May 01, 2016

A Sumptuous Feast

In celebration of Tsar Alexander III’s coronation in May 1883, the renowned artist Viktor Vasnetsov designed menus for a series of festive dinners. One of the most beautiful commemorates a meal held in the Kremlin’s Faceted Chamber in honor of the tsar and his wife, Maria Fyodorovna. Vasnetsov’s design is notable for the deep sense of Russianness it conveys. Unlike most courtly menus of the time, it is presented in Russian, not French, to underscore the event’s nationalist nature. The lettering, executed in the stylized form of Old Church Slavonic manuscripts, with ornate capitals and illuminations, emphasizes centuries of Russian tradition. The initial letters S (the Slavonic C) and G in the words “Glory” and “Lord” spill down the page in a riot of organic forms. Prominently placed amid this song of praise is an image of khleb-sol – the presentation of bread and salt, the great symbol of Russian hospitality. This was no fanciful image on Vasnetsov’s part. As part of the coronation festivities, delegates paid tribute to the tsar for two days, bringing him exquisitely crafted bread plates and saltcellars. The saltcellar depicted here is actually in the form of a small throne whose seat opens up to reveal precious salt inside.

At the top center of the menu’s first page we see a double monogram of Alexander III and Maria Fyodorovna, under which an arch frames the coronation procession, simultaneously depicting interior and exterior views. The elaborate ornamentation is typical of the Slavic Revival, or Neo-nationalist, style developed at the artists’ colony of Abramtsevo outside of Moscow. This style hearkened back to the distinctive aesthetic of medieval Muscovy. The menu depicts boyars and the rynda (bodyguards to the grand princes) in beautiful ermine and brocades. The folk are depicted, too, in the presentation of bread and salt, creating a multilayered slice of Russian society.

The menu’s brilliant saturation of color was made possible by advancements in printing technology that allowed reproduction through chromolithography. The deep red accents of the shield, the stair runner, the boyarina’s caftan, the gusli player’s boots, and the lettering itself bespeak a Russian aesthetic in which red equals beautiful, while the deep gold tones lend a shimmer and richness to the pages. Vasnetsov’s depiction of banners with angels and saints, along with the cupolas of the Kremlin churches in the background, underscore the sacred nature of the coronation. Folk elements are also present in the richly embroidered tea towel underneath the bread and salt and in the ornament of the mythical Sirin – half bird, half female – in the lower right, who portends harmony and joy. Vasnetsov’s incorporation of so many symbolic values in this menu is striking.

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