Catherine the Great
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until October 21
Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-96), most successful of 18th-century ‘Enlightened Despots’, followed Age of Reason principles to reform state and church, develop industry, pursue social reforms, advance national prosperity. Making Russia a major European power, she yet found time to beautify St Petersburg, establish its glittering court — and amass a vast collection of artworks and precious artefacts, foundation for its State Hermitage Museum of today.
Some 600 Hermitage treasures — the greatest Russian collection ever seen in UK — splendidly showcase the monarch and her reign in Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress, National Museum of Scotland’s sumptuous Festival-time exhibition.
Scenarios for palaces and displays of exquisite artefacts reveal her drawing architects and craftsmen from across Europe to embellish her capital, and importing porcelain from Meissen, Sevres and Stoke and furniture from Germany — then developing homeland factories to prove Russians could create their equal. The magnificent Tula chessbox and elaborate Ekaterinburg ‘Pyramid Fountain’ in agate, jasper, quartz and gold, show her success in boosting Russian craftsmanship.
Ikons and priests’ vestments recall this young German princess’ conversion from Lutheran faith to Orthodoxy, and busts of Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire her debt to French Enlightenment philosophers.
Portraiture promoted Catherine’s power image: magnificent in coronation robes holding symbols of Russian imperium; commanding in a guard’s uniform on a white stallion; in grand manner, signalling with her sceptre to a bust of Peter the Great her fulfilment of ‘what he began’ — a notion reiterated in a huge visionary painting of Peter called by the spirit of History to celebrate her victories over the Turks.
An astonishing decorated sledge, and Rubens and Claude gems from her unique Old Masters collection, climax this outstanding exhibition only on show in Edinburgh.