Picturing a Fatherly Ruler: The Coronation of Alexander II of Russia
The coronation book of tsar Alexander II of Russia is the largest and most richly decorated among the festival books from the Anne S. K. Brown collection. It is over three feet tall, weighs nearly 60 pounds, and was printed on specially imported Chinese paper with large type cast solely for the printing of this book. It was printed in St. Petersburg, with the color lithographs having been produced in Paris by the firm of LeMercier. The volume is bound in leather and decorated with gilding. 400 copies were printed at the commission of tsar Alexander II, 200 in French and Russian each. English man of letters Sacherevell Sitwell wrote “that the term ‘elephant folio’ has no meaning, and indeed, this may be the largest book ever issued from the printing press.”
Alexander II’s coronation book is a relatively recent example of a centuries-old tradition. Printing of festival books, and coronation books among them, flourished, for example, in seventeenth-century Germany, where the King had to impress on his fellow elector princes that the coronation should be done in an approved and appropriate manner. Alexander’s 1856 coronation book not only very closely followed the Western European tradition of printing coronation books, but it was also intended to be spoken of in superlatives at the time of its making: it aimed at a size and decoration as immense and impressive as ever seen before.
Alexander lived similarly to members of the Western European royal families in taste and manner. He traveled widely during his years as heir apparent, his peers were German princes, he married Marie of Hesse (Maria Alexandrovna), the daughter of Ludvig II, the Grand Duke of Hesse (Figure 1). His tutors European humanists who tried to instill in him compassion for the suffering of others. He came to see himself as a benign ruler who needed to win the sentiments of the people by taking their needs and feelings into account – a principle that later permeated his social reforms. Six year after his succession, Alexander signed into law the emancipation of the country’s serfs, and in 1864 he instituted a system of self-government in local municipalities.
The international stage at the time of Alexander’s coronation required diplomatic intervention. Russia was on the verge of defeat in the Crimean war against the Ottoman empire, France and Great Britain, and Austria was threatening from the west when he ascended to the throne and set out to negotiate peace. The war caused the coronation ceremony to be delayed eighteen months after his actual ascension. When he finally became crowned tsar of Russia, the coronation festivities and the publication of the coronation book became a tool of visual diplomacy to convince both the Westernized Russian aristocracy and the European courts of the power, wealth, political benevolence, and familiarity with Western civilization of his new court.
But the new tsar needed to convey his Westernized attitudes and European sophistication to more than just the diplomats from foreign courts. Since Ivan the III, Russian tsars sought to support claims to rulership in being foreign, not in being Russian. After centuries of Mongol rule, early tsars found it difficult to create native images of sovereign power, superior to their subjects and on equal footing to foreign emperors. Ivan III rejected the title of king from the Holy Roman emperor and, guided by the church, began to lay claim to the symbolic heritage of the Byzantine Empire that fell to the Ottoman Turks just 26 years earlier. Even the word “tsar,” previously used to address the Mongol Khan or the Byzantine Emperor, was adopted. It now came to mean a Christian emperor, and was used to link Russian tsars to the Roman emperor Augustus, whose title was known in Russia as “kesar.” Ivan studied the symbols of Western sovereigns, and adopted the Byzantine seal of the double-headed eagle to show parity with the Holy Roman Emperor, whose seal also featured a double-headed eagle. He married a Byzantine princess, and brought architects from Italy to give the Kremlin a Renaissance magnificence. Ivan thus placed himself in the symbolic lineage of Byzantine emperors as a defender of the Christian Orthodox faith, and squarely on par with Western European monarchs. Ivan the IV boasted of being “no Russe” but having descended from Riurik, the 9th-century Germanic conqueror of Novgorod. Being of foreign descent and remaining proficient in the ways of foreign empires remained a source of legitimacy for subsequent Russian monarchs until the late 19th century.
Depicting the love that the rulers engendered on the part of the common people played an important part in portraying the imperial family. The final illustration in the coronation album of Nicholas I, Alexander’s father depicts the imperial couple’s departure, sitting in a small coach with only one servant and the coachman in attendance. The lack of a large cortege of Guards to provide protection emphasizes their closeness to the people, and shows Nicholas as a beloved emperor, not a despot, who is secure in the midst of his subjects. In his son’s coronation album, virtually all of the illustrations feature a wreath of adoring subjects in the form of large figures in the foreground. Their rapt faces, obvious excitement, and visual dominance in the composition demonstrate the popular love that the makers of the books felt was due to the Russian tsar, depicted as a benign father-figure to his people.
The depictions of Alexander II in 1855 still emphasized the historic mission of the monarchy and the Russian people’s devotion to their Westernized ruler. While the members of the royal family and the aristocracy are depicted wearing dress indistinguishable from the court’s foreign, Western-European visitors, Russian commoners, who make up most of the audience in the outdoor scenes, are wearing local, regional or ethnic forms of folk dress. Almost each color illustration of the coronation book features people from all social classes clustered in the foreground of the composition, watching the scene with great attention and greeting the ruler with a display of overflowing devotion. Their emotions and the love felt toward the emperor is depicted in great detail, implying that Alexander’s subjects are, emotionally and mentally, intimately involved with the life and the coronation of the royal couple.
In the background of the illustration of the entry procession of the tsar we can clearly see the triumphal arch erected in memory of the battle of Borodino by General Kutuzov, who defeated Napoleon. The members of the audience of the procession, we know from the text as well as the illustration, are educated people as well as peasants in folk dress, members of the intelligentsia, and a group of writers including Ivan Turgenev and Alexey Tolstoy. They give an ecstatic welcome to the approaching ruler. The image positions Alexander not only as a triumphant emperor and protector of the Christian kingdom, but also as a beloved ruler, a father to all in the symbolic family of his subjects. This and the following color illustration of the announcement of the coronation both show ethnic peoples of the empire in ethnic dress: Bashkirs, Tatars, Armenians, Georgians, and Cossacks are all clearly identifiable. The procession to the Assumption Cathedral where the coronation took place included delegations of the peasantry, village elders representing each province, including the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Finland. The diversity of their costumes underscores the diversity of his empire and the vastness of his rule; their joyful gathering to celebrate the coronation implies peaceful coexistence and the forging of bonds between the many peoples under the beneficent rule of the tsar.
According to the rules of the ritual, there was no one in the country who could confer the majestic honor of the crown upon the tsar. , During the coronation ceremony he himself takes the crown, presented by the metropolitan, and crowns himself, as there is no one superior to him. However, in an act of humble respect, the painters did not include an illustration of this peak moment of the ceremony. The crowning was followed by the supplication: the newly crowned tsar fell to his knees to beseech God to help him govern the country, “for the welfare of the people entrusted to me and to Your glory.” Following the supplication of the emperor, the metropolitan delivered a prayer “from the entire people” for the success of his rule. This scene underscores the image of the monarchy that scholar Richard Wortman named the “scenario of love,” a deliberate image of imperial power personified as the benevolent head of a large family, whose main responsibility is to ensure the well-being of his children – his subjects.
The affection and touching atmosphere of the scene that the audience supposedly felt at this event is described in contemporary accounts. When Alexander, now in full regalia, turned to his kneeling wife and placed another, smaller crown on her head, thus crowning her empress, many in the cathedral were reported to have wept. This is the scene captured in Mihály Zichy’s painting, published in a lithograph form (Figure 2). Although there is no depiction of the self-coronation of Alexander, the coronation of the empress by her husband, shown as the benevolent patriarch of the realm, is presented as the emotional high point of the succession of events. After placing the crown on the empress’s head, Alexander is said to have respectfully embraced his mother, shaken his wife’s hand and embraced other members of his family. He thus symbolically blurred the lines between a political event and a family event. The gesture bears the implied meaning that his country is as close to his heart as his family, including every subject in his symbolic family. The scenario of love is presented in the metaphor of parent-child love that describes the ruler-subject relationships cultivated by the royals in Imperial Russia. Representations of popular devotion to the emperor, both on the part of the aristocracy and from the commoners, are apparent in the depictions of the subsequent festivities (Figures 3-5). Used as a tool of diplomacy to mend ties to Western powers after the losses of the Crimean war, these images of devoted subjects could potentially reinforce Alexander’s image as a powerful emperor, the head of a strong and stable state.
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Watanabe-Kelly, Helen. “The Early Modern Festival Book: Function and Form,” 3-19. In Europa Triumphans: Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe. Burlington: Ashgate, 2004.
Jouhaud, Christian. “Printing the Event: From La Rochelle to Paris,” 298-99. In The Culture of Modern Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Roger Chartier, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Wortman, Richard S. Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in the Russian Monarchy from Peter the Great to the Abdication of Nicholas II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
При Дворе русских императоров : произведения Михая Зичи из собрания Эрмитажа : каталог выставки [Pri Dvore russkikh imperatorov : proizvedeniia Mikhaia Zichi iz sobraniia Ermitazha]. Exhibition Catalog. Sankt-Peterburg : Izdatelstvo Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha, 2005.
Описание Священнейшего Коронования Императорских Величеств Государя Императора Александра Второго и Государыни Императрицы Марии Александровны Всея Руси. [Official description of the sacred coronation of Their imperial Majesties Emperor Alexander the Second of Russia and Empress Maria Alexandrovna, Moscow: 1856]