- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

The iPod recently given by President Obama to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II seems trifling compared to the lavish diplomatic gifts now on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

“The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin” shows off the loot acquired by Russian rulers and church leaders during the 16th and 17th centuries. Jewel-encrusted daggers, golden scepters and glittering textiles sparkle from every corner of the galleries. These riches were used by emissaries of Ottoman sultans and Safavid shahs to win strategic political and trade agreements from Russia, an important conduit to European markets.

This is one of those gee-whiz exhibits meant to impress with exotic artifacts dragged out of rarely seen collections. Before this show, most of the works from the Moscow Kremlin Museums’ Eastern collections had never been seen together in this country or in Europe.

Much of the finery in the exhibit — bridles, stirrups, saddles, ornamental tassels and chains — was made for horses, leaving the impression that the animals were more decked out than their riders.

These trappings and the predominance of arms, armor and decorative garments in the exhibit indicate that ceremonial gear was preferred by the Russians over the designs typically associated with Islam, such as glazed ceramics and manuscript paintings. The exhibit doesn’t explain this difference so visitors may mistakenly presume that the gifts represent the mainstream of Islamic art.

The diplomatic focus of the show is relevant to current geopolitics in revealing how Muslims and Christians used to cooperate centuries ago, but is only one-sided in presenting objects from Turkish and Iranian envoys.

Lacking reciprocity, the exhibit may leave the visitor wondering as to what the Russians gave in return. One of the catalog essays notes the wealthy merchants of one Russian entourage presenting “coaches, horses, exotic animals and a great many precious furs” to their Iranian hosts, who were unimpressed with the offerings.

Judging from the impressive array of objects on display, the Russians may have gotten the better deal. Czars acquired the most valuable of gifts, including ornate weaponry, as part of the state regalia called the Grand Attire that was paraded in public for their subjects to admire.

Once received, the Eastern gifts were inventoried and stored in the czar’s treasury. Little used except for ceremonial occasions, many remain in pristine condition today.

Kremlin craftsmen even went so far as to copy the decorations from the Turkish and Persian gifts in their own designs. Such blending of Western and Islamic motifs is introduced in the exhibit through the earliest works from the Kremlin’s Eastern collection.

These artifacts were made by craftsmen from the Golden Horde, a vast empire formed as a result of the Mongol invasion of Russia in the 12th to 15th centuries. At its peak, this realm stretched from Eastern Europe to Siberia.

One of the most striking artworks to reflect the region’s craftsmanship is a Russian icon of a nursing Madonna and Child. The painting is set into a gold frame patterned with medallions and repeated script spelling out the word “Allah.”

Subsequent galleries showcase gifts from Iran, primarily sabers and daggers. Their main draw is a remarkable variety of skillful metalworking techniques.

Spiraling bands of gold-inlaid steel, accented with jewels, turn a warrior’s shield into a dazzling vortex. Intricate floral engravings decorate a steel helmet and its attached face mask with openings for eyes, nostrils and mouth. Cast-gold flanges and a gilded pattern of leaves and stems add visual lightness to a heavy ceremonial mace.

Still more sumptuous are the Turkish gifts in subsequent galleries. On display is a shield more colorful than its Iranian counterpart: It is made of brightly patterned cane woven around a protruding gold medallion set with turquoise and rubies.

An Ottoman mace is similarly impressive; its golden flanges are encrusted in garnets, emeralds and rubies. This flashy symbol of imperial power was probably made during the mid-1600s by a court workshop in Istanbul, a center for bejeweled luxury goods.

Strong religious ties between the Turkish and Russian empires often meant the gifts given by Ottoman Christians to the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church were as valuable as those given to the czars. Included in the exhibit are ceremonial vestments made from Turkish fabrics embellished with gold threads, precious gems and embroidered Christian symbols that are now stored within a Kremlin sacristy.

The show concludes with Russian-made finery influenced by the opulent gifts from the East. Among the objects described in Kremlin inventories as “done in the Turkish manner” are textiles and silverware patterned with Ottoman-style floral motifs. Ornamental axes carried by the czar’s bodyguards incorporate rounded blades reminiscent of Turkish designs.

These objects prove that the gifts from the East were not just considered souvenirs, but respected artistically as sources of inspiration for imperial Russian craftsmen. They are rare not only in provenance but in representing a brief moment in history when rulers divided by ideology set aside their differences.

WHAT: “The Tsars and the East: Gifts from Turkey and Iran in the Moscow Kremlin”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; through Sept. 13

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.asia.si.edu

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