Perhaps no country is better known for its Easter eggs than Russia. From the jeweled creations of Fabergé to humble wood carvings, the holiday could not be celebrated without the decoration and exchange of numerous eggs.
The particular tradition in Russia dates back at least to the fifteenth century. Throughout Easter week, people greeted one another with Easter Acclamation: “Christ is Risen (Христос Воскресе!),” to which the proper reply was “Truly He is Risen” (Воистине воскресе!). A triple kiss was then exchanged. Although the greeting was exchanged with anyone met during the day, decorated eggs were exchanged only with family and close friends.
The Easter greeting “Christ is Risen (Христос Воскресе!)”, also known as the Paschal greeting, decorates many eggs. Sometimes it is shortened to just the Cyrillic letters ХВ (Kh.V.).
In 17th-century Muscovy, the Tsar greeted boyars and members of the nobility after the Easter service in the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral. The painters of the Kremlin’s Armory Workshops struggled to fulfill orders for thousands of goose, duck, or hen eggs, or turned wood eggs, in shades of red or gold. The size and splendor of the egg were dependent upon the recipient’s status. Simpler eggs were still decorated in Russian homes.
During the 18th century, ever more luxurious sorts of Easter gifts were added to those exchanged at the Imperial court, including this jeweled gold model of a chicken standing on a diamond-studded base. It is part of a larger set of three enameled pendant eggs and a gold fowl that Catherine II gave to her granddaughter Alexandra Pavlovna. When the young woman died shortly after giving birth to her first child in 1801, her jewels were returned to the Russian state. The set is now in the Hermitage Museum.
Once Russian scientists and artisans had worked out a method to reliably manufacture porcelain, a rare and costly luxury good in the 18th century, a small number of Easter eggs were also produced in the material. This egg with a scene of the Annunciation is one of only two eggs that can be confidently dated to the period of Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741-1761). These costly gifts were made in very small numbers in the 18th century. Records indicate that in 1793, Catherine II presented 373 courtiers and dignitaries with porcelain Easter eggs.
Throughout most of the 18th and into the early 19th century, court records indicate that emperor or empress exchanged Easter gifts only with those closest to them. While the sovereign and members of the Imperial family sought out the latest luxuries, most Russian ladies and gentlemen probably purchased their Easter gifts from itinerant street merchants like that recorded by German artist Christian Geissler during his travels in Russia.
At court, Imperial gifts would have included eggs like the one above with a scene of the Resurrection and the Cup of Salvation. The scene of the Resurrection is bordered by a gilt laurel wreath, symbolizing victory over the grave, and the promise of eternal life central to the celebrations of Easter.
The scene on this egg was made with the aid of a new method: transfer printing. Transfer printing on porcelain was a difficult process that could improve the quality of decoration and limit the waste of valuable porcelains. The convex form of the egg’s surface did not render the process easier, however. In the case of this design, the outlines were printed in grey on a sheet of paper then used to transfer the image to the porcelain body.
The Imperial Porcelain Factory decorated eggs using the ornamental schemes that had been worked out for larger items such as dinner services. The egg above, made during the reign of Nicholas I, was most probably finished after 1837.
The jewel tones — emerald green, sapphire blue, and ruby red — on the egg above resemble the decoration of the borders on the Kremlin Service, which was painted to recall jeweled goldwork. The egg is relatively small; at 2 7/8 inches (7.3 cm) it was a bit smaller than most of the Imperial Porcelain Factory’s Easter eggs. In 1839, during the reign of Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855), the emperor began to widen the circle of those whom he would greet, exchange Easter greetings, and present with an egg. Many more lower level officers and others were admitted to the service and, by rule and custom, their gifts could not be of the same size and expense as those given to a general or a prince.
This larger egg with a height of 3 3/8 in. (8.7 cm), for example, would have been appropriate gift for someone of higher status.
Interestingly, the floral sprays and the bubble-like gilt ornament en caillouté allow us to trace the source of this ornament directly to a table service then being produced at the Imperial Porcelain Factory.
In 1786, Joseph II had ordered a large porcelain service with caillouté decoration on a cobalt blue ground from the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory as a gift to Grand Duke Paul Petrovich, then the heir to the throne.¹ (Artists at Vienna used as their model a service Louis XV had given to Christian VII of Denmark in 1768). During the reign of Nicholas I, this service once again came into favor and numerous additions were made to it. This egg is a rare example of the ornament from this service having been applied to an Imperial porcelain Easter egg.
Easter was a particularly important time to present the latest achievements of the Imperial Porcelain Factory to the sovereign. Objects produced at the manufactory, as well as the Imperial Glassworks and the Imperial Lapidary Workshops, were among the objects given as gifts by the emperor or empress at Easter and Christmas. While a pair of monumental palace vases might not be an appropriate gift for all, a porcelain egg with similar decoration gave the Imperial family many more ways to show their favor to courtiers and diplomats. During the reign of Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855), when the egg shown above was made, the Imperial Porcelain Factory vastly expanded the available color palette. The introduction of lead-based fluxes and oxide tints allowed for an astonishing number of new colors and shades and the factory’s painters could copy complicated paintings onto the eggs. These meticulous miniatures of saints or views of the Holy Land were costly and time-consuming to produce and these porcelain Easter eggs were among the most valuable.
Spring’s new blossoms were a natural subject for painting on the Imperial factory’s Easter eggs and the increased range of colors and tints allowed for detailed floral studies and copies of botanical prints with colors ranging from a soft, robin’s egg blue to intense shades of red. The tints also allowed for greater depth and subtlety, as the range of blues and greens on the blossoms and leaves of the plants on the egg on the left shows.
Whatever the latest style or innovation at the factory, it was always tried out in small scale on Easter eggs. When sculptor August Spiess was introducing hundreds of new forms for vases, vessels, and sculpture, he also added a number of Easter eggs. Spiess was a talented sculptor of the adventures of naughty cupids and putti. On the Easter eggs, they were transformed into little angels rendered in white biscuit porcelain against a pale green or tan ground.
As the ceremony of Easter greetings expanded to include more and more people in the second half of the 19th century, it was decided to include a certain number of eggs with the sovereign’s Imperial cypher. The factory’s records indicate that the tradition began during the reign of Alexander III (r. 1881-1894,) in the mid-1880s. The presentation with any sort of gift with the emperor’s cypher was a sign of special favor or esteem, as the use of the Imperial cypher was controlled by law and the symbol was almost an incarnation of the man himself. The egg above, while it has sustained some wear, is a rare and early example of this new practice. The decoration is in neo-Rococo, floriated letters and differs substantially from the egg shown below.
Eggs with this version of Emperor Alexander III’s cypher were introduced in 1890. For that year, the emperor had ordered 50 eggs with his cypher and specified that the cypher and crown had to be drawn in the same manner that they were on the shoulder boards worn by officers in the Imperial Army.²
An additional 50 were ordered with the Empress’ cypher in the same style, which was based on the Old Slavonic alphabet. The use of the older alphabet was part of a quest for native Russian sources for new artwork, music, design, and ornament. The results, no matter how diverse, were loosely grouped under the term the Russian Style.
Designers at the Imperial Porcelain Factory, particularly Sergei Romanovich Romanov and M. Matveev, looked to the interlace ornament on Old Slavonic manuscripts as a source for colorful designs on Easter eggs made around 1900. The designs could appear alone or opposite a miniature of a saint. Although the ornament drew from traditional sources, it was often rendered with new muted, pastel glazes developed by the factory’s team of glaze chemists.
The many eggs with oxblood glaze and the Imperial cyphers were also a product of the chemists’ labors. The distinct tones of these eggs have their roots in lang-yao, a red glaze developed in Imperial China during the Ming Dynasty. When the first examples were imported to Europe, the glaze was described as resembling crushed strawberries or the floor of a slaughterhouse and the rather gruesome name oxblood (sang de boeuf or бычья кровь) was adopted.³ Théodore Deck produced a version of the glaze at Sèvres in the 1880s with great difficulty. The red color was a natural for decorating Easter eggs and by 1889 the Russian glaze experts had worked out their own version. One chemist sought to find a deep red glaze without the spots or stripes caused by the inclusion of copper compounds, but many in the period some viewers preferred the random colors and patterns that developed in the red and crystalline glazes. Both formulas were retained in the factory’s repertoire.
The factory’s designers also looked to the latest developments at Royal Copenhagen Manufactory for inspiration. This porcelain Easter egg with a tulip was decorated with a high fired underglaze painting technique that the Danish factory had first presented at the 1888 Barcelona International Exposition. Artisans painted enamel colors on unfired paste before glazing to achieve a loose, unstructured image and muted tones that were in keeping with the latest trends in painting.
During the reign of Nicholas II, eggs produced with the cypher of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna offered some of the most interesting examples of ornament. Combinations of rosebuds, forget-me-nots, and bowknots clearly rely upon the graphic designs of the Mir iskusstva group and other leading Russian artists.
The same motifs could be painted on eggs without the Imperial cypher as well and a number of eggs with this sort of delicate floral ornament have survived to the present day.
Eggs were displayed in many ways. They were placed in baskets on tables during the holiday or the silk ribbons, which had been threaded through the holes, could be used to hang them. Photographs of palace interiors show that members of the Imperial family hung eggs painted with iconographic scenes or saints together with icons.
Photographs of the period record other parts of the Imperial Easter traditions in which porcelain eggs played a part. The photo above shows Empress Alexandra Feodorovna distributing porcelain Easter eggs and exchanging the Easter greeting with ladies at Livadia Palace in 1914. Her ladies-in-waiting stand nearby and two tables laden with painted eggs can be seen at right.
Emperor Nicholas II was at another part of the palace at the same time, exchanging Easter greetings with courtiers and soldiers.
This ceremony assumed greater importance with the outbreak of the war and hundreds of eggs (not all of them porcelain) were distributed to soldiers during the emperor’s visits.
The war also necessitated new designs commemorating the recipient’s bravery: a number of deep magenta red eggs of the period are decorated with the Order of St George, awarded for military bravery.
With the fall of the Imperial government, the Imperial Porcelain Factory ended production for the court and porcelain Easter eggs, like many other items associated with religious holidays, were discarded. But these fragile eggs remain as a testament to a tradition and its artistry. We wish you and yours a Joyful Easter Season and a Happy Spring!
1. Tsvet nebesbnyi, sinii tsvet…: kobal’t na farfore Imperatorskogo-Lomonosovskogo farforovogo zavoda XVIII-XXI vekov (Sankt-Peterburg: Izd. Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha, 2007), p. 40.
2. On the introduction of eggs with this particular cypher, see Tamara Kudriavtseva and Harold Whitbeck, Russian Imperial Porcelain Easter Eggs. Русские императорские фарфоровые пасхальные яйцa (London: Merrell, 2001), p. 34.
3. Kejserlige Påskeæg = Imperial Easter Eggs (Copenhagen: Christiansborg Slot, Det Kongelige Sølvkammer, 1994), 116.