The centuries old tradition of bringing hand-dyed eggs to church to be blessed during the Easter midnight service, and then presenting them to family and friends, eventually evolved into the exchange of valuable Easter gifts among members of St. Petersburg society. At the command of Czar Alexander III, Peter Carl Faberge would produce an Imperial Easter egg for Maria Fedorovna - and later also one for Czarina Alexandra - almost every year, until the fall of the Romanov dynasty.
Most of the eggs are between three and six inches tall; a few, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Bay Tree eggs, are much larger - ten and eleven inches respectively. They are enameled and decorated with a variety of precious stones and materials including gold, silver, platinum, jade, lapis lazuli, ivory, diamonds, rubies and pearls. Much of the detail is infused with symbolism important to Russian culture in general and to Maria and Alexandra in particular.
Faberge was given carte blanche, the only requirement being that each egg must be unique and each must contain a surprise. Concealing his plans - even from the Czar - Faberge would spend nearly a year meticulously designing and crafting appropriate surprises. "Your Majesty will be pleased" was his only response to questions from his preeminent client.
When an egg was complete, it was brought to the palace and presented to the Czar in person by Faberge, while the anxious craftsmen remained at their workstations, waiting until Faberge returned to assure them of its safe delivery.
The First egg
The first Imperial Easter egg, also known as The Hen egg (1885), was
created in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the betrothal of Alexander
III and Maria Fedorovna, born Princess Dagmar of Denmark.
The Danish Palaces egg
The Danish Palaces egg (1890) opens to reveal a ten-panel screen of miniature paintings of royal residences and yachts. It must have be quite a delight for the Empress Marie, who had grown up in Denmark, to see all the wonderful places she lived in and loved during her childhood as a Danish princess.
The Caucasus egg
When Nicholas' younger brother, Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich, was stricken with tuberculosis, he took up residence in the Imperial hunting lodge at Abastuman for his health. The Caucasus egg (1893) is decorated with four ivory miniatures showing views of the lodge. Behind the hinged cover at the top of the egg is a portrait of the Grand Duke in his naval uniform.
The Renaissance egg
This egg was the last to be presented to Maria by Alexander before his untimely death. The Renaissance egg (1894) was closely modeled after an eighteenth century casket by Le Roy, now located in Dresden at the Grune Gewolbe. The nature of the surprise it contained is unknown.
The Twelve Monograms and Rosebud eggs
After the death of Alexander III, in the short time remaining before the Easter holiday in 1895, Faberge had not only to rework the egg that had originally been planned for Maria prior to her husband's death, but also to create an appropriate egg for Alexandra. The Twelve Monograms egg (1895) was the first Faberge egg given by Czar Nicholas to his mother. Featuring in diamonds the royal insignia of Czar Alexander III set against a deep blue enamel background, Faberge's understated creation was a fitting tribute for the mourning Dowager Empress.
For the new Czarina, Faberge trimmed the strawberry red Rosebud Egg (1895) with a diamond Cupid's arrow. The surprise inside was an enameled golden yellow rosebud, another symbol of the couple's love for one another. For the homesick young girl, the egg was also a reminder of her native country of Germany, where the golden yellow rose is the most prized color. Inside the rosebud was a tiny diamond-set Imperial crown, representing Alexandra's new life as the Empress of Russia.
The Coronation egg
Nicholas loved the pomp and ritual of military life and Imperial ceremony, which required him only to look good and say little. On May 9, 1896, Nicholas and Alexandra were crowned in the Uspenski Cathedral in Moscow in one of the most magnificent pageants in Russian history. Attended by over seven thousand guests from around the world, including most of Europe's royalty, the celebrations lasted for two weeks.
To commemorate the event, Faberge's Coronation egg (1897) was larger and more lavish than any before. The surface was enameled primrose yellow in a field of starbursts. Trellised with bands of laurel made of gold, each intersection was marked by Imperial eagles bearing tiny diamonds on their chests. But the surprise inside was an even greater achievement: a precise reproduction - under four inches long - of the eighteenth-century coach that carried Alexandra to her coronation.
According to author Lynette Proler, "It was all done by hand and crafted by hand in such minute detail - every detail from the state carriage was included - from the little crown on the top of it in diamonds to the windows in rock crystal. And the little steps... when the Empress would alight from the carriage onto the steps, they would fall out of the carriage, and in the little miniature they do the same. It took approximately fifteen months to craft this carriage by hand working all day and well into the night, seven days a week, and it was barely finished just in time to be presented to the Empress."
The original carriage was designed for Nicholas' great-great-great-grandmother, Catherine the Great in 1793. During the time it took to complete, master craftsman George Stein made numerous clandestine visits to the imperial stables in order to perfectly match his work to the original. The model mimics every moving part of its prototype, right down to a working suspension. (Ironically, when the Hermitage recently undertook to refurbish the original, Margaret Kelly, Director of the Forbes Magazine Collection, provided them with detailed photos of the Coronation egg from which to work.)
The Lilies of the Valley egg
Over the next years, Nicholas and Alexandra increasingly insulated themselves from politics and the intrigues of the court. So Faberge made a point of learning something of the private lives of his most important clients. He knew that pink was the favorite color of the Empress, and lilies of the valley her favorite flower. Every spring, Alexandra had the rooms of the palaces filled with beautiful floral bouquets.
The Lilies of the Valley egg (1898) is a translucent pink-enameled treasure covered with gold-stemmed flowers made of pearls, diamonds and rubies. One flower, when turned, releases a geared mechanism inside to raise the fan of tiny miniatures from the top - portraits of the Czar and his first two daughters, Olga and Tatiana.
Continuing a practice initiated by his father, Alexander III, Czar Nicholas II (1868-1918) presented this egg to his mother, Maria Feodorovna, on Easter Day in 1901. Faberge's revival of 18th-century techniques, including the application of multiple layers of translucent enamel over guilloche or mechanically engraved gold, is demonstrated in the shell of the egg. When opened, the egg reveals a miniature replica of the Gatchina Palace, the Dowager Empress's principle residence outside St. Petersburg. So meticulously did Faberge's workmaster, Mikhail Perkhin, execute the palace that one can discern such details as cannons, a flag, a statue of Paul I (1754-1801), and elements of the landscape, including parterres and trees.
copyright © 2001 The Walters Art Museum
The Alexander Palace and Standart eggs
As the family grew, paintings of the children became a recurring theme, and the best loved surprises were souvenirs of family memories. "Faberge knew that miniatures were always going to be a crowd pleaser," says Faberge collector Christopher Forbes. "The family was very sentimental and very close and they loved pictures of each other. And what better place to put them than in a little trefoil frame hidden inside an egg, or literally decorating the whole shell of an egg. So portrait miniatures are probably - in terms of the whole history of the eggs - the single most popular surprise."
The jade Alexander Palace egg (1908) contains a perfect replica of
their favorite royal residence in the country - only two and one half
inches long. And sailing on a clear rock crystal sea, reproduced to
the last detail, is their royal yacht, the Standart egg (1909),
The Czarevich egg
Faberge knew both the joys and sorrows of the Romanovs. According to Proler, "It wasn't very well known, of course - the Imperial family kept it very quiet - that the Czarevich had hemophilia. He was dying; he was very close to death, so close that the Imperial Court had already written out his death notice. But Alexei survived, and Faberge designed a special tribute. The Czarevich egg (1912) was Alexandra's most cherished.
The Trans-Siberian Railway egg
In 1900, the railway that would link European Russia with the Pacific
coast was near completion, an accomplishment that brought Nicholas great
satisfaction and the support of his country. Faberge devised an ingenious
offering to celebrate the event.
"It's made out of gold and platinum, and its headlights are diamonds, and its rear lights are rubies, and the coaches are individually labeled for gentlemen, for smoking, for ladies. There was a restaurant car, and at the end there was the traveling church, which was appended to the Imperial train. It winds up, and I've tried it myself," says author Geza von Habsburg. "The mechanism is a bit rusty, and it moves slowly but it's like a sort of old 'dinky toy.'"
The Cockerel and Bay Tree eggs
With every egg, Faberge outdid himself in technique, detail or complex mechanics. Some of the world's best examples of handcrafted automata are hidden in the jeweled shells of the Imperial eggs. At the stroke of the hour, a ruby-eyed rooster emerges crowing and flapping its wings from the top of the elaborately designed Cockerel egg (1900). Faberge was known to have worked on the mechanism of the Peacock Clock in the Winter Palace, and his familiarity with that famous automaton no doubt inspired the creation of this egg.
"Faberge, who had traveled a lot, had absorbed all the currents, the various artistic currents, in Paris, in Florence, in Dresden, in London," says Von Habsburg. "He could go back to this memory bank and select objects from it. For instance, the Bay Tree egg in the Forbes Magazine Collection is based on an 18th century mechanical orange tree, a French automaton, which was a fairly well-known object which Faberge must have seen during his travels. Other eggs that Faberge made were based on objects he saw in the imperial treasury and used as prototypes for his first eggs."
The eleven-inch Bay Tree egg (1911), laden with gemstone fruits set among carved jade leaves, conceals tiny bellows to produce the sweet song of a feathered bird. "When you turn one of the little precious fruits, these jade leaves part and a small bird appears and sings and then disappears back into this little tree which is all of about 11 inches high!" (Forbes)
The Peter the Great, Napoleonic and Tercentenary eggs
As if to bolster the Czar's self-image during his most trying times,
Faberge presented Nicholas with a series of eggs commemorating achievements
of the Romanovs. In lavish Rococo style, the Peter the Great egg (1903)
celebrated the two-hundredth anniversary of the founding St. Petersburg;
the Napoleonic egg (1912) honored the Motherland's victory over the
French general and his armies.
The Grisaille and Winter eggs
Two Eggs presented to the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna - the Winter egg (1913) and the Grisaille egg (1914) - may best represent the height of Faberge's career, expressions in miniature of the life of Imperial privilege. Both were kept at Maria's favorite Anichkov Palace: one inspired by the serene surroundings in winter; the other by the opulent embellishments of the palace interior, where many of the ceilings are painted en grisaille.
The Fifteenth Anniversary egg
But all the elements of the Romanov story come together most elegantly in the Fifteenth Anniversary egg (1911), a family album just over five-inches-tall. Exquisitely detailed paintings depict the most notable events of the reign of Nicholas II and each of the family members. "Not only is it a staggering tour-de-force of the jeweler's art," says Forbes, "but probably more than any other egg, it is the one most intimately associated with the whole tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra and that incredibly beautiful family. There are these five children - all these sort of glamorous events surrounding their lives - and there they are looking out at us happily unknowing what was going to happen to them just a few years later."
The Red Cross egg
When World War I broke out in 1914, the trouble that had loomed at the edge of the Romanov's awareness began to penetrate the protective shell of imperial privilege. In response to the suffering of their people and an attempt to present an image of patriotism and concerned involvement, Alexandra enrolled herself and her older daughters in nurses' training and had the Winter Palace converted into a provisional hospital to care for the increasing number of wounded.
At that time, there was great hope that Russia would yet prevail in the war, and Faberge was asked to continue the tradition of Imperial Easter eggs. But to match the solemn mood of the nation and reflect the noble efforts of the family, Faberge wisely altered the tone of the Easter gifts that year. Inside the Red Cross egg (1915) given to the Dowager Empress Maria are portraits of the Romanov women dressed as Sisters of Mercy. Inscribed inside are the words, "Greater Love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends."
The Steel Military and Order of St. George eggs
In 1915, the Czar appointed himself "Supreme Commander of the Army," displacing one of the top generals. For this act, he was awarded the Order of St. George, given for outstanding military bravery or achievement. Believing as many did that now the Czar would overcome the difficulties, Faberge designed two eggs to applaud the event.
For the Czarina, he painted an image of Nicholas consulting with his officers at the front. Resting on the points of four miniature artillery shells, the Steel Military egg (1916) makes up in sober significance what it lacks in ornamentation.
According to Von Habsburg: "He had to close down his workshops because his craftsman were all at the front. He was unable to continue to make these objects of art. He had no more precious materials. Gold and silver were no longer allowed to be handled by jewelers at that time so it was steel and brass and copper that they were using. And the imperial family could also not be seen ordering expensive things from Faberge at a time when Russia was bleeding to death."
The simple Order of St. George egg (1916), given to the Dowager Empress Maria that year, was another gesture to wartime austerity. Away from St. Petersburg supervising Red Cross activities in the south, she wrote to her son: "I thank you with all my heart for your lovely Egg, which dear old Faberge brought himself. It is beautiful. I wish you, my darling Nickya, all the best things and success in everything. Your fondly loving old Mama."
The Order of St. George Egg had been delivered to Maria in the Crimea.
She never returned to St. Petersburg, and when she was finally evacuated
on a British cruiser, she carried it with her. It was the egg she held
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