya on September 28, 1708" by A.I. Rostovtsev (1715) or "The Battle of Poltava" by P. Picart (1710).

Another feature which bridges the gap between engravings and medals is the inclusion of a portrait of the ruler or the figure of the ruler himself in the range of depictions used. The depictions on medals, like those in engravings, were accompanied by inscriptions. These inscriptions (or legends), unlike the more detailed ones in engravings, were compressed and laconic: in a brief form they conveyed the main idea behind the depiction. On the earliest Russian medals the inscriptions were arranged around the edge, as on coins. Initially they were in quite large letters and could be clearly seen to encroach upon the space for the depiction, but gradually optimal sharing of that space was achieved.

It is very important that the inscriptions on the early medals were in Russian. Latin inscriptions were used on medals designated mainly as diplomatic gifts. The deliberate decision not to use even relatively rare Latin inscriptions of that kind was dictated by the need widely to popularize medals within Russian society. Latin - the generally accepted language for West-European medals - was replaced by the language of the country where they were being made and also in view of the fact that medals were often used as military awards. Another important change to be observed in these inscriptions was the replacement of the Old Church Slavonic alphabet by the secular one, starting with the new rouble coins of 1704-1705 designed by Fyodor Alexeyev13.

The small dimensions of medals, and the technical difficulties involved in their production dictated not only the selection of subjects used, but also the range of symbols and allegories used for their composition in general. Under the influence of the West-European tradition, the efforts to provide a documentary record of an event begins to give way to allegorical compositions as early as the end of the second decade of the 18th century. The complex language of West European medals gradually takes root in Russia as well. An important contribution to this development was the book entitled Symbols and Emblems which had come out in Amsterdam in 1705 in five languages, the main one of which had been Russian.

The use of widely known symbols and allegories guaranteed that depictions could be ‘read' regardless of the nationality of the beholder. It was convenient to disseminate state propaganda in a language of allegories. Medals not only ‘immortalized' an event or deed, but told the beholder about it, thus carrying out an additional, didactic function.

The language of allegories was made full use of, when medals were created in honour of Russian victories over the Swedes.

The tradition of creating series of commemorative medals in the 17th century at the court of Louis XIV was one of the West-European achievements which Peter decided to adopt. The first such series in Russia was one consisting of medals commemorating Russian victories in the Great Northern War which immortalized one of the main events in the political life of Western Europe and Russia in the first quarter of the 18th century.

The commissioning of medals was an exclusive prerogative of the Tsar, in so far as medals, like coins on which they were based, served goals bound up first and foremost with the ruler's campaigns in the field of politics and enlightenment. This is why this particular series was commissioned at Peter's personal behest in 1712-1713 from German medallist Philipp Heinrich Müller (1654-1719) and then minted at the Moscow Mint starting in 1716. The series included medals commemorating 26 Russian victories and outstanding exploits of Peter the Great.

Müller was an outstanding medallist from whom almost all the crowned heads of Europe commissioned medals. During his working life this craftsman made over 400 medals bearing portraits of many different rulers14.

The whole of the correspondence regarding this commission from Russia was conducted via Count Yakov Vilimovich Bruce (1670-1735), a member of Peter the Great's immediate entourage15. Bruce was a man of wide education, who used to accompany Peter on his journeys abroad, had taken part in all of Peter's military campaigns and risen to the rank of General, Master of the Ordnance. He was in charge of the secular printing-house in Moscow, engaged in cartography and well known as a collector of coins and medals. He was in charge of the artillery regiment and President of the Collegium for Mining and Manufactories. 

The three different portraits of Peter the Great created by Müller have been acknowledged as master-pieces of the Baroque style in the medallist's art. Y. Iversen was the first to publish the three portraits and classify them as medals M1, M2 and M316. They differ from each other in both style and the details of the costume used.

There was a beautifully worked portrait of a laurel-crowned Peter on a rearing horse and holding a marshal's staff in his out-stretched hand on the medals commemorating the victories at the village of Lesnaya and at Poltava. The series was universally acknowledged by the medallist's contemporaries and it has retained its popularity to this day.

As the manufacture of medals evolved, old worn dies were gradually replaced by copies made by Russian craftsmen and West-European craftsmen working in Russia17. The collection of the Pushkin Museum contains many copies of medals created by P.H. Müller fashioned by Russian medallists, who, while retaining the reverse types, created new portraits of Peter the Great18. Medals executed by Osip Kalashnikov (during the period 1727-1741)19 resemble quite closely Müller's portraits of Peter I. They are executed in the same manner, typical for the Baroque style, although differences can be discerned in the portrayal of individual features of the Tsar.

In the portrait of Peter created by Timofei Ivanovich Ivanov (1729-1802) the style of the era of Catherine the Great comes clearly to the fore. There are distinguishing features to be discerned in the portrait executed by Samoyla Yudin (1730-?), who also made numerous replicas of Muller's medals, but by now in the tradition of Classicism. Ivanov and Yudin were pupils of the Scotsman, Benjamin Scott, who became leading Russian medallists of the second half of the 18th century20.

The medals of famous craftsmen are marked with their signatures or monograms. It should be pointed out, however, that Russian medallists began to place their initials on medals far later than West-European ones and that the limited amount of data available on the history of Russian mints prevents us even today from deciphering all these signatures. It has only emerged comparatively recently which medals had been created by craftsmen such as Osip Kalashnikov or Ivan Konovalov21.
Some engravers worked independently, while others preferred to specialize in the manufacture of depictions for one particular side of medals and so to work in conjunction with other craftsmen. Although at the time what was held in particularly high esteem was the art of the portraitist, engravers who created compositions for the reverses of medals also demonstrated an unusually high level of skill and precision in their rendering of detail. Fine examples of such work were medals executed by Solomon Gouin, who had come to Russia from France, and the medallist from Saxony, Gottfried Haupt, who worked in Russia from 1705 to 1710).

During the reign of the Empress Anna (1730-1740) and the Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762) it was planned that the issue of medals dedicated to the achievements of Peter the Great should be continued, but the project was not realized.

Between 1737 and the early 1740s the Swedish medallist Johann Carl Hedlinger (1691-1771), one of the supreme masters in the field in his day, worked in Russia at the invitation of the Russian court. He created numerous medals in the style of three different periods - Baroque, Rococo and early Classicism22. In the collection of the Pushkin Museum there are several of Hedlinger's medals including some created in honour of the Swedish King Charles XII and the distinguished figure from the reign of Peter the Great, Count Osterman (1738). Hedlinger's medals constituted a true school for Russian engravers, most of whom learnt the art of medal-making through copying23.

It was precisely at that time that the need emerged for the thorough training of more engravers and medallists, which led to a swelling of their ranks and the establishment of institutions for training these specialists not only in mints but also in the Chamber of Engravers set up in 1724 in accordance with Peter's Statute for the establishment of an Academy of Sciences and Arts. In 1738 a class for training engravers was set up to school them in correct drawing and the art of carving on steel and stones.

In 1741 Yakob Shtelin (1709-1785), member of the Mint chancellery responsible for matters of medal-making was put in charge of the Chamber of Engravers: he was also a poet and scholar and one of the most gifted men of his age with an extremely wide range of talents.

In 1754 a project was put before the Senate for their perusal providing for an extension of the existing series of medals in honour of Peter the Great. Yet almost all these medals never progressed further than the drawing board. Only a few of the sketches presented to the Senate by Yakob Shtelin24 were actually used. In about 1759 retrospective medals commemorating the birth of Peter the Great, his accession and the suppression of the Revolt of the Musketeers were minted based on his drawings25.

In 1772 special Medal Committees were set up in accordance with an edict of Catherine II, which would be responsible for designing and manufacturing series of commemorative medals to illustrate her History of Russia26. Unfortunately 128 new designs for the "History in Medals" of Peter the Great never materialised27, although most of the talented replicas from the Muller series date precisely from that time.

By the last third of the 18th century many problems facing the development of the medallist's art in Russia as a separate field of artistic endeavour in the New Age had been satisfactorily resolved and the appearance of a large number of new craftsmen, who created many outstanding specimens, has led scholars to regard that period as the high-point of medal-making in Russia28.


1M.G.Demmeni, 1887: Sbornik ukazov po monetnomu i medalionomu delu v Rossii, pomeshchennykh v Polnom sobranii zakonov s 1649 po 1881g. (A Collection of the Edicts regarding the minting of Coins and Medals, included in the Complete Collection of Laws from 1649 to 1881), Issues 1-3, Saint Petersburg, Issue I, p. 341.

2Y. Shtelin, 1990: "Reminiscences about the Engraving of Medals", Zapiski Yakoba Shtelina ob izyashchnykh iskusstvakh v Rossii" (Notes by Yakob Shtelin on the Fine Arts in Russia), Moscow, Vol. I, p. 301.

3Zhurnal ili Podennaya zapiska blazhennyya i vechnodostoinyya pamyati gosudarya imperatora Petra Velikago s 1698 goda, dazhe do zaklyucheniya Neishtatskago mira: Napechatan s obretayushchikhsya v Kabinetnom archive spiskov, pravlennykh sobstvenno rukoyu ego imperatorskago velichestva. Izd. Shcherbatovym.("The Journal or Daily Record - of the sovereign Emperor, Peter the Great of blessed and ever-deserving memory - from 1698 even till the conclusion of the Peace of Nystad" printed from pages obtained in the Cabinet Archive and corrected by His Majesty the Emperor in his own hand), 1770-1772: in 2 parts, Saint Petersburg.

4N. Borisovskaya, 1992: Starinnye gravirovannye karty i plany (Ancient engraved Maps and Plans), Moscow, pp. 170-171.

5Pisma i bumagi imperatora Petra Velikogo (Letters and Papers of the Emperor Peter the Great) 1887-1893: in three volumes, Saint Petersburg, Vol. 1, p. 224, No. 212.

6S.I. Vavilov, 1945: Isaak Nyuton (Isaac Newton), Moscow-Leningrad, Chapter 14.

7A.I. Andreyev, 1947: "Peter I in England in 1698", Pyotr Velikii. Sbornik statei (Peter the Great. A Collection of Articles), Moscow-Leningrad, pp. 63-103.

8E.S. Shchukina, 2000: Dva veka russkoi medali (Two Centuries of Russian Medals), Saint Petersburg, p.15.

9O.S. Evangulova 1987: Izobrazitelnoye iskusstvo v Rossii pervoi chetverti XVIII veka (Fine Art in Russia during the first quarter of the 18th Century), Moscow, p.114.

10O.S. Evangulova, Op. cit., pp. 201-203

11Voltaire, 1999: Istoriya Karla XII, korolya Shvetsii i Petra Velikogo, imperatora Rossii (A History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, and Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia), Saint Petersburg, p.26.

12E.S. Shchukina, Op. cit., pp. 23-25.

13I.G. Spasskii, E.S. Shchukina, 1974: Medali i monety petrovskogo vremeni (Medals and Coins from the Reign of Peter the Great): illustrated album, Leningrad, p. 30., p. 30.

14Ibid., pp. 6, 22-23.

15Ibid., pp. 16-17.

16Y. Iversen, 1872: Medali na deyaniya imperatora Petra Velikogo i vospominanie dvukhsotletiya so dnya rozhdeniya preobrazovatelya Rossii (Medals commemorating the exploits of Peter the Great and a Recollection of the Bicentenary of the Birth of Peter the Great, who transformed Russia", Saint Petersburg, p. XIV; E.S. Shchukina, 2006: Seriya medalei F.G.Myullera na sobytiya Severnoi voiny v sobranii Ermitazha (A Series of Medals by P.H.Muller in commemoration of the events of the Great Northern War in the Hermitage Collection), pp. 18-19.

17E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, pp. 27-34; E.S. Shchukina, A Series of Medals by P.H. Müller...p.?

18E.S. Shchukina, 2000: "The Tsarevich Alexei affair and two Russian Medals from the Hermitage Collection", Iz istorii petrovskikh kollektsii.Sbornik statei pamyati N.V. Kalyazina (From the History of Tsar Peter's Collections. A Collection of Articles in memory of N.V. Kalyazina), Saint Petersburg, p. 190; E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, pp. 78-79.

19E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, pp. 20-22.

20Ibid., p.54.

21Ibid., pp. 15-16, 18-22; A.N.Alexeyev, 2003: " ‘Master medallist' Ivan Konovalov" Abstracts for the XI All-Russian Numismatic Conference, Saint Petersburg, p.255; M.A. Shutkina, 1996: "On the Question of the Emergence of a Graphic Language for Russian Commemorative Medals (with reference to certain early medals of Peter I (1682-1725)", Monety I Medali (Coins and Medals), Issue I, Moscow, pp. 229-231.

22E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, p. 49.

23E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, pp. 44-53.

24Y. Shtelin had, as a rule, a rather low opinion of Russian craftsmen and their medal-making skills: "The Russian apprentice Yudin at the Mint made dies for the first two medals in honour of Peter the Great as well as he had been taught. Yet they would have been immeasurably worse, if Court Councillor Shtelin had not instructed him as he worked to make as many corrections as possible". Quoted from J. Shtelin, Op cit., p.325.

25A.N. Alexeyev, ...: "Medaliernaya istoriya" Petra Velikogo v proektakh Y. Shtelina, ("The History in Medals" of Peter the Great in the projects of Y. Stelin), pp. 56-63.

26E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, pp. 60-69; L.M. Gavrilova, 2003: "Projects for Medals under Catherine II to commemorate events in early Russian History", Tezisy XI VNK (Abstracts for the XI All-Russian Numismatic Conference) Saint Petersburg, pp. 212-213.

27E.S. Shchukina, Two Centuries of Russian Medals, pp. 69-70.

28Ibid., pp. 60-103. The expression "the art of the New Age" is used to signify the art of the 18th century, the first third of which was regarded as its initial and fundamental stage. See, for example: O.S. Evangulova, 1987: Op. cit., p.3.